In honor of the release of The Incredible Hulk this Friday, we have decided to take a look back at the history of The Hulk, both on and off of the big screen. In that look back, it is impossible to avoid talking about the 2003 adaptation Hulk, from director Ang Lee. Regarded by many as one of the worst comic book films ever made (though it did receive a 61% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), Hulk has certainly become one of the most polarizing comic book films in history. With that in mind, we decided to lock Cole Abaius and Rob Hunter, two of our most polarizing staff writers, in a room together and make them battle it out: one on the side of Ang Lee’s film being great, and the other on the side of it being a huge turd.
As you will see from the transcript below, what started as any idea for a civil debate on the merits of one film devolved into something more childish, more ridiculous and more entertaining than we could have ever thought possible…
Rob Hunter: Ang Lee’s Hulk is not nearly as bad as you remember. Not exactly an endorsement of awesome proportions, I know, but with all the negative baggage this film carries it’s enough to get started. There are any number of better comic book movies, but there are an equal number of worse ones, leaving Hulk sitting somewhere in the middle as an odd, dark, psychologically themed, multi-million dollar, comic book art house film.
Cole Abaius: Alright. First of all, “multi-million dollar” and “art house” should never be in the same sentence together. Hulk should have been multi-million dollar, summer blockbuster explosion brilliance from the start.
Rob Hunter: Which is exactly what makes it interesting and admirable in the first place. They gave Ang Lee $150 million to make a comic book movie!?! The man made The Wedding Banquet and The Ice Storm for chrissakes… he wasn’t going to churn out a copy of X2 or Batman… he was going to make his audience think and reflect in between their oohs and ahhs.
Cole Abaius: Exactly – whose bright idea was it to have the guy that did Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense and Freaking Sensibility do a film that’s tagline could have been “Hulk Smash!”? Great director…for any other movie but this one.
Rob Hunter: Good director… for any movie. Period. Great director is a little much though…
Cole Abaius: Look, I didn’t want the “David Copperfield” version of The Hulk. Having the psychological implications of his character is great, but did we really need four hours of exposition before we got to see the big green menace?
Rob Hunter: The ladies must love you, Cole… do you tell them the same thing at the end of the night?
Cole Abaius: No, if there are two or more with me, I tell them each something different. My point: how can you consider something dark and brooding if Banner doesn’t even deal with The Hulk side until way late in the game? It’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if Hyde doesn’t show up until the end of the book and doesn’t kill anyone. And jumps to San Francisco.
Rob Hunter: Because Hulk, like Hyde, is just the physical manifestation of Banner’s id and repressed rage. We first have to see what caused it and how he controls it. Once we understand that, we’re ready to see it come to life on screen.
Cole Abaius: I was ready to see it on screen by minute one.
Rob Hunter: Well that’s the core of the problem I think. ADD is rampant in America, especially in the fanboy community.
Cole Abaius: Repressed rage isn’t as fun to watch as expressed rage – and film is a visual medium as you’ll remember. And I don’t have ADD – I just process information faster than most.
Rob Hunter: But rage without reason is just directionless, frenetic energy. Lee was interested in both cause and effect, not just “Hulk smash!”
Cole Abaius: I’ll give you that. It’s nice to see, “Hulk cry!” every once in a while. I’m just saying there was a bit too much of that in Lee’s version.
Rob Hunter: Well I’ll grant you the movie was too long, but again, they hired the wrong guy for a summer blockbuster. They got the only film the man could deliver. If you can separate your idea of what a summer blockbuster, comic-based movie should be, and take Hulk as its own film, the movie works as modern mythology meets brooding psychology meets CGI. You just have to work a little harder as a viewer than you’re probably used to with the cartoons, sitcoms and porn you usually watch.
Cole Abaius: Hey, now. The porn I watch is trenchant and thought-provoking. You’re right though. The Hulk should be taken on its own merits. Speaking of CGI… You want me to work harder than when I watch cartoons, and yet Lee gives us that awful, cartoonish CGI to work with?
Rob Hunter: You’re towing a tired line here, the CGI didn’t really look that bad in the finished film. Maybe some of the running scenes could have been cleaned up, but overall the Hulk was fairly impressive. Compare it to the brand new Hulk trailers… five years later and the CGI looks pretty much the same.
Cole Abaius: Pretty much the same, except it’s even darker. And the muscles don’t look like they’re made from Play-Doh. I don’t even need to harp on the CGI much, anyway. Three words: Giant Mutant Poodles. That’s right. I went there.
Rob Hunter: Well, to be fair, it was one giant poodle and two giant mutts…
Cole Abaius: I don’t care how many there were. What was the deeper, allegorical meaning to those, eh college boy?
Rob Hunter: They were there to continue the thematic bond with King Kong… as in Kong’s fight with the dinosaurs while defending his love… along with the big battle with buzzing planes and jets, and the giant “monster” who can only be calmed by the pretty white girl. Hulk, like Kong, is a monster out of his element. Kong’s element is that island, and Hulk’s is inside Banner’s mind.
Cole Abaius: Oh, Rob, you poor soul. A Giant Poodle does not come close to being as awesome as a Giant Dinosaur. Jurassic Park would not have been scarier as Papillion Park. My question was rhetorical anyway. And don’t ask how I know what a Papillion is. Speaking of Banner’s mind, though, I’ll admit that it was good to see Ang Lee bring in elements from the comic series into the fold. Banner’s child abuse storyline from the 1980s and his split personalities.
Rob Hunter: Big of ya.
Cole Abaius: Thanks. But I also think it’s the main problem.
Rob Hunter: That’s what I was saying earlier, if you haven’t already forgotten… showing the audience where the rage and repression comes from before exploding it all over the screen. Why was it the problem? Because there’s too much of it?
Cole Abaius: Because you can’t have it both ways. The audience can’t get sucked in emotionally to a drama and then have Giant Mutant Poodles show up.
Rob Hunter: Again, Giant Poodle, singular.
Cole Abaius: It’s like if Ed Norton (great reference timing, I know) in The Painted Veil suddenly grew a giant arm and crushed a huge, anthropomorphic strain of cholera with his enormous, mutated fist. Don’t sell me on love and drama, and then give me giant monster.
Rob Hunter: One, that would have been a better movie. Two, it was an experiment where Lee took Hulk’s smash mantra to heart and mashed up two distinctly different types of film. Three, knowing where the pain and darkness comes from makes some of Hulk’s little actions more bittersweet and powerful alter on. Pausing to look at the moss in the desert, staring at his reflection in the water, opening his eyes wide to take in the beauty of the stars as he rides the jet above the clouds…
Cole Abaius: Zen Hulk? No, thank you. He also throws a tank halfway across the desert. And, I’ll mention, the guy in the tank doesn’t die. Somehow. That’s as implausible as if a man got into a refrigerator to survive an atomic blast.
Rob Hunter: That’s a separate issue… A-Team syndrome, and yes that annoyed the hell out of me too.
Cole Abaius: I think we agree to disagree on the emotional merit of the movie, so moving on to the style – explain to me why the visual gimmick worked again?
Rob Hunter: Aside from Sin City and 300 which used virtual studios to create their worlds, Hulk’s cinematography and editing bring it closer to a comic book look than any other comic movie. Lee’s use of split screen to represent panels on the page is beautifully done. His fades from scene to scene are more than just scene changes, the images morph with purpose. It had that ‘Zap! Pow!’ feel about it without being cheesy. That may have worked better in a movie with a lighter tone, but I appreciate Lee’s effort.
Cole Abaius: Yet again the main issue – Ang has good ideas, but they come into conflict with one another. And the visual style seemed too gimmicky to me and got really repetitive when dragged out that long.
Rob Hunter: Much like Banner and the Hulk…
Cole Abaius: Wow. So you’re going to say a mess of a movie is a representation in itself of its own subject matter?
Rob Hunter: …coming into conflict with one another…
Cole Abaius: Way too meta for me, my friend. Although, that is one way to think deeper about a plain old, bad mess of a film.
Rob Hunter: Well you were the mistaken target audience, not the real target audience.
Cole Abaius: The real target audience buys a lot of Kleenex and Kotex, I’m assuming. Because it makes a lot of sense (and sensibility) to aim a comic book movie at the more subtle, art-loving crowd. And making Banner so emo he should have auditioned for a keyboardist spot in Dashboard Confessional.
Rob Hunter: Now you’re just showing your ignorance in matters outside of film… Dashboard Confessional is as far from Emo as Michael Bay is from true talent.
Cole Abaius: Should I have said Sunnyday Real Estate? or Texas is the Reason? Although, the emo angle does explain why Bruce Banner turned into Shrek when he was angry.
Rob Hunter: Stop browsing iTunes Abaius. Yes it does, again, meant to show the contrast and conflict between two extremes. Maybe Lee overdid it a little… the movie could have trimmed 10-20 minutes from that first hour.
Cole Abaius: Try 40. He could have trimmed the last 10 minutes, too. Please, please explain to me that last battle and the ending. Because I’m genuinely at a loss.
Rob Hunter: Here you’ll find no disagreement from me… the end “battle” was a mess. That’s when I truly wanted to see the Hulk smashing and bashing but instead got a rain cloud. Lee’s biggest misstep I think.
Cole Abaius: I thought you loved it when sweet imagery was used instead of violence. Had you run out of tissues at that point?
Rob Hunter: No, I love sweet imagery building up to sweeter violence, but not as a substitute. And I just used your mom’s sleeve when I ran out of Kleenex… her hand was already in my lap at that point anyway.
Cole Abaius: So we’re hitting below the belt now, I see. And yeah, don’t say “your mom was hitting below my belt.” I got it.
Rob Hunter: Damn… Bottom line, Ang Lee’s Hulk is a good movie… if you can pull your head out of your fanboy ass and separate the movie from the preconceived notion of what a summer comic book movie should be. And I don’t mean “your” as in you specifically, I speak in general terms. By that notion, yes, Hulk was a failure. But on its own, it’s an interesting mash-up of myth, pop psychology, pop culture, and giant CGI poodles.
Cole Abaius: Ang Lee’s Hulk is not a good movie even if you don’t go into it with comic book expectations. It’s too long, too cheesy at times, and tries to marry a saccharine love story to a mindless action flick. That mash-up ends up being more confusing than interesting, and the last battle scene is the perfect embodiment of that confusion. If nothing else, it’s a decent movie that derails at the end. And fuck that CGI Poodle.
Rob Hunter: Too tired from fucking your m… never mind. I can accept decent movie that derails at the end. Although the very very end was a nice nod to the Bill Bixby series… “You won’t like me when I’m angry…”
Cole Abaius: Too little, too late, my friend. A nice nod to the series would have been to make the movie good. I still contend that hiring Ang Lee for Hulk would be like hiring Wes Anderson to direct Thundercats. A lot of daddy issues, and not enough explosions.
Rob Hunter: Good and decent are pretty synonymous… and tell me honestly you wouldn’t love to see Wes Anderson’s Thundercats…
Cole Abaius: Honestly, I wouldn’t love to see Wes Anderson’s Thundercats.
Rob Hunter: And thanks to the wonders of Hollywood, you’ll get to see less daddy issues and more explosions when The Incredible Hulk opens on Friday. And you’re a liar.
Cole Abaius: Thank you, wonders of Hollywood! And thank you Ed Norton!
Rob Hunter: If only he had written the new Hulk too…
Cole Abaius: And thank you, Rob Hunter, for a solid debate.
Rob Hunter: And thank you, Cole Abaius, for your mom’s phone number.
Cole Abaius: You treat her right. She’s a catch.