Hulk. Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Ang Lee. Written by John Turman, Michael France and James Schamus. Running time: 137 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for violence and brief partial nudity). Starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliot, Josh Lucas.


The summer of 2003 has been good to superhero movies so far. X2 was one of the most entertaining superhero movies ever, and with Hulk we have one of the most involving (although both fall behind Spider-Man, perhaps the best superhero movie, period). Instead of focusing solely on the action elements, director Ang Lee takes time to develop the characters. Because of this, we feel something that we rarely do during common summer blockbusters - compassion for the protagonists. Instead of working Hulk as a simple monster movie, Lee has turned it into a sort of Greek tragedy - a big, green "Oedipus", if you will (only without the incest). The comic book character of the Hulk may not be terribly interesting, but the movie character certainly is.

It's uncertain how fans of the comic will react to Hulk, due to the talky nature of the movie and changes Lee has made. The basic idea of the story has stayed the same, but everything else is different, and the differences range from slight to extreme.

Eric Bana plays Bruce Banner, a scientist working at the Berkely Technical Institute, along with ex-girlfriend Betty (Jennifer Connelly). Their current project, examining ways to protect the human body against radiation, is being carefully watched by Talbot (Josh Lucas), a despicable corporate executive, who plans to take over the project. One day, during a lab accident, Bruce is exposed to massive amounts of gamma radiation. When he awakens in a hospital, he finds that, not only is he okay, he's not even injured.

Soon, Bruce is visited by a grizzled old man who claims to be Bruce's father, David Banner. The man (Nick Nolte, looking very much like his now infamous mug-shot) speaks in riddles as to what has happened to Bruce. His meaning becomes clear quite soon, however, when Bruce is transformed into the gigantic Hulk. Soon, Betty's father, General Ross (Sam Elliott) takes an interest in the beast, although his motives are unclear, and Talbot simply wants Bruce dead. David wants Bruce for his own sinister purposes.

Even when he is destroying cities, we are rooting for the Hulk, and not only because we know we should, as is the case in many action movies, but because the character of Bruce has been so well developed. The compassion for the character is not only limited to the moments of dialogue or exposition, but spreads across the action seequences as well. This is good, as, after the relatively slow start, the action hardly ever ceases. The climax is somewhat ambiguous, although not difficult to figure out with a little thought; it is obvious what happens, but why is slightly unclear.

Despite the slightly dark tone of the movie, Lee never forgets that the basis for his movie is a comic book. He uses many split screens and other visual effects to bring across the feeling that what is happening on the screen is really occuring in a comic book. His visual tweaks occasionally seem excessive, but never become truly distracting or irritating as Oliver Stone's often do.

The acting is not perfect, but it is uncharacteristically strong for a superhero movie. Eric Bana (also in Black Hawk Down) is strong as Bruce, and protrays him as emotionally distant and brooding individual. Jennifer Connelly gives the best performance of the movie, in essentially the same role she played in A Beautiful Mind. Nick Nolte is also strong as Bruce's evil, deranged dad. He occasionally goes over-the-top, but it's obvious that he does it on purpose, and he is always impressive to watch. Sam Elliot rides the line between acting and over-acting, and he manages to always stay on the acting side. The one weak link in the ensemble is Josh Lucas as villain Talbot. Instead of attempting to develop the character, he makes him a one-sided cartoon, and we can't wait until he gets his.

Of course, the most important aspect of the movie is the CGI effects. If the Hulk looked terrible, the movie would certainly fail. Early reports on the quality of the effeccts have varied, and judging by the trailer, I was ready to be disappointed. Luckily, the effects are exceptional, with some astounding close-ups. Of course it does not work perfectly, but the Hulk is a comic book character, and you can't expect him to not look slightly larger-than-life (no pun intended).

I wish not to imagine what could have happened to Hulk had it been directed by a mindless director like Michael Bay. If he had, it certainly would have become action-packed and dumb. What Hollywood is apparently realizing is that superhero movies are better handled by directors who know how to tell stories and direct compelling movies (Spider-Man, X-Men, and X2 have all been directed by men whose origins lay in independent film-making). Luckily, Ang Lee is such a director. When it is all said and done, I have no doubts that the title of best summer blockbuster will be a close race between X2 and Hulk.

© 2003 Matt Noller