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Marvel Movies: 'Hulk' (2003) review – Boring, and not enough smashing

Ang Lee’s resume indicated that he could nimbly blend drama and action. Most of all, Marvel fans wanted to see Hulk smash up the big screen. The trailer seemed to indicate this was exactly what we would be getting.

It wasn't.

The premise of The Incredible Hulk is a fascinating one.

It’s the story of a brilliant man forced to contend with the monster inside him, forever engaged in a battle of wills for full control of his very being.

The Hulk is a complicated character. You have two beings sharing one body, with both of them hating each other. They both have their strengths, but there’s only room for one of them at a time. Unlike other beloved superheroes, the Hulk’s intimidating appearance, feral temperament, and unpredictability haven’t afforded him an easy path to acceptance by humanity.

Marvel Comics

While the Hulk had a successful TV series in 1978, he had never had a cinematic appearance. With the success of the early 2000s Marvel movies like X-Men and Spider-Man, this seemed the ideal time to bring Big Green to the big screen. Which brings us to director Ang Lee.

Prior to 2000, Lee was primarily recognized for drama films such as Pushing Hands, The Ice Storm, and Sense and Sensibility. After the massive success of the 2000 action film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee received critical acclaim. It was thanks to this success that led Lee to sign on to direct the first major cinematic feature, Hulk.

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Marvel fans were excited about a Hulk movie, and Lee’s resume indicated that he could incorporate both drama and action. But most of all, fans wanted to see Hulk smash up the big screen in an awe-inspiring way. The trailer seemed to indicate this was exactly what we would be getting.

It wasn't.

The most basic criticism of Lee’s Hulk is one that I fully agree with: it’s boring. It is ungodly boring. You wouldn’t know it from the trailer, but we actually see very little of the Hulk himself. Most of this movie involves people sitting and talking (but at least they kept the lights on).

Universal Pictures

This is not what people expected when they came to see the Hulk. The Hulk doesn’t even appear until about 40 minutes into the movie.

Universal Pictures

You would think this was all just a slow build-up to the big reveal, but even when Bruce is Hulk-ed out, we get more close-ups of the lab equipment than we do on him.

Universal Pictures

We don’t really see him at all except for a few scenes, mostly at the end.

Much like with 2012's Ghost Rider, it's no small feat to make a character this complex so unspeakably dull. Well, the effort was clearly made and dullness was admirably achieved.

The real villain of the movie is Bruce’s father, David Banner, who seems to get more focus in the movie than the Hulk does.

David Banner tries to develop supersoldiers through DNA manipulation, but he’s forbidden from experimenting on humans. So, David brilliantly decides to experiment on himself.

Universal Pictures

After Bruce is born, David realizes that his rancid, contaminated sperm has tainted his son. Both he and Bruce are walking petri dishes of wildly unstable chemicals. In his efforts to find a cure (and experimenting on little Bruce), the experimentation starts to affect David’s mind and he kills his wife. He’s sent to prison while little Bruce is adopted by another family.

Once Bruce is caught in the gamma explosion, it triggers all that crap in his DNA.

Universal Pictures

So, now it’s not even a story of a tragic accident that changed a brilliant man’s life; the Hulk was created by his crazy, evil father.

Universal Pictures

Yes, Nick Nolte plays David Banner, a man whose brain has turned to Fruit Loops thanks to all the drugs he’s injected into himself.

Universal Pictures

Come to think of it, Nolte might have been just playing himself the entire time. Just check out this clip of him at his Nick Nolte-est. Seriously, if this guy chews the scenery any harder, he’ll be choking on it.

David Banner is the villain, a strange choice given the many classic Hulk villains available (The Leader, General Ross alone would have been enough). Later, David does become the Absorbing Man, a character in the comics who is a different person altogether and definitely not related to Bruce.

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We have Eric Bana playing Bruce Banner, and I do think he was well cast.

Universal Pictures

While Mark Ruffalo is now considered the quintessential Banner, Bana played the nerdy, introvert to a tee. I looked at him and I saw Bruce. Honestly, if the movie had been better, Bana could have certainly continued to play the role in future films.

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Jennifer Connelly also stars as Betty Ross.

Universal Pictures

She seems about as interested and emotionally invested in this film as the audience. Really, she may actually be more bored than I am. Get used to that facial expression. It doesn’t change much.

Let's not forget the movie’s strange use of transitions. Lee clearly wanted to go with a unique style; making a comic book movie look like a living comic book.

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In theory, it doesn’t sound like a bad idea. But when you actually see it, you realize it was a bad idea.

Universal Pictures

The editing is all over the place, with multiple digital panels and jarringly awkward transitions. If you want a full compilation of all of Hulk’s bizarre transitions, you can check it out here. It’s disorienting enough to give you motion sickness.

At least other dull Marvel movies like Ghost Rider and Fant4stic were kept mercifully short, at roughly 100 minutes. Hulk drags out for more than two hours. Lee clearly wanted to explore the psychological aspect of the character but it came at the detriment of an interesting and engaging action story.

The Hulk’s design is awfully impressive, though. It's a shame we don't see more of him.

Universal Pictures

Hulk could have done with a lot less of Nolte. A psychological exploration of a complicated character is intriguing when executed well, but in this case, we desperately needed more Hulk smash.

Rewind is an Inverse series that remembers the forgotten performances we love.

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