I came across a quote from Ang Lee made in 2012. It was during press for the film Life of Pi. Lee said he wouldn’t have been able to do the film without learning about CGI during Hulk. He goes on to say, “My problem is that I took the whole thing too seriously. I should have had more fun with it, instead of all the psychodrama.”
I felt disappointed with that statement.
Hulk is one of the most underrated of the comic book movies. It was among the first of the modern “dark” comic movies, and was most likely very different from people’s expectations. A cinematic Hulk had never been done before. Only the Bill Bixby / Lou Ferringo series and TV movies had created a live-action Hulk.
I’m sure the announcement of Ang Lee as director threw everyone for a loop. This is a man who doesn’t stick to one genre. People may have thought he had the pedigree for action because of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But among his prior films were Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm. Not exactly action-packed material. People were curious what kind of movie he would make.
So, he made it. And fans hated it. The actors said the atmosphere on set was “ridiculously serious.” Critics said the movie, about a 2,000 pound rage monster, took itself too seriously. One review I read said it should be, “Hulk smash, not Hulk deal with repressed childhood trauma.”
But the seriousness works. Because the movie is about Bruce Banner.
He is a serious character. The Spider-Man movies are light because Peter Parker is light. He enjoys being Spider-Man. He cracks jokes as he beats up bad guys because that’s his nature. Yes, his uncle died indirectly because of Peter’s irresponsibility. That has defined him, and helped guide him as a superhero. But at his core, he is a fun-loving teenager. Superhero movies should have a tone that is set by their character. Iron Man is fun because Tony is fun. Captain America is nostalgic because Steve Rogers is. Thor is very much Shakespearean.
But Hulk is about rage. It is about anger, desire, violence, and freedom from everything. To understand that, we need to understand Bruce Banner. What is it that drives him? What frightens him? What fuels this unrelenting rage he has? Those questions can’t be effectively explored in ten-minute chunks between set pieces of “Hulk smash puny humans!” I’ve found that some of the most successful superhero films tend to have long stretches of character development between long action pieces. This gives filmmakers the chance to explore the characters and their motivations, thus creating a richer and more rewarding story. Then they pay off the audience’s patience with loads of action.
That’s why we needed to wait 45 minutes for the Hulk to appear. We needed to know about Bruce, his relationship with Betty, what demons Bruce has lurking in his head. When Hulk finally arrives, we understand why he transformed. It wasn’t a random act. He didn’t stub his toe and get mad. His first Hulk-out occurs when he finds out the truth that he has been lied to, that the very facts about his parents he believed for his whole life were false. He feels betrayed, he feels angry at his father, he’s angry at Atheon trying to take over his research. We learn all of his frustrations beforehand, then they all come together at once, and he changes. As the story unfolds and Bruce learns more about himself and his past, the more we understand his pain and his rage. All four transformations in the film are a result of anger towards his father and the people trying to manipulate him.
His anger is central to the movie, and to the character itself. Hulk is rage incarnate. Lee’s movie explores that; The Incredible Hulk and The Avengers don’t.
They say the key to great comedy is playing it serious. No matter how ridiculous the scenarios are to the audience and no matter how much we are laughing, the characters need to believe that whatever they are doing is correct. They believe that it’s the only way to go, they take the situation seriously. Superhero movies must do the same. The characters must believe that a man can fly, a billionaire can create superpowered suits, and scientists can turn into monsters. The more grounded in reality the fantasy is, the more acceptable it is to audiences. There can not be much room for nudge-nudge, wink-wink. If you do that, if the story isn’t being taken seriously, then everything falls apart. It’s no longer a real world we viewers are experiencing, it’s a silly illusion.
To me 1989’s Batman was the start of the serious trend. Unlike the campiness of the Adam West movie, Tim Burton fused his movie with darkness and realism. Gone was the spandex suit; it was replaced with sculpted body armor, a trend that has continued to this day. Burton took the image of man dressed as a bat and made it almost mythic. In the movie, Batman was something to be feared. People took him seriously. The tone of the story wasn’t light, although that tone and seriousness was replaced as the movie series progressed.
It took Bryan Singer and X-Men to bring seriousness back to the superhero movie genre. Making a team of mutants and their universe more realistic and serious was a bigger challenge than Batman. These were people that could shoot energy out of their eyes and regularly used telepathy. But what Singer did was approach the movie as a film first, a comic book story second. He looked at the elements and decided what worked best in the real world.
That has been the successful approach to superhero movies recently. They have been getting directors who are filmmakers first, comic book fans second. People are now looking at these films as a way to explore ideas and themes in a fun and entertaining way.
I feel as movies become lighter and lighter, something is being lost. Lee’s Hulk, at its heart, is a family drama. It’s a man coming to terms with a past that has defined him but he can’t remember, a father he has never known that has scarred him psychologically forever. Take away the superpowers and it is still a compelling look at a man’s psyche. No other superhero film has delved so deep into the mind of its main character, and I feel that needs to be done. The original Spider-Man trilogy was very good at looking at Peter Parker as a character. I have nothing against spectacle and great set pieces of action, but they must be tempered with a great story and character development. The quiet times between the stunts need to reveal the hero beneath the mask and cape. The seriousness needs to comeback.
Not all superhero movies need to be doom and gloom. The films that resonated most with me, as moviegoer first and comic book fan second, are the ones who have looked at their hero most closely; films like Man Of Steel, The Dark Knight Rises, and Hulk. I want to see directors and writers take a chance on the property and really explore the hero.