The Green-Ey'd Monster Which Doth Rock

The problem with comicbook movies is the same as the problem with real comicbooks: They expect their audiences to be smart, and that confuses anyone who's not ready.

As a culture brought up on the 1960s Batman TV show, most folks think that's what comics are like, and when they find out differently, they get scared. Spider-Man did its part to fix this, but it also created another, secondary problem: people think that's what comic movies are like - light airy fun with a young hero. So half the audiences who went to see Hulk (138 minutes, PG-13, Universal Studios) were going into the theatre expecting Spider-Man in green.

Ang Lee didn't make that movie. Lee has admitted that he had no idea how to make a comicbook movie, so he made a Greek tragedy instead.

Microbiologist Bruce Banner is trying to find a way to help the human body heal itself from the inside. Exposed to an incredible dose of gamma radiation that alters his body chemistry, Bruce suddenly finds himself changing into a huge green beast whenever his emotions get out of control. Don't make him angry; you wouldn't like him when he's angry.

Eric Bana plays Bruce Banner well, giving the quiet, uncomfortable nerd a bit of simmering emotion behind the eyes. Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly keeps Betty Ross from becoming a "lab coat, glasses and a bun" caricature of a brainy scientist, and does a wonderful job drawing forth emotion from the film's stoic men. Nick Nolte, looking like he just stepped out of his infamous mug shot, plays renegade scientist David Banner with a manic intensity, while Sam Elliot and Josh Lucas define opposite ends of their military spectrum.

The editing of Hulk did its best to create a sense of the film's four-color roots through strange transitions and split screens that suggest the panels of the printed comic page. The "paneling" does its job well, often showing a lot of various action without having to cut back and forth. The device is much better served (and executed) here than in similar attempts, such as Fox's 24.

Hulk was a film brought low not by its cast, story or editing, but by its advertising campaign. The ads promised a big action flick, which is not at all what Hulk is; it's slow, it builds toward its events, and then it tears the rear wall out of the place. People talk. People feel. People contemplate things going on around them. For a movie about a brainless brute, Hulk is tremendously smart, and it expects that out of its audience, as well.

Ang Lee's body of work, which includes films like Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil, is mainly comprised of complex interpersonal relationships. Even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the martial-arts epic, was mainly a love story. So it should come as no surprise, then, that Hulk follows a similar pattern, focusing not on the big green guy but on the two human leads.

Not that the film skimps on the Hulk - once he finally appears, the movie does deliver some smashing action scenes. The fully CGI monster looks as believable as a 12-foot green behemoth can, blending beautifully into the scenes. The animators avoided giving the Hulk cartoony emotions, opting for a surprising bit of subtlety. His moves are realistic, whether swinging tanks by the turret or leaping three miles in a single bound. Really, the Hulk's only weakness is the unavoidable - anything that green is not going to look entirely natural, no matter how detailed the rendering.

The film is not without its problems - the ponderous ending, for instance. But the good far outweighs the bad, and that's no mean feat for a summer film. Even Nolte's extreme performance has a purpose: the backgrounds had toothmarks from the way he was chewing up the scenery, but that has its place only as a contrast to Bana and Connelly's more realistic approach; David Banner is for Ang Lee what the clown was for Shakespeare - the over-the-top caricature that exists only as the light that casts the other characters' shadows (or is that the other way around?).

Presented on a two-disc set, Hulk has some nice bonuses. Color is good overall, though a bit too dark in the "dog fight" scene. The sound is deep and rumbling, showcasing Danny Elfman's "non-Danny Elfman" score.

Ang Lee provides a solo commentary in which he speaks frankly and passionately about his goals for this film. The track is entertaining and informative, but does have a few slow parts, and a few moments when Lee mentions something about the actors' performance, then doesn't shut up long enough for us to appreciate it. Another full-length offering is the "Hulk-Cam," a branching feature that takes the viewer out of the film for a brief look at related material. Though the information is decent, this type of feature is overused and unrewarding, so seeing the material presented by itself would have been better.

Disc One is rounded out by several deleted scenes, an "Anatomy of the Hulk" feature that explains just how big and strong Hulk is (very big and very strong - there, now you can skip this annoying presentation), as well as several very blatant links to advertising - what the Hulk has to do with Sunny Delight is beyond me.

On Disc Two, we get a wider selection of extras. "Evolution of the Hulk" examines the character's four-color origins, appearances on TV and finally the film. There's a "making of" feature divided into three parts - "The Incredible Ang Lee," "The Making of Hulk" and "The Dogfight" - that is actually quite informative and fun, letting us see everything from Ang Lee wearing a motion capture suit to help create the Hulk to a few brief digital outtakes, renders of scenes that didn't work out quite as intended.

The "Captured Fury" feature could have been tremendously interesting, but is instead a painful chore. Four comic artists offer their graphic interpretation of a scene from the film. Rather than just show the art, however, the disc's producers decided to pointlessly zoom in, out and around the illustrations, completely obscuring the artists' work and making the feature almost unwatchable. This could have been salvaged with something as simple as a gallery of the art, but there is none to be found. Finally, owners of an Xbox game system can play an entire level of the "Hulk" game on this disc.

Many reviewers were down on this film because it tackles weighty issues in a fantastic world - it's not Shakespeare, they claim. But that's where they're wrong: Hulk is indeed Shakespeare. All those old Marvel characters always have been.

William Shakespeare was a populist writer in Elizabethan time; Stan Lee did the same job in the '60s and '70s. Shakespeare wrote about pixies, fairies, clowns and gods, and that's supposed to be more respectable than mutant teenagers or a gamma-irradiated hulk? Screw that. Five hundred years removed, anything can seem classic.

Is it wrong for a movie like Hulk to explore father/child relations and where true humanity lies? No more than it was for a play about a sorcerer stranded on an island to ponder a man's relationship to his brother and his duty to a being he had created. Fans of the kitschy '70s show deserve to be sorely disappointed if that's what they went to the theatre for - that's akin to saying that fans of Adam West were disappointed by Batman.

The sooner people outgrow the "bif bam pow" idea of comicbooks, the sooner they'll understand why Hulk isn't the movie they expected - and why it was better. Hulk smash?

Yes, Hulk smash the limits of what people think a comicbook (and a comicbook movie) is.

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