'Hulk' at 15: How Ang Lee's distinctive blockbuster paved the way for the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe

Arriving on the heels of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Ang Lee’s Hulk opened big ($62 million) and then promptly sank like a stone, weighed down by mixed critical reaction and general audience disapproval. Nonetheless, now as then, Lee’s adaptation of Marvel’s not-really-jolly green giant was a bold and unique superhero effort, one that sought to express its monstrous action in Freudian dramatic terms and via expressive comic-book aesthetics.

“It always felt like it was going to be something different. I knew that it wasn’t going to be what people were expecting,” star Eric Bana told Yahoo Entertainment recently (see video above). Fifteen years after its theatrical debut on June 20, 2003, Hulk remains one of the genre’s most original and striking visions, one that sought to enrich its pulpy material by reconfiguring it into a stylistically adventurous story about personal and national sins of the past. And as such, it stands as both an outlier and an originator, considering that its audaciousness — rejected by so many moviegoers — is what ultimately gave birth to the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In most respects, Marvel, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man, shunned the risks taken by Hulk, and thus Lee’s film now functions as ground zero for the creative decisions that have guided the past decade of MCU endeavors. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Lee’s storytelling approach, which seeks to duplicate the look and feel of a comic-book page. That’s felt in the fonts used for his opening credit sequence, and in his use of square and rectangular split-screens and transitions, all of which aim to duplicate the structure of a comic’s paneled layout. Segueing from shot to shot, and scene to scene, with digitized wipes and rotations, and employing extreme close-ups, iris devices, and other superimposed imagery — most thrillingly, a late freeze-frame of Josh Lucas’s villain in front of a massive explosion — Lee diligently echoes, at every turn, the very medium that first gave birth to heroes like the Hulk.

That method was never to be seen again in the MCU, which has consequently adhered to a far more conventional cinematographic schema that allows its various franchises to feel as if they’re complementary parts of a larger tapestry. Simply put — a movie universe doesn’t work if any individual entry is too eccentric to match its brethren. In style and tone, Lee’s Hulk is its own exceptional beast. And therefore, it illustrated the pitfalls of hiring an auteur with an inimitable take on a given property that couldn’t be duplicated by others, or made to neatly fit side-by-side with other interconnected Marvel offerings.

It wasn’t just Lee’s formal daring, however, that Marvel jettisoned. A saga about Bruce Banner’s (Eric Bana) transformation into a furious id Hulk, which emerges courtesy of a gamma-radiation accident that triggers the childhood DNA experiments performed on him by his father (Nick Nolte), Lee’s film (co-written by his longtime collaborator James Schamus) is rife with paternal crimes, repressed memories, and references to Frankenstein, King Kong, and Godzilla — the last of which comes via repeated nuclear-bomb images that cast the hero as an embodiment of destructive American rage and hubris. From recurring symbolic shots of 1950s military-base homes, spreading fungus, gnarled trees, frogs and lizards, and apocalyptic mushroom clouds, to a wild-man Nolte turn that’s almost Shakespearean in its crazy-haired grandeur (a far cry from most ensuing Marvel baddies), Hulk is a densely told tale that aims to be more than mere juvenile pop spectacle.

That was not, for the most part, what audiences wanted from the story of an emerald behemoth who likes to smash stuff, and no matter that Lee also delivers such mayhem in substantial quantities, Hulk taught Marvel to temper their movies’ thematic ambitions. It didn’t help that Lee’s affair is largely humorless — a shortcoming which underlined how vital comedy is to making a comic-book movie truly thrilling. Moreover, some die-hards also took umbrage with the filmmaker’s not-inconsiderable alterations to Banner/Hulk’s origin story, which here rendered its protagonist something of a passive victim of both circumstance and villainous parenting, with Nolte’s mad-scientist daddy turning out to be a bad guy of both a familial and — because he represents Manhattan Project-style god-complex recklessness — national/historical variety.

Hulk underlined that sticking closely to accepted canon was a relatively safer route to take. And Lee’s more somber characterization of the Hulk himself (his face vacillating between uncontrollable fury and introspective sadness), when considered alongside the proceedings’ dark and dour atmosphere, suggested that getting too heavy was maybe the wrong way to go with a film that was meant to excite more than depress — a lesson that Marvel’s rivals at DC have recently learned the hard way. Not to mention that Lee doesn’t even have Banner suffer his Hulk-begetting gamma accident until 30 minutes into the movie, which means it teases the introduction of the beast for so long that, by the time he arrives, many viewers had grown impatient and alienated.

Despite its $245 million global gross, Hulk was viewed as a letdown by all onlookers, such that Marvel rebooted the character only five years later with The Incredible Hulk, which tried to deliver the type of rock-’em-sock-’em adaptation movie fans supposedly craved. Audiences didn’t (the film only took in $263 million worldwide), and as time has shown, that Edward Norton-headlined do-over is the more forgettable take on the character, proving the limits of formulaic CGI mayhem. Even though it’s technically a part of the MCU, director Louis Leterrier’s 2008 film remains the franchise’s black sheep, only linked to its brethren through William Hurt’s General Ross (with Mark Ruffalo assuming the Banner role for the Avengers movies).

Still, save for a few minor elements of Lee’s film — the Hulk’s bounding leaping ability; a sequence in which a flight into outer space is used to incapacitate a super-character; a Stan Lee (and Lou Ferrigno) cameo — the studio has remained steadfast in going in the opposite direction of Hulk with the MCU. That course of action has been a lucrative one, as the Disney-owned comic-book giant is now an unstoppable cultural force, as again evidenced by this year’s blockbusters Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. And considerable credit for that success goes, in a roundabout way, to Lee’s Hulk. It may have been too strange and idiosyncratic for its own mainstream-courting good, but in that distinctiveness, it helped sow the seeds of the more conventional — and crowd-pleasing — MCU that rules the cinematic landscape today.

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