Why Ang Lee’s HULK would be appreciated more today than when it was released

“Hulk” hit theaters in the US 20 years ago.

Lukasz Budnik

20 June 2023

I already wrote about the Hulk movie, claiming that it was an underrated adaptation of a comic book. Today I’m coming back to this title because it’s a real opportunity – exactly twenty years ago Ang Lee’s film hit the cinema screens. Do I stand by what I wrote some time ago? Absolutely, even going a step further – I believe that if Hulk hit the screens today, it would be received much better than in 2003.

Today, superhero cinema dominates among blockbusters, but 20 years ago it was not so popular. Before the year of Hulk‘s premiere, we basically only watched Blade, Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which gained great popularity among viewers and in their eyes became a model of what a comic book adaptation should look like. Raimi approached the source material with love and lightness, successfully bringing the 1960s comic book vibe to the screen and making audiences fall in love with Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man. The year 2003 has come, and with it three more screen adaptations of comic books, each of them a bit from a different world. They were the X-Men sequel, on a much larger scale than the original, which was a very successful action movie, Daredevil with Ben Affleck, inspired by the Matrix style and Hulk.

As much as I like and appreciate X2 (which I can’t say about Daredevil), I consider Hulk to be the most interesting title of the three, mainly for how bravely it approaches the source material. This is a radically different film than Spider-Man, back then the most popular superhero flick. Lightness, humor and fun have given way to a relatively slow pace and seriousness, and the emphasis has been placed on the psychology of the hero. The titular Hulk, associated to the average viewer rather with the simple philosophy of “smash!”, was deconstructed here and treated as a metaphor for the traumas accompanying Bruce Banner, who became an experiment of his own father in his childhood and survived a cruel tragedy. The creators also tried to play with the form in the form of a specific montage – a procedure that is not always successful, but undoubtedly stands out from the rest of the genre. The creators took a risk and it didn’t really pay off – the film received rather average reviews, many viewers rejected it (after 20 years it has a rating of 5.6/10 on IMDb) and was not a financial hit.

Refreshingly different

So let’s go back to the thesis from the title and imagine that Hulk hits the screens today. Today, when it is often said that viewers are tired of superhero cinema, more and more films of this type become a financial disappointment, and viewers appreciate titles that deviate from the superhero template even a little. First of all, the example of Joker comes to mind, which stormed the cinemas, earning a billion dollars and bringing Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar. Of course, I’m not saying that Hulk would take part in the Oscar fight today, but since he was different from the competition 20 years ago, now this difference would be even more conspicuous. The scale of Hulk is much smaller than in most shows hitting the screens today – the fate of the universe does not hang here, and the whole conflict takes place between Banner / Hulk and his father, who basically ruined his life because of his own ego and ambition. Hulk also has a completely different pace than many modern blockbusters – the action is quite slow, a lot of time is devoted to dialogue scenes or flashbacks developing the characters, and the titular green creature appears on the screen for the first time only after about 40 minutes of the screening. All this in sparing set designs and locations – real, let’s add, not created with a computer.

There are also relatively few action scenes here – they are dosed sparingly, but when they do appear, they give great satisfaction. Particularly the longest sequence involving the Hulk, the one where, after escaping from the lab, he faces off against tanks and helicopters in the desert and then ends up in the city. These are still my favorite scenes with the Hulk on the big screen, perfectly showing his skills (strength, long jumps, speed) and rage and simply exciting. Considering viewers’ comments about the Hulk’s path in the MCU and the many negative opinions about Professor Hulk known from Endgame, as well as the general attachment of viewers to the iron classics and untouchable sanctity, such a portrayal of the character could be welcomed with open arms today. I will also maintain that Hulk also defends itself from the CGI side – the twenty-year-old special effects are still holding up well, and although you can have objections to the Hulk design itself (it doesn’t bother me at all), its animation and integration with the actors or set design is really good, better than CGI disasters in the style of this year’s Quantomania. Anyway, even as I write this text, opinions about another weak special effects are already appearing on the web – this time in Flash from DC.

I would love to see if I was right and Hulk would actually be more popular today than 20 years ago. Certainly, there would still be critical voices, because the film can be accused of somethingcritized for some elements (for example, the aforementioned unsuccessful editing, especially in the scene of the death of a certain character), but it is still an original, mature, heartfelt adaptation of the comic book, which brilliantly uses the source material for this to show on the screen the dramatic story of a wronged man and its consequences, while preserving the essential foundations. At the same time, it is well-cast – Banner by Erik Bana is practically not talked about, which is a pity. The real star, however, is Nick Nolte in the role of Banner’s father, defending himself even when he has to deliver some lopsided lines from the script.

Ever since I watched Hulk as a 12-year-old, it has held a special place in my heart, and I’m glad to see more and more comments about him over the last few years about being an underrated film – they also make me think that Lee’s work would be enjoyed better today reception. On the twentieth anniversary of the premiere, it’s worth giving it another chance.

Łukasz Budnik

Lukasz Budnik

He loves both silent cinema and contemporary blockbusters based on comic books. He looks forward to watching movie with his growing son.

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