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Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel are one of the few studios whose brand is itself a selling point. Whereas punters are unlikely to see the next Warner Bros. or Twentieth Century Fox film purely on the basis of the studio, Marvel gives a strong impression of what to expect. Furthermore, Marvel’s commitment to a single mega-franchise aids the consistency of their productions, which have maintained tone and continuity across ten films, a TV series and several Marvel One Shots.

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Despite Marvel’s continued success, Guardians of the Galaxy is a tough sell. None of the characters have the cultural familiarity of Captain America or the Hulk, and none of the stars have the proven draw of Robert Downey, Jnr. The setting is outside that of previous Marvel instalments, a cosmic adventure with only the opening sequence taking place on Earth. Thor and Thor: The Dark World featured other realms and The Avengers an inter-dimensional portal, but the narratives always centre on Earth. In GOTG, multiple alien planets, cultures, technologies and histories need to be introduced, as well as an ensemble cast of fairly wacky characters. These include human thief Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill (Chris Pratt), assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana, looking as accomplished in green as she did in blue), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), cybernetic experiment Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and sentient tree Groot (Vin Diesel). Compared to these oddballs, the Avengers look almost pedestrian.

Despite the inherent weirdness, co-writer/director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman opt for recognisably human characteristics and cultures. This may be conservative and unimaginative, but it ensures that the viewer is not confused about the societies of Xandar and the Kree, or the villainous motivations of Ronan the Accuser (Luke Pace), which are established early on and also create a link with The Avengers. Our bunch of misfit heroes – or ‘A-holes’, as one law officer describes them – are efficiently established and their relationships develop naturally from antagonistic to mutually beneficial to comradeship.

These relationships form the heart of the film, as the interplay between the Guardians is warm and very funny. Peter is a cheeky chappie who recognises the humanity in his companions, while Gamora and Drax gradually warm to the rest of the team (pleasingly, the only suggestion of romance between Peter and Gamora is quickly abandoned). A particular source of amusement is Drax’s non-comprehension of metaphors and symbols, as his species are very literal. The relationship between Rocket and Groot is quite moving – Diesel manages to express a significant range of emotions through different enunciations of ‘I am Groot’ while Rocket delivers as many barrages with words as he does with weapons. The bickering between these two is very funny but also betrays a deep affection, culminating in a tear-jerking climax.

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Humour may be the film’s strongest element. While the production design of the various alien worlds and creatures is impressive and the action sequences spectacular, the abiding memory of the film is amusement, the filmmakers fully embracing the film’s absurdity and having a lot of fun with it. Thankfully, the film is well-disciplined enough to avoid self-indulgence and strikes the perfect balance between horse-play, character and action, often all at the same time such as in the climactic dance-off (no, really). Guardians of the Galaxy is more reminiscent of Star Wars or Serenity than The Avengers, but it is still a recognisably Marvel movie with its attention to detail, warmly rounded characters and laugh-out-loud humour.

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eXpanding and Continuing Part Two: X-Men: Days of Future Past

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X-Men: Days of Future Past pulls off the remarkable feat of being sequel, prequel and reboot all at once. It continues plotlines of X-Men: First Class, while also referring to the events of X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine. But it also performs a remarkable piece of internal resetting, making an alternative title X-Men: Restoration. Whereas other franchises have delivered reboots that simply play out as though earlier incarnations never happened (see Batman Begins, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel), X-Men: DOFP uses its time travel conceit to have its cake and eat it, featuring elements that, in any other narrative, would never work. In doing so, it echoes Star Trek (2009), which also created an alternative timeline to run parallel, rather than separately, from that established in earlier instalments.

Much of the pleasure of X-Men: Days of Future Past comes from its knowing engagement with the franchise’s established history. Most obviously, we see new and old versions of familiar characters, especially Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier as well as Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. The differences between the young and old versions of Xavier are highlighted in a sequence that sees McAvoy and Stewart play against each other, McAvoy a burned-out drug addict who has given up, Stewart a grizzled war veteran who, despite everything he has seen, still has hope and urges his younger self to rediscover his hope. Hope is perhaps the central conceit of all superhero movies, and is especially important given the bleak future that occupies the film’s early scenes (reminiscent of Terminator 2: Judgment Day), including a genuinely shocking battle sequence between Sentinels and mutants. In a previous post, I criticised The Wolverine for the low stakes of its drama, and that problem is easily avoided in X-Men: DOFP as Stewart’s ominous voiceover informs us that mutants cannot win this war. On an intimate level, we see familiar characters cut down mercilessly, demonstrating that everyone is at risk in this grim vision of the future.

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At times, the grim seriousness of the future sequences does not gel with the humour of the 1973 portion of the narrative, which leaves the film feeling rather flimsy overall. However, the intertextual/intra-franchise references are a lot of fun and well-judged as the film never tips too far into wink-nudge territory. Furthermore, director Bryan Singer shows the same flair for visualising superpowers on screen that made his earlier X-Men films such a delight. A much celebrated scene features Quicksilver (Evan Peters) literally moving faster than a speeding bullet as he darts around a shootout scene, while Magneto’s manipulation of metal as well as Xavier’s telepathy continue to provide visually arresting scenes, as do the abilities of Blink in the future. Overall, the film is like the X-Men themselves – a motley assemblage of disparate elements that do not always harmonise, but an assemblage that is nonetheless engaging and compelling.

Unity

Man of Steel – SPOILER WARNING

MOSI recently posted on my top five of the year so far, and placed Man of Steel at number 4. This puts it ahead of Oblivion, After Earth, Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness as the finest blockbuster I’ve seen in 2013, a film I would describe as swell, and it is a film that swells. This might be a controversial choice, as Man of Steel has been met with very mixed reviews, some disappointed over its treatment of beloved comic book elements (which always happens with adaptations), others complaining that it is too dour and not enough fun, and the standard criticism of blockbusters that plot and character get left behind in the midst of all the destruction and special effects.

For me though, Man of Steel provided everything I want from a blockbuster and a superhero movie. There are others later this year, including The Wolverine and Thor: The Dark World, but the standard set by Man of Steel (as well as Iron Man Three) is pretty high. I have never been as big a fan of Superman as I am of Batman and Spider-Man, because Superman can be too powerful to be relatable – if he is invulnerable, there is no drama. Man of Steel avoids this pitfall of the character, making Kal vulnerable, relatable and human. At the same time, director Zack Snyder delivers enthralling and enveloping action sequences that allow the viewer to experience the thrills and pains of super powers, which is a key ingredient in the superhero genre.

Movie of Swells

The trope of swelling recurs throughout Man of Steel, apparent from the very beginning as Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) gives birth, her screaming and panting swelling along with the music. As we subsequently learn, Kal is the first Kyptonian to have been born this way in generations, so his very existence is a swelling of resistance. Rebellion swells across the opening sequence on Krypton, as Jor El (Russell Crowe) faces the senior council and urges evacuation as the planet itself swells with tectonic forces. The swelling menace erupts as General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup, and the sequence culminates with the explosion of Krypton.

Swelling continues as the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) travels north in search of answers, and his memories demonstrate his swelling confusion and inner turmoil. Man of Steel’s flashbacks echo Batman Begins, with the young adult developing his hero persona through current events, like saving men aboard a burning oil rig, and those from his childhood, such as lifting a school bus out of a river. Finally, when Clark reaches a crashed Kryptonian scoutship and learns the truth of who he is, the swelling of his potential continues through a montage, once again reminiscent of writer/producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The suit that Kal El will wear, the history of Krypton, the philosophy that Jor delivers to him, are all intercut with Kal striding out of the ship, cape billowing behind him, until he stands in the sun and crouches, ready to take flight. His first flight comes one hour into the film (just like “I’m Batman!”), which has been swelling towards this point. When I saw Kal ascend, less like a speeding bullet and more reminiscent of a bolt of light, the hairs rose on my arms as I felt myself vicariously hurtling up with him. The greatest moments in movies are often those that transport us, and for that moment, I felt myself transported with him.

SoarNot that the first flight goes too well, as Kal crashes into a mountain and takes some time getting used to his abilities. This is one of Man of Steel’s great strengths, showing the confusing effect of superpowers as well as their glory. Superpowers are often presented as exhilarating, such as Peter Parker’s discovery of his ability to climb walls and jump great distances in both Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man. Powers can also be presented as dangerous, as in the emergence of Jimmy Logan’s bone claws in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Rogue’s ability to suck energy in X-Men, or the first emergence of the Hulk in both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. But these are presented as dangerous to the viewer, in the position of a bystander. In Man of Steel the frightening element of superpowers is presented from the perspective of the super being himself. An impressive instance of this appears in an early flashback, as Clark becomes disorientated and scared at school because he can see and hear too much. The scene begins with extreme close-ups of pencils, the edges of desks and other classroom clutter, culminating in his teacher and classmates appearing as moving skeletons. This visual and aural cacophony overwhelms the viewer much as it does Clark, who hides in a closet until his mother Martha (Diane Lane) can talk him out, soothing him with the recommendation to make the frighteningly large world smaller. He may have super powers, but they are no protection against fear.

Powers

Man of Steel works for me because it conveys consistently and convincingly the experience of super powers. As Kal grows in confidence, so do we follow his progress. Subsequent scenes of flight are both beautiful and compelling – the tagline for the original Superman: The Movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Man of Steel, oddly, has no tagline, but it could easily be “You’ll believe a man can fly, and you with him”. Not only fly, but fight, as the final act, when Kal battles the forces of Zod, yanks the viewer right into the action. This sequence has been a major target for criticism, described as nothing but mindless action in the vein of Transformers, rendered in such a way that you cannot see what is going on, and with insufficient attention paid to the inevitable death toll of such extensive destruction.

I did not have these problems, as not only could I see everything that was going on, I also felt it, the kinetic force of Snyder’s camera, not to mention the cacophonic soundtrack, had me sharing every swoop, collision and explosion. As mentioned above, a key ingredient for me in a successful superhero film is the cinematic expression of superpowers, and Man of Steel delivers both on the intimate scale in the flashbacks, and the epic grandeur of the almighty Kryptonian smackdown. In addition, the stakes of this climactic battle are abundantly clear, as Zod’s mission is to preserve the Kryptonian race, to the extent of terra-forming Earth into a new Krypton. The impact of this mission is illustrated in a dream Kal shares with Zod, in which Earth is re-shaped and Kal sinks into a pile of skulls, this grim horror serving as perfect motivation for the climax.

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Man of Steel is not without problems. Shaky cam in the opening sequence is an unfortunate distraction because Krypton is a glorious creation that cannot be fully enjoyed. Also, while the climax is spectacular, it takes too long to get going, initial skirmishes between Kal and Zod’s forces proving to be false starts that become tiresome as they are clearly preludes. That said, these skirmishes do continue the film’s interest in power as disorientating, as Zod and his troops also have to adjust to seeing through their own hands. The alien element of Man of Steel is well-handled, but the early scraps fail to add drama, although it is effective to see Kal getting his ass kicked by trained soldiers.

Once the final battle really kicks off though, it is as spectacular as anything I’ve seen in a cinema this year, rising above Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness to name a couple (although at the time of writing I am yet to see Pacific Rim). Kal’s desperate attempt to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams), his struggle to destroy the world engine and his eventual return of the Kryptonian ship to the Phantom Zone are all enveloping action sequences, the slightly grainy film quality and detail of the production design and effects creating an absorbing and enthralling cinematic experience.

Best of all is the final clash between Kal and Zod, as Zod fully embraces the power that Earth’s sun imbues him with, mocking Kal with his warrior background while ‘Superman’ was raised on a farm. A true clash of the titans, Kal and Zod’s titanic duel is literally out of this world, as the two hurl each other out of the atmosphere and collide with satellites (amusingly branded as Wayne Enterprises, perhaps foreshadowing a Justice League movie). But the culmination of their clash is a perfect encapsulation of inner and outer conflict, as Kal must kill Zod in order to save innocent bystanders. I had a debate over the importance of this killing, as it seems did the director, writer and producer. For Superman to kill was shocking, as I had never seen that before. Apparently there are comic book stories in which he has killed, but these are outside the accepted canon. Either way, that moment in Man of Steel was superb because it was genuinely shocking. I’ve barely read a Superman comic book, but the film and TV versions I have seen emphasise Superman’s moral compass and restraint. Therefore, seeing him kill someone was a huge surprise and clearly a massive emotional blow, demonstrated by his scream of anguish and collapse into Lois’ arms. We now know how far Kal-El can go, and to have him traumatised makes him all the more interesting.

Anguish

Trauma

It is probably no coincidence that the superhero genre has been so embraced in the aftermath of 9/11, and much like Spider-Man, The Dark Knight and The Avengers, the shadow of the infamous terrorist attacks hang over Man of Steel. The devastation of Metropolis is reminiscent of images of New York from 9/11, as buildings collapse and debris falls from the sky. Some have criticised the sanitisation of this destruction – surely thousands of people must have been killed – and while this is valid I think the criticism misses the point. In a crucial moment, Jenny Olsen (Rebecca Buller) is trapped under debris, and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly) struggle to free her. They are themselves in danger, and indeed they would all have died had Kal not arrived in the nick of time, but the moments of Perry and Steve doing what they can to try and free Jenny is a wonderful illustration of ordinary heroism. Perhaps they have been inspired by Kal’s example, willing to surrender himself to Zod’s forces, or they were already brave and selfless, but whatever their motivation, it is a powerful moment, mixing the terror of the attack with a positive vision of humanity. It is post-9/11 romantic wish-fulfilment, to have a superman come to the rescue, and I find it satisfying because of the recognition and catharsis stimulated by this fulfilment.

I recently had a long debate over what superheroes are ‘doing’, beyond blowing stuff up and acquiring/achieving. I found the argument rather odd, because saving the world, in style, blowing stuff up and taking us along for the ride seems exactly what superheroes are there for. My fellow debater was being unfairly judgemental, I thought, as they seemed to have a sense that superheroes should do something more, but it was unclear exactly what that more would be. In the case of Man of Steel, I think the film is doing exactly what Jor El tells his son – that he will give the people of Earth something to aspire to. Superpowers are not necessarily a blessing, and they are not a prerequisite for doing good and helping others. The young Clark may have the strength to lift buses out of rivers, but one of the boys Clark saves offers his hand to help Clark up when bullies have knocked him down, but he has not struck back at them. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) sacrifices his own life to save others, including telling Clark not to use his powers to save him. Perry and Steve must use their own strength and resourcefulness to try and save Jenny, and Lois proves her mettle in Zod’s ship with timely advice from Jor. Repeatedly in Man of Steel, heroism is shown to be a choice, not a destiny, and a choice that we can all make. Perhaps, in time, we can all join Kal El in the sun.

Sun

Review of 2012 Part Three – Great Expectations I: Marketing Malarkey

Great Expectations

2012 proved a year of great expectations in several ways – to commemorate the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the BBC as well as BBC Films, not to mention Baroque Theatre Company, produced adaptations of Great Expectations.  I saw none of them, nor have I ever read the book, but there were a number of films released in 2012 that came loaded with expectations of various sorts.

Cast your mind back and you may recall The Hunger Games, the first adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy.  I posted on this back in April, saying that I had wanted to avoid all prior knowledge.  I failed quite spectacularly in this regard, encountering reviews as well as an interview with star Jennifer Lawrence.  Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the visceral thrill and the ominous portents of The Hunger Games, which succeeded in presenting a very grim portrait of the future and some thrilling yet disturbing action sequences.  I was very impressed with The Hunger Games and have subsequently read the novel, which surpassed the film in some areas but not others.  The most common response to adaptations is “The book is better than the film”, which is nonsense because films and books work differently and to compare them qualitatively is like saying a boat is better than a car.  While both are vehicles, a boat is used for different purposes than a car, and while a book and a film are both media texts, they are consumed in different.

That said, the dystopia of The Hunger Games was more convincingly portrayed through Collins’ terse, urgent prose, which steadily built up the world of the book through Katniss Everdeen’s reminiscences and descriptions.  Director Gary Ross’ excessive use of shaky cam was jarring and prevented a sense of oppression or a panopticon, but his decision to feature some action away from Katniss (Lawrence) did enable the social criticism of reality television to be made more strongly.  The response of established fans of The Hunger Games was naturally influenced by their feelings towards the book, with some appreciating the adaptation and others disappointed that it did not meet their expectations (there’s that word again).  Later in the year, the release of Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part Two similarly fanned the flames of fan furore.  I haven’t seen it, so no comment on the film itself (for that, see here), but The Hunger Games and Twilight serve as interesting examples of the expectations that surround adaptations.

Shortly after The Hunger Games came Marvel’s The Avengers, or Marvel’s Avengers Assemble if you’re in Britain.  Joss Whedon’s superhero ensemble was the culmination of a remarkable feat of franchise filmmaking, beginning in 2008 with Iron Man and developing through The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger.  As a result of those earlier films, expectations for The Avengers were very high – the combination of these four superheroes plus the supervillain and three additional heroes, not to mention the steady campaign of teasers, trailers and excerpts, raised anticipation to a high level.  I was more than satisfied with what came about: The Avengers fulfilled my expectations as a glorious, fun-filled, power flinging, well-balanced, gripping and compelling, not to mention funny, blockbuster.  It broke multiple records and has become the third highest-grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation).

When I think back on The Avengers, which I saw twice at the cinema, my memories are very positive and I look forward to the Special Edition Blu-Ray which includes Whedon’s director’s commentary, since the current UK Blu-Ray does not include this special feature from the US release (not that I’m complaining; oh wait, yes, I am).  And yet, even though I loved the film and expect it to be in my Top Ten of 2012, something about it continues to niggle me.  I realise that it was a matter of having my expectations met.  I am well aware that unreasonably high expectations can frequently lead to disappointment, so I am careful to keep my expectations reasonable.  The Avengers fulfilled my expectations, but did not surpass them.  So it wasn’t disappointing per se, but nor was it exceptional.

Next up was Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s much-vaunted return to science fiction and a sort-of prequel to Alien.  Furthermore, it was to be Scott’s first use of stereoscopic photography and the marketing campaign was even more detailed than that of The Avengers, with trailers, teasers, an entire commercial section on Channel 4 during Homeland and various viral videos.  The viral campaign helped to create a wider universe within which Prometheus is set, continuing the expansion of the Alien franchise’s world that has progressed since 1979.  The marketing also served to create very high expectations for the film itself, and probably went too far.  A large proportion of the response to Prometheus has been negative, with critics and audiences alike deriding its plot holes, indistinguishable characters and inconsistencies with the previous films.  The rather cynical home release has done the film and its distributors financial favours but little else – if you want the seven hours worth of extra features, you need to buy the highly priced 3D Blu-Ray.  Yes, I will be doing that, even though I don’t have a 3D TV.

Personally, I liked Prometheus very much.  It was gripping, atmospheric, scary and thought-provoking.  It also provided a useful example for identifying what I like in movies and why I have fairly wide taste.  But I also think it was over-hyped and left me wanting more.  It is very likely there will be further instalments as it features a clear set-up for a sequel, but Prometheus itself has numerous flaws and did not live up to the expectations it created.

Perhaps the most anticipated film of 2012 was The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s “EPIC CONCLUSION TO THE DARK KNIGHT LEGEND”, according to the trailer.  This was the film that, for me, carried the greatest potential for disappointment.  Superhero trilogies, including Blade, Spider-Man and X-Men, have a record of 1. Good; 2. Better; 3. Worse.  So far, the Batman trilogy had started well and then gotten better, so there was concern that The Dark Knight Rises might follow the pattern and be worse.  Furthermore, The Dark Knight had been such an exceptional movie, perhaps the most impressive superhero film ever partly by being more than a superhero film.  For a threequel to top that seemed unlikely.  To make matters worse, Nolan had hardly rested on his laurels, following up The Dark Knight with the remarkable Inception, and setting his sights even higher for The Dark Knight Rises which was touted as epic and grand.  Nolan is the most significant Hollywood director of the 21st century, so it was reasonable to hope but perhaps not to expect that he would surpass himself.  Advertising again raised expectations even higher, with teasers, trailers, excerpts and viral marketing escalating anticipation to fever pitch.  The result was not only a very healthy box office take, but some rather bizarre screening options – 6am at the cinema, anybody?

Was The Dark Knight Rises everything I wanted it to be?  Yes.  Was it everything I expected it to be?  Yes.  And did I expect it to blow my socks off and leave me flabbergasted at its extraordinary power?  No.  I knew it was unrealistic to expect as big a surprise as The Dark Knight, so I didn’t.  I anticipated that the trilogy closer would be at least something of a comedown, despite its epic build-up, and I was right.  One review of The Dark Knight argued that if Heath Ledger were removed from the film, you would be left with a fairly standard action movie.  I disagree on this – Heath Ledger is not the only exceptional thing about The Dark Knight, but he is outstanding, both in terms of his performance and the way the Joker is written.  The Dark Knight Rises is The Dark Knight without the earlier film’s central element of anarchy, personified in but not limited to the Joker.  It is this theme which makes The Dark Knight special, a serious exploration of the anarchy inherent in costumed heroics and villainy.  The Dark Knight Rises is more conventional with Bane’s baroque schemes and, ultimately, a clash between “good” and “evil”, rather than an in-depth meditative study which pushes The Dark Knight into serious, philosophical art.  The Dark Knight Rises is by no means bad, but its ultimate purpose is to close the trilogy, and it accomplishes this with aplomb.  I expected a spectacular finale to the trilogy and I got it.  I didn’t expect any more, and I didn’t get any more.  It would therefore be unfair to call The Dark Knight Rises disappointing, but it would still have been nice to be surprised.

All of these films were marketed to within an inch of their lives, and in each case the hype may have damaged the films’ reception.  It would be unfair to criticise the films’ distributors for this hype, as studies have shown that good marketing is key to the box office success of major films, whereas bad marketing can lead to flops like Fight Club and this year’s John Carter.  Box office success is not an indicator of public enjoyment – more than $1 billion gross for The Avengers does not mean all those cinema-goers enjoyed the film – but the bottom line is movies are put into cinemas to earn money, and marketing helps that happen.  Marketing works by raising expectations, yet paradoxically it can have a negative affect on audience enjoyment as we may expect too much.  I think the seasoned movie-goer understands the effect of marketing, but that does not mean we are immune to it.  The Hunger Games, The Avengers, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises had firmly established themselves in public consciousness weeks if not months before their release, and it was a rare cinema patron who saw these films with no preconceptions.  Quite often, these preconceptions can have a negative effect on our response to the film itself, but if we manage our expectations we can make them realistic, and therefore avoid disappointment.  I am carefully managing my expectations for Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Hobbit

“You know what scares me the most? I like it.” Why Ang Lee’s “Hulk” is a “better” film than Louis Leterrier’s “The Incredible Hulk”

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.