The videogames released to coincide with the premier of the film version of The Hulk contain the slogan, “Unleash the Fury.” If the games call to mind the twin genres of the superhero and the vigilante, the film itself betrays these expectations throughout. The significant dip in the film’s box office from weeks one to two likely had much to do with the spreading of the word that The Hulk is not a superhero film. In fact, The Hulk — from Ang Lee who has given us such remarkable and diverse films as The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — is a dark and engrossing film about wrath, the curses that fathers visit upon their sons, and the constraints to human power.
The story is set against the backdrop of the American military and the prospects of nuclear war. Given these assumptions, the film could have been standard, anti-American Hollywood fare. But it is something other and much more than that. Indeed, the real-world drama operates as a kind of metaphor for the apocalypse that human power unleashes, when it aspires — as David Banner (Nick Nolte), puts it — to transcend the limits imposed on human beings by God. A military scientist, David Banner performs experiments on himself to try to achieve the regeneration of human organs. Success in this endeavor would enable the military to create the least vulnerable warriors in history, although it remains unclear how that would aid anyone in the event of the sort of nuclear holocaust the film intimates is on the horizon. At any rate, David Banner is less interested in military effectiveness than in his own aggrandizement. He soon learns that his wife is pregnant with a son, Bruce, who ends up with strange birth defects. Before he can discover a cure for his son’s condition, Banner’s project is shut down by a general (Sam Elliott). After a family tragedy, Bruce (Eric Bana) grows up thinking that he is an orphan. He also ends up as a scientist working on topics similar to those his father investigated. He works closely and falls in love with Betty Ross, the daughter of his father’s nemesis, the general. Looking like his character from Down and Out in Beverly Hills or his recent Malibu mug shot, Nolte’s David Banner soon reunites with his son. Although the reunion begins with a Darth Vader, “I am your father,” moment, the film holds out no hope of a near-death conversion or final union of father and son.
The Hulk, the form Bruce takes when provoked, is a sort of anti-super hero, cursed by powers he would rather not possess and unable to do anything with his astonishing strength except destroy. His massive, distorted physique and bloated facial features are fleshly manifestations of a rage that he endures more than controls. He is the polar opposite of Superman who comes readily equipped with all sorts of superhuman skills and a pure will to use his powers solely for good. Neither Batman, whose witnessing of his parents’ murder provokes his transformation into the dark knight, nor Spiderman, whose powers result from an accidental bite, is afflicted in the way the Hulk is. Spiderman’s lesson, that with great power comes great responsibility, encapsulates the morality of the superhero genre. Nothing like this transformation of curse into a noble battle is possible for the Hulk.
At certain points the film seems to wallow in pop psychology about post-traumatic stress. But this is not the dominant word of the film about Bruce Banner’s affliction. The failure of routine psychology to comprehend, let alone cure, what ails Banner is forcefully driven home late in the film when an arranged encounter session between father and son spins violently out of control. Even the action scenes, which are visually arresting, serve not so much to feed audience expectations of a summer blockbuster, but to turn them inside out. There are, admittedly, some mesmerizing acts of demolition. The Hulk wants not so much to destroy, as to escape, both from those who pursue him and from the vices that have taken root in his soul. He is an isolated, lonely, almost pathetic figure. At one point, he refers to his wrath as “it…me,” thus underscoring the way extremes of vice seem, on the one hand, to have their way with an individual, to render him almost a passive spectator, and, on the other, to reflect the deepest orientation of an individual’s soul, what he most is. But the humanity of Bruce Banner’s Hulk is more than residual and his longing is palpable.
Like many a film, The Hulk loses its way at the end. It does not where and how to end. But up to that point, the film provides a stunning meditation on Dostoevsky’s thesis that the battleground in the war between God and the devil is the human soul.
— Thomas Hibbs if the author of Shows About Nothing.