Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, James Schamus, John Turman, Michael France, and Ang Lee, 2003
The 2003 Hulk movie might seem like a weird place to start, since my understanding is that it isn't officially part of the backstory of the Avengers movie the way the 2008 sorta-sequel sorta-reboot is. But that just piqued my curiosity: what about the earlier version was such a dealbreaker as to require a $150 million mulligan? I remembered that the reviews were mixed, with many expressing bemusement that a movie that should have been about a big green monster running around smashing stuff instead seemed to aspire to be a quirky arthouse psychodrama. That also piqued my curiosity; not only do I generally prefer quirky arthouse psychodramas to dumb action movies, but it suggested that the filmmakers might actually have a decent read on what the Hulk is about.
Because it's generally pretty important that stories be about things. They don't have to have messages, per se, but rarely do I get much out a narrative that is thematically impoverished. One of the main reasons I used to read the comics all these movies are based on, even as the action genre has otherwise never done much for me, is that the human condition is thrown into interesting relief by characters who are something more than human. So the questions I found myself asking were, first, what did the filmmakers have to work with in terms of the property's basic concept — how resonant is the premise behind this character, what anxieties does it address, what fantasies does it fulfill? Second, what did they make of the material they were handed? In this respect, the Hulk movies are the biggest disappointments out of this bunch. They aren't the worst movies, but they squandered the most potential.
From 1987 to 1998, the Hulk comic was written by Peter David, who jettisoned a quarter century of "Hulk smash! Hulk loves beans! You wouldn't like me when I'm angry!" and rebuilt the central idea behind the character — not a reboot, but a much more interesting redemption of the ludicrous, seizing on evocative moments previous writers (particularly Stan Lee and Bill Mantlo) had put in their stories but which had up until then been overlooked. The premise that David eventually worked up to was this: Once upon a time, there was a man named Brian Banner who didn't want to have children. He was afraid that his accumulated exposure to radiation in the course of his job at Los Alamos would make any child of his a monster; he was also narcissistic, and didn't want to lose any of his wife Rebecca's attention. When Rebecca nevertheless became pregnant and had a son — when she did in fact dote on the boy and ignore Brian — when the boy did in fact seem to be very different from other children, exhibiting a genius intellect even as a toddler — Brian became abusive. He beat both his wife and their child, and when Rebecca tried to take the boy and run away, Brian beat her to death. And what young Bruce Banner learned was this: Emotion is bad. It hurts people. So, no emotions. Bruce Banner grew up to embody the word "repressed." No family, no friends, no feelings. When he was beaten up in school he would calmly pick up his broken glasses and walk away. All he cared about was his scientific work, which eventually led him to a job with the military designing the "gamma bomb": it was an interesting challenge, and to the human consequences he paid no more attention than to anything else human. But when a stupid teenager drove out onto the test range on a stupid dare, Bruce Banner ran out to shoo him away — and when Banner's assistant turned out to be a spy who didn't put the test on hold as ordered, Banner was able to get the teenager to a nearby safety trench, but not himself. Caught in the explosion, he seemed to have miraculously survived without a scratch — only to discover that he had been transformed…
It is very important to a Hulk story that the audience appreciate what the Hulk represents. The idea is not that Banner gets turned into a monster because gamma rays turn people into monsters the same way werewolf bites turn people into werewolves. The idea is also not that gamma rays are like Captain America's super-soldier serum, and Banner turns into a monster simply because he got too big a dose. The idea is that Bruce Banner, outwardly an emotionless robot, has spent thirty years screaming on the inside with rage and terror, and this is what the gamma rays release. He turns into the Hulk because part of him has been the Hulk all along, at least since the time he was a toddler. Had he never been caught in the gamma bomb blast, he still would be prone to throwing violent tantrums when pushed past his breaking point — it's just that he would have been throwing dishes and upsetting bookshelves rather than leveling entire towns.
The 2003 Hulk movie does try to cover most of these elements — we get Bruce Banner's father killing his mother, we get his mother calling him "so bottled up" and Betty Ross calling him "emotionally distant." But it does no good to have one supporting character call Banner repressed and another one call him a nerd when he doesn't act like a repressed nerd. Eric Bana's Bruce Banner is pretty much Joe Normal. Maybe a little quiet, I guess, but he jokes around, he bristles at his rival Glenn Talbot… in short, he has enough emotional range to undercut what we're supposed to be gathering about the character. Hulk also mishandles the first appearance of the eponymous monster. When Banner finally does Hulk out for the first time, it should be the culmination of a series of carefully orchestrated traumas. For instance, you might start with the gamma blast, and then have him learn about his true parentage, and then have him lose Betty — whom he deeply loves, though of course he's repressed those feelings to the point that only now can he even begin to acknowledge them… maybe she's off to marry Talbot, say. And now Banner's totally unraveling, thirty years' worth of psychological defenses crumbling with each passing moment, and he and Rick Jones (the teenager he saved) try to escape from custody to stop the wedding, but Rick gets shot, and the army chases Banner down and captures him, and he's trussed up like Hannibal Lecter, and Betty's father the general sneers that Bruce will never see Betty again, and it's all so unremittingly agonizing that we out in the audience are ready to burst out of our skins, and then Banner actually does. For my money, the best issue of The Incredible Hulk is #372, in which the green Hulk reappears for the first time in several years, and that comes at the end of a sequence constructed along vaguely similar lines. It is fuckin' dynamite. Hulk has the monster emerge for the first time when Banner… sits in a lab and thinks about stuff. That works, uh, not so well.
I guess that to an extent it is silly to spend so much time talking about the content of this movie when it seems pretty clear that the filmmakers were much more interested in the form. Ang Lee and company tile the screen with little windows, growing and shrinking and moving around, to hint at the panels on a comic book page; they also play with transitions between shots, often fading in a new background and holding it for a bit before changing the foreground. I guess that's interesting so far as it goes, but it does kind of signal that the filmmakers think the material is weak and needs dressing up, when, again, there's a lot more to work with here than the other filmmakers in the Avengers family had.
Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Zak Penn, and Louis Leterrier, 2008
Of course, some filmmakers had the same material to work with because they were working on the same character, and threw it all out.
Well, no, I guess that's not true. The 2008 team did use the "Mr. Green" business from the Bruce Jones run that drove me off the book back in the day. More to the point, I can't deny that a lot of the classic Hulk tropes are on display here. The two main Hulk stories from 1962 to 1987 were "Banner/Hulk is pursued by Thunderbolt Ross and the U.S. Army" and "while Banner wants to be cured of turning into a gamma-spawned monster, someone else craves the power, gets zapped deliberately, and fights him"; put them together and you basically have the plot to this movie. But these are not solutions to the problem of what a Hulk story should be about. The fact that these were the dull, empty stories that Hulk writers kept resorting to was the problem that Peter David confronted when he took over the title, and solved. So if you're in charge of developing the Hulk franchise, where do you go after the origin story? Well…
…first of all, what you don't do is ape the '70s TV show and start with the notion that Banner becomes the Hulk after deliberately experimenting on himself in order to unlock humanity's untapped potential. Bruce Banner is the last person who would want to unlock anything inside himself! Or at least, he would be if he were the repressed "milksop" from the comics, which he should be in order for the metaphor of the green Hulk as repressed rage to work. Otherwise all you're left with is a boring werewolf story, which the 2008 Hulk movie pretty much is.
Next, after you've done the origin story (better than the 2003 Hulk movie did, one hopes), for the sequel you can turn to the character Peter David built his career on: the gray Hulk. One of the most interesting aspects of David's run was his introduction of the idea that the abused toddler wasn't the only thing Bruce Banner was repressing. There was also the simple matter of his id. In flashbacks we see Bruce with a girl he briefly dated in college, Susan Jacobson. "You're a twenty-year-old guy and you act like your hormones are stuck in neutral," she complains. "We've been going out for months and you barely touch me." Bruce protests that he doesn't see the point in physical affection, and that he'd rather get back to his classwork. Susan taunts him; Bruce calmly sniffs that her language is uncalled for. "You're afraid, that's all," Susan says. "Afraid to give a girl what she needs and wants and—"
And, for the slightest moment, Bruce lets go, takes her in his arms, passionately kisses her — and she freaks and runs. Later, she apologizes. "I feel like I led you on, and then I… it's just that… suddenly when you grabbed me, it was like… like you were someone else." That "someone else" would also be let out by the gamma blast, as the gray Hulk, the one who in the comics came out first, and who lurked closer to the surface. It didn't take Banner losing his mind with fury to unleash him; the gray Hulk took over every night. And while significantly weaker than the green version, he was as intelligent as a normal person, and much more cunning — it was fascinating to watch him outwit and out-nasty his enemies. It was also fascinating to see the role reversal between Bruce Banner and the Hulk. In the classic scenario, Banner kept trying to build a life, only to have the green Hulk surface and destroy it. But the green Hulk didn't want anything, other than to be left alone. The gray Hulk, as Banner's id, wanted more — swanky hotel rooms; the finest tailored suits, extra extra large; wine, women, and song; the respect due to the baddest motherfucker in town. And Banner kept screwing that up for him. Tell me that's not a movie.
For the third movie? Another part of David's run saw Banner take charge of the body of the Hulk while retaining his own intellect. Why is that interesting? Because, again, Banner isn't Joe Normal. If the standard-issue green Hulk is out-of-control rage, Banner is a buttoned-down control freak. He would want to use his immense power to make the world a better place, but the fact that people don't always behave the way you want or expect them to would be an immense frustration to him. And then for the climactic twist you could crib from #425 and—
—and, yeah, I guess that if I'm going to spend paragraph after paragraph sketching out movies that don't exist I should probably stick to the ones I'm getting paid for. Let's see whether I do a better job sticking to non-imaginary films in the next installment…
Next: Iron Man; Iron Man 2