One of the difficulties with auteur appreciation is that we assume a “better” director automatically means a “better” film, and if an auteur delivers a film that is weaker than their general output, we hold them to a higher standard and the film to a correspondingly lower one. Louis Leterrier is a victim of “Who?” Syndrome, whereas Ang Lee is a victim of his own success. Therefore, although both directors’ takes on Marvel’s not-so-jolly green giant received criticism, that levelled against Lee was harsher since he is expected to deliver “quality” work. But Lee’s Hulk actually contains more interesting and thought-provoking material than Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, despite or perhaps because it does not fit with the normal superhero mould.
The processes by which people become superheroes tend to be glossed over in the movies. While Superman: The Movie, Batman Begins and Spider-Man, as well as the Hulk movies, provide origin stories, they tend to be fairly simple – Clark Kent/Kal-El’s Kryptonian physiology reacts to Earth’s yellow sun giving him super abilities; the bite of a radioactive/genetically-modified spider fuses human and spider DNA; childhood trauma leads to intense training regime and a quest for vigilante justice. But rather than simply a dose of gamma radiation, Hulk uses a sequence of accidents to create its hero. The film may appear to be loaded with unnecessary techno-babble, but the regenerative biology that David Banner injects himself with to be subsequently passed onto his son Bruce serves to create a base upon which the subsequent accidents build. The nanomeds which are designed to rebuild cells are stimulated by gamma radiation, and Hulk is a product of two generations of rebuilding biotechnology.
Consider this generational interest in regeneration against the generational clashes that fuel the drama of Hulk. Bruce (Eric Bana) and David Banner (Nick Nolte) both pursue the same dream of regeneration, and both succeed to an extent. Yet the inflections of their goals are quite different – David appears quite mad, obsessed with immortality and the creation of an ubermensch; Bruce has a more modest goal of healing injuries. Their contrasting ideologies manifest physically in the battles between David’s mutant dogs and Hulk as well as the final climactic showdown. These clashes of scientific philosophy provide depth beyond the simple battle between the Hulk and the Abomination in The Incredible Hulk.
This philosophical dimension is a key theme throughout Hulk – what are the appropriate uses of science? David is one alternative to Bruce’s egalitarian approach, another is Glen Talbot (Josh Lucas) who represents the military industrial complex. While both films feature the military who wish to use the Hulk as a weapon, Hulk also highlights the commercial exploitation of science. William Hurt’s General Ross wishes to harness the Hulk’s power for a super soldier, whereas Sam Elliot’s Ross is concerned with destroying Hulk, but Talbot illustrates the danger of military contractors, since his primary interest is commercial. It is interesting to note that the alternatives to the military industrial complex are academia, as both Betty Ross and Bruce work at a research university, and voluntary medicine, as we see Bruce in South America at the very end. It is always problematic for a Hollywood movie to criticise commercialism, being a commercial product itself (Fight Club, The Insider and Avatar are other potential offenders), but the ideological contrast in Hulk is nonetheless more complex and thought-provoking than the purely functional fugitive narrative of The Incredible Hulk.
The creation of the monstrous Hulk has always had a tragic dimension – all Bruce wants is to heal others, yet he becomes a menace. But not entirely, and Lee’s film features a further depth that Leterrier’s film lacks. While Hulk is destructive, he also demonstrates heroism, particularly when a pilot is about to crash into the Golden Gate Bridge but is saved by Hulk jumping onto his plane. This is a more interesting moment than when Hulk saves Betty as he does in both films, because that is simply an act of protective love. The pilot was attacking Hulk, so why save him? In the mutated form, Bruce Banner is ironically able to be what he is truly capable of being – heroic. In The Incredible Hulk, the Hulk is a paradoxical problem for Bruce, both the cause of his fugitive status and his means of escape. By the end of the film, he seems to have acquired a measure of control, and this will allow the narrative to be fitted into the overarching franchise of The Avengers. But while it provides extensive and effective action and a nice line in humour, Leterrier’s film chooses not to explore the deeper issues that ultimately make Lee’s film more interesting.
Lee’s visceral style conveys the raw emotion and power of Hulk, while Leterrier’s style simply depicts the events without getting under the Hulk’s skin. Edward Norton is a very fine actor, but Eric Bana shines in a role that has more background and depth. Other performances in both films are strong but largely inter-changeable, although Tim Roth’s feral energy is a high point in The Incredible Hulk. If there is a striking omission in Lee’s film, it is the absence of a villain like the Abomination, or other evil doppelgangers such as the Green Goblin, the Joker and Doctor Doom (and would the detractors of Hulk say that it’s worse than Fantastic Four, X-Men Origins: Wolverine or Batman & Robin?). Glen Talbot and David Banner do not make for such memorable villains, but that is because, to borrow the tagline of another (unfairly) maligned superhero film, the greatest conflict lies within.
The serious engagement of this internal conflict is what truly sets Hulk apart not only from The Incredible Hulk but also all superhero movies, as Lee performs a probing investigation into the tension between nature and humanity. The heroic tendency is something innate in Bruce, but it takes Hulk to bring it out. The ugliest things in the film are the military machines, the knife that kills Bruce’s mother and the nuclear detonation. The beautiful lingering shots of moss, lichen and bark, as well as animal and plant cells, even rock and sand particles, express a yearning for a communion with nature. After Hulk escapes from the army base, he leaps tremendous distances, and a close-up of his face as he soars through the air shows remarkable tranquillity for a creature fuelled by rage. There is a highly poignant moment as Hulk communes with nature in a desert oasis, again seemingly at peace before the helicopters turn up and ruin it. David Banner shows his lust for power as he seeks to dominate nature by absorbing energy to become a shape-shifting (identity-subsuming?) would-be deity. But Hulk is the manifestation of the liminal space between nature and humanity, as he embraces his animalistic, natural impulses as well as his human compassion and Bruce’s desire to protect and aid. In doing so, Ang Lee’s Hulk constitutes a unique contribution to the superhero genre, one that engages critically with the concept of heroism and explores the tension between nature and humanity.
Oh, and Eric Bana would have done just as well as Mark Ruffalo will doubtless perform come The Avengers.