Today’s criticism is brought to you by Fraser Peat. Choose Fraser Peat for all applications of zest and enthusiasm.
I had never seen Hulk, because at the time I wasn’t too interested in Superheroes, the film didn’t get good reviews from anyone I knew, and I guess I simply wasn’t watching a lot of films generally. If Hulk came out today, I imagine I’d be off paying money for it despite my misgivings, just as I paid for Captain America, Thor, The Amazing Spiderman and Man of Steel with similar misgivings. Well, with all the discussions being generated by these and other films, and by the massive resurgence of the superhero, Fraser wanted a perspective from me on Hulk as the follow-up film to Spiderman, which began the current wave of interest.
Hulk was a film that didn’t get much critical love at the time, and didn’t make a vast amount of money either. At the time, I thought Ang Lee was a strange choice for direction too – his most famous work was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yet, looking back at both films, I can see a similarity of style and approach that helps to explain some of the unusual features of Hulk. So before getting to grips with Hulk, I just want to set the scene with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Superheroes often function in a “mythological” way, rather than in a “realistic” way. I sketchily outlined this concept when discussing how I would approach Man of Steel. This is also a useful way of thinking about the Li Mu Bai. At the start of the film, he is a mythical figure exiting a kind of public life, but inexorably drawn back into it. The reason is that someone wishes to become a mythic figure, by destroying him. Throughout the film, he retains a power level, a level of skill, beyond mortality. His confrontation with Green Destiny-weilding Jen Yu is revelatory – she is no threat to him in any way. Eventually however, the myth is extinguished, and it is in Shu Lien’s reaction that we recognise indisputibly that however mythic he was, he was also simply a man, at least to Shu Lien. There is nothing but glory in destroying a mythic hero, there is always a little tragedy in murdering a man. Throughout the film there is a careful balancing act in the structure, dialogue, characterization and, crucially, in the fight choreography, between the human and the mythic.
The reason this is relevant to The Hulk is because Bruce Banner is a character, but the Hulk is an elemental force of pure rage. We need to think about the Hulk quite differently in this conception. I think we are used to thinking about him as a Hyde-like figure, to Banner’s Jekhyl, and I’m fairly sure our perception of him was significantly redirected by The Fly… and those perspectives are not invalid, but they are not central to Ang Lee’s Hulk. Hulk is being of pure rage, who can’t be reasoned with, can’t be defeated in a fight. He is the irresistable force, and an unguided force at that. One really important way of looking at the story of Hulk is to see the different characters trying to come to terms with what that means.
Each of the male characters tries to engage with Hulk directly on that elemental level, by trying to apply overwhelming force. Only Betty tries to communicate with Banner through the mediation of Hulk’s elemental power. This elemental quality is rendered explicit in the final sequence, where Banner Snr becomes literally an elemental force to try and defeat Hulk. Each of these characters is overwhelmed by his shear elemental power, and their reactions are illustrative – they all double-down on their strategy.
In the context of Hulk, this response seems silly, yet, this is exactly the same kind of interaction that we see all the time with other super heroes. Doc Ock’s strategy against Spiderman doesn’t vary much for attack to attack. Similarly, the Red Skull’s machinations are always these overly wrought proxy-battles with Captain America. Villains rarely go for the hero’s true weaknesses. Indeed, even attacks at peripheral targets – fridging girlfriends and the like – are fuel to the Superhero’s zeal in the end. The problem with Hulk in some ways, is that it points out how silly it is to fight fire with fire. It’s silly, but not funny, or that fun. It points it out, but it doesn’t find a solution, it doesn’t offer a way of dealing with a hurricane or wildfire, or a coping strategy for the aftermath.
This is the central problem of the super hero genre, laid bare. This is the reason that the last third of Man of Steel is just Zod and Stuporman punching each other. This is why Spiderman 2 is dramatically inert.
In the end, I didn’t like The Hulk. It looked straight at the central problem of the genre, and didn’t offer any solutions. The super hero films that work the best are the ones that find a way around or over this problem. We could think about the way X2 uses mutants as a proxy for other problems, relegating the head-to-head fighting boredom to a sideshow. I guess next I should watch The Incredible Hulk, but perhaps not today.