October 28, 2003
Everybody Hurts

SFHulk.jpgNote: This was a review of Ang Lee's Hulk written around the time of the film's theatrical release for an online magazine. The article got spiked due to the film's precipitous decline in the box office during its second week and a general sense that the film didn't have the cultural impact people had anticipated. Hulk has just been released on a two-disc DVD. This article is pretty fucking long, so no one will blame you if you skip it.

"Green personalities want to help every one. They are nature's mothers... Nurturers by choice, they are the ones who take care of animals, humans and plants.

"Green personalities need to be careful not to make martyrs of themselves." - Da Juana Byrd, "Color Personality" Test from PsychicAdvice.com

I have seen the future of manhood, and it is green. Hulk green, to be more specific.

Unless you've been living in the subterranean city of Zion for the last month, you already know that Ang Lee's Hulk has—briefly-clobbered the multiplexes and captured the hearts and minds of viewers and critics in a manner not seen since...maybe The Matrix Reloaded, six weeks ago.

Critics worried about how Lee, the art house auteur of Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, would have to alter his style to tackle the $150 million, CGI-intensive summer "event" picture. A more salient question is not how would Hulk change Lee, but how Lee would change the Hulk? Well, aside from cutting "The Incredible," out of the big green guy's name, he also cut off his big green balls.

This new Hulk, as played by Aussie cipher Eric Bana (and about a billion ones and zeros courtesy of Industrial Light + Magic), isn't merely full of rage like his comic book and television predecessors: he's a walking DSM IV, packed to the pecs with feelings, and boy do they hurt easily. Call him The Incredible Sulk.

Before we can meet the Hulk, we're stuck with Bruce Banner, a repressed, emotionally closed-off sad sack tooling his bike through the hills of San Francisco in a dorky helmet. Following an overlong flashback of his mad scientist-with-a-Village People mustache father experimenting on him with dangerous levels of hormones and over-acting, we pick up with Banner shortly after he's been dumped by girlfriend/colleague Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly, so thin she resembles an Al Hirshfeld drawing). In typical Marin county therapy speak, Betty tells Bruce that he's just the latest in a long line of "emotionally distant" men she's fallen for. But, hey, they can still be friends and continue their groundbreaking research into blowing up bullfrogs using science. (If only all lady scientists were so understanding!)

In these early scenes, Bruce is so stiff you half expect to see knotholes poking out from his rolled-up shirtsleeves. But if Betty wishes her ex would just open up and share his feelings, she'll come to regret it after the near-fatal blast of Gamma Rays and Nanomeds (or whatever) cause him to become an 800lb drama queen with a taste for flamboyant purple cut-offs.

Following a plot so tortuous viewers might be tempted to use their four dollar popcorns like a trail of breadcrumbs, we find Banner fully transformed into the Hulk, breaking lots of stuff and fleeing from the entire Military-Industrial Complex.

As critics who got B-minuses in Intro to Psych will tell you, this angry green giant is the manifestation of Banner's id, a howling, pounding return of the repressed. He is that, to be sure, but combined with his newfound strength and ability to heal instantly are his surprising internal weaknesses and the fact that his wounds are mostly emotional. Ang Lee's Hulk is less golem, more nebbish; it's like the 98lb weakling finally got Charles Atlas'd, yet remains a big wuss. Why is this? Why is the most masculine comic book character this side of Metropolis suddenly so... feminine? Well, I'm afraid you'll have to ask Ang Lee.

Lee and his longtime writing and producing partner James Schamus, have brought us some of the most sensitive male characters in recent cinematic history. By sensitive, I don't merely mean fellas with high EQs: I mean criers, passive aggressive nudges, and hen-pecked non-agents. Remember the end of The Ice Storm when ascot-loving suburban dad Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) loses his shit and breaks down into sobs in front of his entire family? And don't get me started on his milquetoast Dostoyevsky-quoting son, Paul (Tobey Maguire) who attempts to seduce and destroy a female classmate (Katie Holmes) but finds himself on the receiving end of the old "you're like a brother to me" speech. And then there's Chow Yun Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who loses his phallic-signifying sword "Green Destiny" along with his mojo. (What's with the green motif, Ang?)

These characters seem to be a direct outgrowth of Lee's personality: "He has the most quiet footprint, a tremendous humility," former producing partner Ted Hope told John Lahr in The New Yorker. "He once said to me, describing his process, that movies pass through him." (Whoa, watch those archetypes, Ted! We only got B-minuses after all!)

According to Lahr, that passivity extends to Lee's personal life where his wife Lin wears the pants in the family. To hear Lee tell it, he lives out a version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in which he's hen-pecked at home but free to live out his fantasies of power only while making movies. "[On the set] my job is telling people what I want," Lee tells Lahr. "But when I get home it's back to life-what she wants."

It's no wonder then that one of the motifs in Hulk is Betty's ability to calm the Hulk down enough to bring back Bruce, in essence, to cut him down to size. (As New York Magazine film critic Peter Rainer quipped "No wonder he's angry—his girlfriend makes him smaller.")

But that's not all. This Hulk exhibits other traits rarely associated with the masculine he-men of the comic book/action genre. At one point, after a particularly vicious battle with some hulked-out evil dogs (including, with a touch of surrealism, a Standard Poodle), Hulk staggers over to a lake and ponders his own reflection like some 'roid-raging Narcissus. Gazing down at his own reflection, one can only imagine what he's thinking and feeling: guilt, sadness, confusion, a nagging suspicion that his skin would look better—tauter—if only he'd used Kiehl's Ultra Facial Moisturizer for Men. You can almost imagine Lee allowing a single (green?) tear to ripple the reflection away. (Cue The Who: "See me...Feel me-e-e... Touch me.... Heal me-e-e!") Thankfully, in an over-the-top film, we're spared that particular image.

Another aspect of Lee's kinder, gentler Hulk is his overweening daddy fixation: The guy's got more father issues than a stadium full of Promise Keepers.

Further complicating Banner's predicament is the return of his dad (played in by the method acting or merely insane, Nick Nolte), who has spent the last thirty years in a psychiatric ward. Like a lot of absentee dads, he wants to catch up on lost time with some hands-on father-son bonding.

But it's not easy, you see, because dad has some Gamma Ray/nanomed problems of his own that get in the way of intimacy with his boy. The Gamma Ray/nanomeds (or whatever) have given Papa Banner the ability to absorb others' power and use it against them. As if living out every thirteen year-old's secret Oedipal wish, Banner/Hulk gets the chance to go mano-a-mano with his old man, but finds himself outmatched when his father literally absorbs his anger and uses it against him. (A classic passive-aggressive.) This, of course, makes Hulk even more depressed, probably tapping those wells of guilt and anger that lurk inside every father's son.

Man, does this Hulk have issues!

Of course, all the blame can't be laid at the quiet footprints of Ang Lee. An old proverb tells us that every generation gets the Hulk it deserves. We're living in an era of greatly diminished expectations for heroes and further diminished standards for manhood among mere mortals. This is a time when millions tune in to The Sopranos to watch The Godfather's capo-di-tutti-capi re-imagined as an anxiety-riddled suburban dad who cries when ducks land in his pool, when a movie like X2: X-Men United is interpreted by many as an allegory for gay pride and acceptance, and when Daredevil becomes the story of a handicapped man in skintight red leather overcoming childhood trauma. (Best not to mention the casting of Ben Affleck—the most whipped man in Hollywood since Eddie Fisher—as Daredevil.) Clearly, we're not dealing with our fathers' superheroes.

The problem with these hypersensitive heroes is that their depth is in direct conflict with the shallowness of the films they live in. With the exception of The Sopranos, which has 13 to 20 hours a year to develop its plots (not to mention the best writers, actors, and directors cable money can buy), the examples above are within the intentionally-narrow confines of frivolous big budget action movies. Why bother making your Mutants vs. The Man popcorn flick a meditation on Gay, Lesbian, Transgender rights? That's not speaking truth to power, that's speaking Latin to housecats. Daredevil isn't "differently abled," he's a superhero. What's the point of making your CGI monster as textured as Hamlet? Hulk doesn't need to be deep, he's huge and pissed-off.

C'mon, Ang: Hulk's the beast inside us, not Free to Be...You and Me.

Watching the Hulk emote almost makes you nostalgic for the time when comic book characters like Superman were the strong-jawed extensions of stoic American manhood. Superman never cried about the fact that his parents were killed—and his entire stinkin' planet was destroyed—he just kicked bad guy ass and did his best to avoid kryptonite. Not so, Ang Lee's Hulk.

Before Lee got a hold of him, when Hulk got angry-woe onto you if you made him angry!-he'd bellow "HULK M-A-A-A-A-D!" just before smashing you and everything in sight.

Post Lee, Hulk still bellows, but now he's more likely to tell you with self-actualized sincerity "HULK S-A-A-A-D! Why you hurt Hulk's feelings?" And skulk off to listen to old Smiths records and write in his diary.

[Thanks to Michael Martin for editorial guidance]

Posted in a Shallow fashion.

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