A remote, maybe culpable father, a somehow unsatisfying hetero relationship in which the male partner is emotionally distant, a secret identity contained by the authorities: it is easy to find parallels in HulkÂ with another sort of coming-out story. There is one explicit scene of ashamed sexuality. Bruce Banner, having just resumed human form, staggers naked back to his girlfriend Betty (Jennifer Connelly) and lies sobbing in her lap. Betty has broken it off with Bruce because she senses something that he is not giving away.
Mostly though, Hulk suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes comic books work. A few early scenes get it right, with military personnel delivering incomprehensible scientific jargon with perfect seriousness. Ang Lee makes the mistake of really taking the science seriously. Too much of the movie is devoted to a painstaking explanation of how the transformation of Bruce into Hulk takes place (a combination of nuclear science, genetic engineering and early childhood trauma). The how of miraculous powers should function only as a creation myth (Christopher Reeves as last remnant of a lost planet in Superman; Michelle Pfeiffer revived by cats in Batman Returns), with a myth’s simplicity. HulkÂ is instead a two-hour diagnosis.
From a director generally remarkable for visual purity and his use of silence (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), HulkÂ is messy and loud. There is an ugly, nocturnal fight between the Hulk and genetically modified dogs that attack Betty outside an (of course) remote log cabin. The scene is ill lit, and there is little finesse in the dull collision of flesh. Much of the movie is set in the desert: the Hulk’s destructive energy dissipates in all that space. It is not until the end of the film that there is any city mayhem (there is something deeply satisfying about the destruction of suburban homes). In brilliant San Francisco sunshine, the Hulk sends a row of parked cars rolling like toys down a hill and overturns a tram.
Lee tries to reproduce the panel-by-panel storytelling of comic books on film, with extensive use of split screen. This works well in showing actions from various points of view: a laboratory experiment or soldiers securing an area. It works less well in scenes meant to impact emotionally. Bruce’s final encounter with his father plays like a failed reconciliation on Jerry Springer, two guests at either end of a brightly lit stage. Lee even recycles the extended, sailing jumps from Crouching Tiger, but the Hulk does not land nearly so lightly.
HulkÂ features two of the most annoying performances recently committed to film. Nick Nolte plays David Banner, Bruce’s father, a genetic scientist whose experiments on himself are passed on to his son in his genes. He shuffles around the movie like a grandstanding howler monkey, followed by a vicious white poodle. Sam Elliott plays Betty’s father, the military commander who shut down David’s experiments. It is his job to contain Bruce’s mutant rages. You may want to tear the glue-on moustache from his lip every time he says Betty in an I-know-better tone.
Eric Bana has few opportunities to distinguish himself. As a man who must keep his feelings under control for fear of flying into a rage, he is inert for most of the movie, looking out from slightly stunned eyes. Connelly is beautiful, but has little to do except look sorry for her misunderstood boyfriend.
Ultimately, Hulk dulls. You are expected to take Bruce as an everyman Peter Finch in Network (I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more), with a greater capacity than most for expressing his anger. Despite frequent close-ups on the creature’s sad eyes, the Hulk is invulnerable to attack. This flattens suspense even as he paws at an army of soldiers in camouflage, as you know that he cannot be wounded, let alone killed. If the Hulk were at any time in physical danger, he would be also a more effective object of pity. Once Bruce changes into Hulk, all he can do is break things. He, like the film, is little more than a big green tantrum.