Rafael Motamayor looks back at two Hulk movies, why they failed and why they kind of rule…
This month marks not only the 10th anniversary of Louis Leterrier’s movie about a guy who turns into a green behemoth in The Incredible Hulk, but also the 15th anniversary of Ang Lee’s movie about a guy who turns into a green behemoth in Hulk. While both movies got mixed reception and were quickly swept under the superhero rug once Mark Ruffalo also turned into a green behemoth, the production and final products of these two projects serve as fascinating reminders of where the Marvel universe was just a few years ago.
To think 20 years ago superhero movies with bid budgets were not considered instant hits. In 1990, producers Gale Anne Hurd and founder of Marvel Studios Avi Arad (the guy responsible for putting Venom in Spider-Man 3 but also producing Iron Man) started developing a movie based around The Incredible Hulk. Several scripts were drafted, including an early idea of making the Hulk fight insect men. In 1997 the project finally entered pre-production, but since the budget had reached $100 million, Universal decided to put the movie on hiatus due to financial concerns. Ang Lee was finally brought on board as director in 2001 and he discarded much of the previous scripts, but the use Brian Banner and the Absorbing Man remained after being merged into a single character.
The result was less than stellar. The film had a huge second weekend drop at the box office and became the largest opener not to reach $150 million at the US box office. Critics weren’t enthusiastic either, with Entertainment Weekly writing that it was the most humourless comic-book adaptation, and A.O. Scott said for the New York Times that the movie was “incredibly long, incredibly tedious, incredibly turgid.”
It’s easy to see why critical and commercial reception were less than stellar. Ang Lee’s Hulk came out just a year after Sam Raimi’s record-breaking Spider-Man, and instead of a fun summer film about a green monster who smashes things, it was a dark and psychological exploration of childhood abuse that has more in common with the DCEU. It even got compared to Shrek by critics! This version of Bruce no longer causes the predicament he finds himself in, he is now a passive victim of his father’s mistakes and genetics. Nick Nolte as the Absorbing Man is almost Shakespearean is his delusions of grandeur, and the film is so slow and complex it doesn’t really scream summer popcorn flick. The accident that gives life to the titular Hulk doesn’t happen until 30 minutes into the movie. Many fans also took issue with green guy not getting a formidable or strong opponent to beat, not even a super intelligent one to outsmart, as Hulk instead wrestles a nuclear cloud in a scene so fast you have no idea what is going on.
Still, some praised Ang Lee’s bold take on the genre. Roger Ebert called it “a comic book movie for people who wouldn’t be caught dead at a comic book movie.” Perhaps the best thing about the movie is Ang Lee’s decision to split the screen using black bars to simulate panels, making this one of the few films that truly feel like reading a comic-book. Lee regularly divides the screen with black borders made up of separate shots and rotations, with distinct point of views that gives the viewer new information and perspectives on the same scene.
Just before the release of Ang Lee’s Hulk, the planning for a sequel began. The producers brought back Zak Penn to write a direct sequel to Hulk, since he wrote a draft for the first film in 1996. By the end of 2006, the direct sequel was scrapped and instead they decided to make it a reboot, skipping the origin story, with Louis Leterrier as a director and Edward Norton as Bruce. Problems came when Marvel decided to cut out most of the character development added by Norton, who was promised significant input as both a writer and producer. He ended up adding a lot of dialogue and character motivation, but no drastic changes to the story were allowed – with screenwriting credit going solely to Zak Penn.
The Incredible Hulk skips the lengthy introductions from the previous movie and gets right to the action, with a thrilling sequence where Hulk transforms inside a bottling plant. More than that, Leterrier’s version works better at showing the pain and the conflict inside Bruce Banner (it helps that he has been the Hulk for more than a day).
This Bruce is so sick of transforming into an unstoppable monster he tries to kill himself in one of Norton’s discarded scenes. He spends most of the film trying to get rid of the Hulk and trying to feel no emotion whatsoever. Hulk is now more than a superpower, he is a pure representation of Bruce Banner’s repressed emotions. They also managed to make Hulk’s transformation look incredibly painful. You clearly see An American Werewolf in London influencing the way bones break and muscles knit as Bruce grows in size and mass.
This one also deserves credit for being the first film to really weave the threads of the Marvel Cinematic Universe beyond a post credits scene, as Bruce is now working on recreating the serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America, and S.H.I.E.L.D plays a big part in the story. No longer a victim of parental mistakes, Bruce is now both Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster. General Ross and Tim Roth’s character, Emil Blomsky are more than just obstacles, as the movie tries to have a message about the extremes of the military industrial complex.
Unfortunately, The Incredible Hulk’s runtime hurts it, as the plot is rushed through very quickly and Hulk spends must of the movie just running away from place to place. Yes, there are more action scenes this time around, but the motivation and character development disappeared.
The Incredible Hulk barely made more money than its predecessor and critics were just as divided, but Marvel was not going to give up on one of its most popular characters. While much of the story from the two films were erased once Mark Ruffalo came on board, his line “I am always angry” is a direct consequence of the plot of The Incredible Hulk and its ending. We may never see a standalone Hulk movie again, due to distribution rights disputes between Universal and Disney, and perhaps that’s for the best. If history has taught us anything it’s that you can’t simply make a guy turn into a green monster that smashes thing and expect it to turn out good. In the meantime, we can find comfort in knowing that Marvel is still using Hulk in the MCU, and we can always go back and re-watch that scene where Eric Bana fights an oversized French poodle.