When it comes to the big, mega-profitable, summer event movie blockbusters, who would you say was the most influential man in Hollywood right now? Spielberg? Nah. His last few films have shown
an edginess which, while welcome, is rather uncommercial. Lucas? Give me a break. The man's head is wedged firmly up his own thermal exhaust
port, and in any case, the original Star Wars owes a clear debt to the work of the real big cheese - octogenarian comic book writer Stan Lee.
My evidence? Four of the most financially successful action movies of the last year or so: Spider-Man, Daredevil, X2, and now the
long-awaited adaptation of Hulk, directed by Ang Lee (no relation) - all of them fruits of a relatively brief period of extraordinary creativity for Lee, nearly forty years ago. Co-created, like the X-Men, with legendary artist Jack Kirby, the Hulk has always been the darkest, strangest, and most morally ambiguous of the big-name superheroes. The fame of the character, in the UK at least, is largely due to the TV series of the late 1970s, where a rather domesticated and wimpy Hulk travelled America as a kind of hitch-hiking social worker. Lee's film returns to the original comics, with impressive results.
Hulk opens with a sequence set in the 1960s, as army scientist David Banner struggles to artificially augment the human immune and regenerative systems. Forced to test his work on himself, he is shocked when his wife gives birth to a son, Bruce, who possesses a unique genetic anomaly - and his attempt to rectify his mistakes will have tragic consequences for all three of them. Thirty-five years later, the now-grown Bruce Banner (played, slightly confusingly, by Eric Bana) is a civilian researcher in the same area, though unaware of his past - or that his girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly, once again playing the love interest to a genius with a split personality)
has a distant connection to it. But Bruce is forced to confront his personal demons as his father (now played by Nick Nolte) reappears, and an accidental dose of gamma radiation leaves him rather green around the gills. And everywhere else...
This film has taken a fair bit of stick for being overly long and wordy and slow to get going. And to be totally honest, this is not entirely unfounded. It's over half an hour before the Hulk puts in an appearance, and prior to this it is quite talky, with Ang Lee seemingly obsessed with close-ups of lichen growing on rocks. This is nothing like as faithful an adaptation of the comic as, for example, the Spider-Man movie, but given the extent to which the Hulk changed in the early years of his career this was probably inevitable. It's to the script's credit that nearly all the regular characters from the early books appear (no sign of Rick Jones or the Grey Hulk, though) and it wholeheartedly adopts the psychological take on the relationship between Banner and the Hulk which Peter David brought to the comic in the early 1990s. This is why the film takes its time to begin with - establishing Banner's character and inner turmoil is crucial to the story it wants to tell.
But once the Hulk does appear, things pick up pace rapidly. This is the real deal, the comic-book Hulk - all the movie retains from the TV show is the iconic 'Don't make me angry...' line, and even this is given an arch twist. (Oh, and TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno cameos alongside Stan Lee himself near the start.) The CGI Hulk is hugely impressive, both in the action scenes - demolishing redwoods during a startlingly brutal fight with irradiated pit-bulls, casually ripping tanks apart, leaping miles at a time - and in the quieter moments when he confronts
Betty or his father. It'd have been nice if the big guy had been given more dialogue, but I suppose you can't have everything. (The perennial question of 'Why does the Hulk's shirt fall off but not his trousers?' is also sort-of addressed, a source of much sniggering during the screening I attended.)
The film stutters a bit in its closing stages. Clearly recognising the similarities between the Hulk and Godzilla - both the result of accidents with radiation, both slightly morally ambiguous, both very bad news for insurance companies - the film-makers give him an opponent worthy of his mettle in the final reel (the lack of which was one
of the main flaws in the Emmerich Godzilla of five years ago). Without wishing to spoil it too much, the villainous character is essentially new, but his superpower should be very familiar to
long-time comics fans. However, his actual agenda and motivation are rather unclear and - while undoubtedly spectacular - the actual battle is too brief and poorly lit to be really satisfying.
This doesn't detract too much from a satisfyingly meaty and intelligent action movie. All the main roles are solidly played - with the possible exception of Josh Lucas' slightly hammy performance as Banner's rival Glen Talbot - and Ang Lee directs with impressive pace and energy, using split-screen and a range of imaginative cuts and
wipes to great effect. This possibly isn't a movie to take small children along to see, as it is a slow starter and what humour there is is subtle and quite black - but with its brooding intensity and emphasis on characterisation it fully does justice to the source material. Now all we need is for the Hulk to fight Wolverine in the
sequel, and a spin-off starring Michelle Rodriguez as the She-Hulk, and I can die a happy man.