Tuesday, June 24, 2003

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I've never really been much of a Hulk fan. Not that I haven't read several books over the years with ol' Greenskin in them, but I have never bought any Hulk title on a regular basis. Probably the closest I've ever come to doing that was when I was a preschooler and my folks would buy me new copies of Tales to Astonish, the comic he shared with Giant-Man and the Wasp, who I did like. In fact, my favorite Hulk stories tended to be those in which he was the heavy or a guest star, like the big epic battle with the Thing in (I think) Fantastic Four 25, or when he was a member of the Avengers. Of course, I'm talking early 60s, when he was a surly brute that nobody liked or trusted. I was kinda intrigued, as I recall, by the late 60s-very early 70s Hulk books, most of which were drawn by Herb Trimpe and placed the by-then inarticulate "Hulk smash" behemoth in a number of odd situations, and also had the numerous subplots going with Betty Ross, Glenn Talbot, Rick Jones and General "Thunderbolt" Ross and his Hulkbuster paramilitary force, but not enough to buy regularly. As the 70s wore on, this all became stale and cliched, and I remember what seemed like a thousand hacked-out Sal Buscema-illo'd issues which just plain old bored me to death on the infrequent instances I'd pluck one off the spinner rack to look it over. This went on til the 80s, I think (remember, I wasn't paying much attention) when several attempts to jump start old Jade-jaws (always hated that dumb nickname) resulted in a total revamp by Peter David which often sounded interesting but didn't coerce me to buy. I remember a George Perez-drawn mini series in which the Hulk met his future self that a friend loaned me that was a pretty good read. I understand that the current Hulk series has its admirers, but I just can't care less. I do like what they've done with him in the Ultimates, though.

OK. That rambling paragraph above is intended to let you know where I'm coming from in regards to the character, and set up my thoughts on Ang Lee's new Hulk film, which I saw yesterday afternoon. Judging from the reactions I've read so far, people either seem to love it or hate it, so typically I'm somewhere in between. For the most part, I liked it, and there are stretches I liked a lot. It's a schizo film; it wants to be a serious drama, but it also wants to be a blockbuster action film as well and amazingly it pretty much succeeds, even though the tone is much too glum and Bruce Banner's character is made so repressed, dour and unlikeable that it's difficult to sympathize when him when all hell breaks loose in the second half. I never could figure out why Jennifer Connelley's Betty was so in love with him in the first place; she almost seems to pity him more than anything. I preferred the nerdy scientist of the original comics' origin. But that being said, I didn't mind all the revisions in the canonical story– maybe it's just that I've developed a thick skin to that sort of thing or maybe it's because I don't have any emotional investment in the Hulk or his comic-book cast in the first place, who knows. Skanky-looking Nick Nolte was OK as Bruce's dad, and I could buy the whole thing at the beginning about him experimenting on himself and passing on freaky genes to his son, and his rage at having his project shut down, and all that. What I couldn't buy was the fuzzy motives he had after he got out. Sometimes it seemed like he was all about bringing out his own power, sometimes it seemed like he wanted to kill Bruce, sometimes it seemed like he wanted to help Bruce. Sometimes it seemed like he wanted to sniff Betty's panties. I couldn't help but think of the role he played in Down and Out in Beverly Hills every time I saw him. One performance that impressed me was Sam Elliott as General Ross (would it have killed them to call him "Thunderbolt?"). He gave a mostly restrained, nuanced perf that was the best in the film, in my opinion. Connelley, who seems to be making a career playing women in love with men with bizarre problems, isn't asked to do much and she doesn't disappoint. Don't think she'll get any Oscar nominations for this one.

Ang Lee directs this thing to distraction, apparently trying to simulate a comic page's layout by using multiple split screens, wipes, fades and other assorted tricks, and for the most part succeeds. Sometimes it's annoying (and in the first half, poorly edited), but overall it works, especially in the second half when the Hulk gets to break out and raise hell. I loved the way he filmed the scenes with the Hulk leaping about in the desert from mesa to mesa, and the scene where Banner goes back to his childhood home was effective as well. He does screw up badly at the end, though– the grand finale is presented in such a dark and murky fashion that it was almost impossible to tell what was happening. Bet he'd like to take that one back. For that matter, I can't understand why the heck they (both the Army and the filmmakers) let Bruce and his old man have such an unsupervised and unrestrained conversation at the end ( I would have cut that shit off the first time Bruce screamed "Go!"), I know, it's more of a script thing than a direction thing, but I'm surprised Lee let it stand in his movie.

And people, the CGE Hulk was just fine. Sure, once in a while he looked a little fakey, and like Bill Sherman I was reminded a couple of times of the glorious Ray Harryhausen stop-motion dinosaurs of yore, but for the most part I found him very believeable and expressive, especially in the closeups. He looked a hell of a lot better than anything in the last two Star Wars flicks, that's for sure, and a hell of a lot better than Lou Ferrigno (funny cameo, by the way) in green body paint and a dime store wig. Five years ago this CGE would have blown everybody's minds, but I guess we're all programmed to expect more by now. The battle scenes in the desert made the fanboy in me sit up and cheer. I'll bet Jack Kirby would have loved them. I wonder what Herb Trimpe thinks about them.

Bottom line for me is, like the Spider-Man and X-Men films, there is respect for the source material. No one felt the need to poke fun or wink and nod at the audience, which was status quo for Hollywood versions of comic books up until just recently (exceptions: the Rocketeer and yes, Batman Returns. I know that most don't share my opinion on that one). Even though it's far too solemn and gloomy, its lead is unlikeable, humorless and self-absorbed, and it's structured like a big budget remake of some 50s monster movie, it is still entertaining in spite of itself and while I don't think it's going to be fondly remembered in years to come, it can be considered a noble failure. I also have a feeling that when the inevitable sequel is made, a few years from now, it will do a Superman IIor a Star Trek II and surpass its predecessor. Clip 'n save!