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« DVD Journal: "Frida" | Main | Moviegoing: "The Italian Job" »

June 25, 2003

Fathers, Sons and the Hulk


I went with my teenaged daughter to see “The Hulk” last night, and I’m kind of glad I did. I mean, the movie is a mess, but, oddly for a comic-book movie, its messiness is actually interesting.

I don’t know if anyone else goes to popcorn movies out of a sense of duty, but for me going to see "The Hulk" was an obligation. I connected with certain aspects of pop culture as a child, and I feel occasionally required to show my childhood tastes a certain degree of “respect.” It doesn’t matter what I think of this stuff as an adult; I just have to take my inner child to see it. (It’s a motive somewhat similar to the one that impels me to go to the weddings of a distant relatives or the funeral of someone I knew only slightly.) No matter how bad the reviews for the Hulk were (and I’ve never read a good one, although they may exist), sooner or later I was going to have to plunk down money and sit through this film, like it or not.

The positive aspect of seeing a movie under these circumstances, of course, is that I had no expectations, or at least no positive expectations, about the quality of this film walking into the theater. The reviews led me to expect Claymation-quality special effects (Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal had a great line about expecting to see Wallace and Grommit manning the attack helicopters), an unconvincing computer-animated hero/monster, a murky story, etc., etc. What I found, stuggling to emerge from its superhero genre trappings, was an intriguing, if perhaps insufficiently dramatized, film about the struggle between fathers and sons.

Warning: I am about to wantonly give away some of the plot. In the film, David Banner, our hero's father, mumbling some nonsense about improving on humanity, deliberately alters his own DNA. These latent genetic alterations are passed to his son. When his forbidden experiments are discovered, David Banner (after terribly traumatizing his son) gets dragged off by the military-industrial complex. (Hey, it was a busy, busy day at that dusty Southwestern army base.) Thirty years later Mad Scientist Dad reappears and starts meddling in his son’s life again. And not meddling in the usual ways, disapproving of little things like the son's occupation, spouse or earing. No, this is big time stuff: Dad starts manipulating the young man to get him to express his modified genetic inheritance. After that inheritance has been augmented rather over-deterministically by both nanotechnology and a burst of gamma rays, it allows the younger Banner to transform into an 18-foot tall extreme bodybuilder with a really, really short temper and superhuman strength. Oh yeah, he's also green.

You Won't Like Me When I'm Mad

Nick Nolte’s sly performance as David Banner is about the “genetic” ruthlessness (some? all?) fathers can exhibit towards their sons. Sharing half his genes and his sexual identity with Bruce, the old man sees his son as a literal, not a metaphorical, extension of himself. And mad scientist David Banner isn't troubled about ethical considerations like respecting the personhood of his child; after all, he doesn’t feel badly about ordering his legs to walk him around, or his arms to lift heavy weights, does he? He sees his son, like his legs, as a part of himself, and naturally subservient to his will.

Fathers and Sons: Eric Bana and Nick Nolte as Bruce and David Banner

The film’s montages of genetic engineering (a motif used strictly as decoration in other sci-fi films) actually have a structural purpose here: they clarify that what Banner the elder is really attached to in his son--to wit, his very own DNA residing within the boy. A passing remark in the film suggests that somehow Bruce Banner inherited 100% of his genes from his father rather than the ordinary 50%. Since Bruce doesn’t look like a carbon copy of his old man, this obviously is nonsense, genetically speaking, but it resonates given the father's intensely possessive feelings towards his son.

And, of course, the film sketches out how this limitless paternal claim affects the son, Bruce. Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) has obviously grown up distrusting his own nature. He fears that if he gives in to his own inner impulses he’ll be surrendering his personhood to his nut-job father. This emotional inhibition even seems to extend to his feelings for his masochistically devoted girlfriend and lab partner. This was a little hard to credit, given the fact that said devoted girlfriend was played by Jennifer Connelly.

The always delightful Jennifer Connelly as the preposterously named Betty Ross in "The Hulk"

On a formal level the most unusual aspect of the film is its “photoshopped” look. Individual images undergo color and tonal changes that make the old “fade to white” or "fade to black" look like something from the era of the Model T. Whole segments crumble into multi-screen images; wipes go way beyond anything dreamed of by silent filmmakers; a car headlight snaps its literal connection to its original image and goes wandering around the screen, eventually morphing into a full moon in a new scene. It’s zippy as all hell, but other than a vague connection to notions of evolution and emotional instability, I had a hard time finding the emotional logic of it.

The real failure of the film is not the overly flashy editing or the special effects. It is that Ang Lee and his writers never quite found a sufficiently mythopoetic mind-set that would have enabled them to integrate all these ideas into an emotional whole, a fable of sons and fathers. It’s kind of too bad, as you can see Lee is trying to get there and you can tell how hard he’s working at it, but I think the requirements of the Hulk franchise ultimately defeated him. Forty years of monthly comic books, of tanks and airplanes hunting down their superhuman target across the Southwestern landscape was ultimately too unwieldy a legacy to transmute into a fairy tale.

So, “The Hulk”—a great movie? No way. But it still contains the germ plasm of a rather intriguingly contemporary treatment of a real emotional issue.



posted by Friedrich at June 25, 2003


Mothers don't have to worry about how much DNA they give daughters - what with makeup and hair color and boob jobs it's fairly easy to make a baby girl just like you. Another reason to be pro mixed-race marriages.

Although I doubt this is what the filmmakers were thinking when they cast the blond and thuggish Nick Nolte as the DNA model for the character played by the quite impressive and dark Eric Bana, having the same DNA doesn't mean looking exactly alike. Identical twins often don't look anything alike. It's also possible that a sub-plot, explaining how Nolte lost his nose to the syph, was cut.

Posted by: j.c. on June 25, 2003 7:39 PM

How'd your daughter enjoy the movie? And what did she make of Dad's evident deep and pensive involvement with the movie?

Needed from FvB -- musings about how and why the pop movies that got to him did, and why they continue to fascinate him. Themes? Visuals? Characters?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 26, 2003 4:34 AM

My daughter liked it but I don't think she felt any particular emotional connection to it. (Which I take as something of a tribute to my have learned not to parent the same way I was parented.)

As for my original connection to the I recall, I only became aware of the Hulk when I was a bit older, on the cusp of adolescence. I think the Hulk engaged my fears about my body (which was beginning to morph into that of an adult, with lots more muscles and hair and other strange aspects) as well as my anxieties about what I would have to leave behind emotionally (the Hulk is the ultimate child in a man's body.) The stories never really engaged me; it was mostly the idea of the character.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 26, 2003 9:58 AM

Perhaps it is because I was a daughter, and was unaware of the psychological elements of the father wanting Bruce Banner's very soul (which I admit is claustrophobic and creepy), but my connection to the Hulk always seemed to be the visceral satisfaction of just totally losing it, and being big and strong enough to make people really pay attention when you lose it, as a way of being a one-man Stupid Police.

Posted by: caroline on June 26, 2003 12:20 PM

"The stories never really engaged me; it was mostly the idea of the character."

Y'know, now that you mention it, that seems to be the essence of Stan Lee's genius. When you go back and read most of the actual stories in the old comics, they're out-and-out awful, even making allowances for being aimed at kids. But in coming up with the characters, he seems to be able to tune in on some deep psychological wavelength. It's almost like, once he'd created the character, we did the rest...

Posted by: jimbo on June 26, 2003 2:33 PM

"The real failure of the film is not the overly flashy editing..."

Although the editing might be considered overwraught, I would argue that Ang Lee and his crew display a considerable amount of skill and talent with regard to the complex visual arrangements. You noted "whole segments [that] crumble into multi-screen images", but did you consider how significant portions of the film, particularly conversations in which standard shot-reverse-shot setups would have been used, were made to resemble the panels of a comic book? Beyond that simple homage to the material's origins, Lee manages to take these "panels" and create a beautiful, organic pastiche that adds a great deal of visual elegance to the film.

Rather than providing "a vague connection to notions of evolution [or] emotional instability," Lee's visual grace simply serves up a heaping helping of the dynamism so familiar to comic book readers, all without--IMHO--the overbearing physical antics of THE MATRIX. Although I would argue that the "vague notions" you mention are indeed, to a small degree, valid. After all, Lee has dealt both with skimpy action-fare (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) as well as grave drama (THE ICE STORM). As such, he's adept at blending the two.

I do agree that the film suffers from more than a few flaws; however, I think that for his part, Lee succeeded in taking a rather prosaic script and making something gorgeous of it.

Posted by: M. Kirchhoff on June 27, 2003 10:34 AM

A comic book crazed friend of mine tells me that the name Bruce Banner and David Banner actually refer to the same character--in the comic books he was Bruce, I think, and when they made the TV show with Bill Bixby they renamed him David. It could be the other way around. It may be the movie is premised on an inside joke?

Posted by: Deb on June 29, 2003 9:50 AM

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