Hulk vs. Hulk vs. Hulk vs. Hulk
At the end of last semester, I wrote an essay comparing various renderings of The
Traditional American super heroes have mysterious beginnings, fantastical powers (or vast wealth), and a proclivity for sticking their noses into situations that would otherwise keep regular citizens at a distance. The Incredible Hulk works better as an accompanying character to a team of heroes, rather than as a stand-alone main character. This is proven both by sales of Hulk comics, and by the three film renderings we have of the Bruce Banner/ Hulk character.
To date, there are four versions of the Hulk character: the original Hulk created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (this includes the 1970’s Lou Ferrigno version), Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk movie, Louis Leterrier’s 2008 film, The Incredible Hulk, and the most current 2012 The Avengers film made by Joss Whedon. Each of the movie versions tries to tell a consecutive story, but the way the character of the Hulk was handled causes inconsistency; and each movie version vastly differs from the original source material. Within the last ten years, the Hulk has been reimagined three times; and while all three versions share commonalities with the Lee/Kirby Hulk, none of them hits the nail on the head with their image of who Bruce Banner and the Hulk are.
To begin, we must first understand how each version was treated, and we’ll start at the true origin story made Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. By 1962, the United States was deep into the cold war and communism was a severe threat. Also in 1962, the comic book industry was taking a dive and was losing money; in return they raised overall prices from $0.02 to $0.12 per comic. This was the first price raise since the Great Depression (http://www.mania.com/history-cost-comic-books_article_116449.html). In order to compete with the raising prices and the mass hysteria of the “Red Scare” Lee and Kirby sought to create an iconic antihero that would appeal to a new generation of comic readers. Their solution was The Incredible Hulk. Right from the get-go the Hulk is set up differently from every other hero to date. Traditionally super heroes had unknown origins and were outcasts from the mainstream to begin with. Before Bruce Banner was hit with the gamma radiation that turns him into the Hulk, he led a seemingly open life and through his interactions with other people in the series, we can assume that he had a plethora of human companions. He wasn’t an orphan, he wasn’t an alien sent to earth, and he wasn’t born with powers that outcast him from society. Being unlike every other super hero made the Hulk truly stand out in the world of comics. Lee said in an interview once, “I had always loved the old movie Frankenstein. And it seemed to me that the monster, played by Boris Karloff, wasn’t really a bad guy. He was the good guy. He didn’t want to hurt anybody. Its just those idiots with torches kept running up and down the mountains, chasing him and getting him angry. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to create a monster and make him the good guy”” (http://www.emanuellevy.com/popculture/incredible-hulk-history-of-a-pop-culture-hero-8/). While the hulk eventually became a popular character, the original series was cancelled after six issues. The Hulk went on to guest star in other series’, such as The Fantastic Four, until he ultimately became a founding member of The Avengers; and by 1968 the character garnered enough global attention to gain his own series back, taking over the Tales to Astonish series.
Between the 1960’s and 2003 the Hulk hadn’t really changed. The 1970’s television show was closely tied to the comic books, and doesn’t count as a true reimagining of the story. But in 2003 Ang Lee, who previously directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sense and Sensibility, took hold of the Hulk and made changes to the Hulk that would ultimately prove devastating. The film cost roughly $137 million to produce, and to date has only grossed $241 million worldwide (http://pro.imdb.com/title/tt0286716/business). This version of the Hulk was considered a flop. So, if the character of the Hulk was a favorite in the global market, why did this film fail? Ang Lee made the decision to create a back story that would better align with the definition of a super hero as set forth by John Lawrence and Robert Jewett’s book, The Myth of the American Superhero. Lawrence and Jewett define a super hero as “an idealistic loner that has pure motivations and extraordinary powers, but that started out as an outcast from society and has a mysterious past.” But Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had purposefully created a character that goes completely against this norm, and when Ang Lee reimagined Bruce Banner/ the Hulk’s back story, it fell short with fans of the comic. Ang Lee altered the back-story so that Bruce Banner had a genetic predisposition to become the Hulk because his father had injected him with a serum that would aide in the mutation process. Banner would eventually be raised as an orphan and have a clouded past. This alteration of the back-story is such a massive change that fans of the comics, and non-fans that still knew the Hulk’s origins, wouldn’t be able to flock to it. Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk film wouldn’t be the last reimagining of Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk.
Ang Lee’s Hulk film was left open ended so they could do a sequel; but the movie was such a flop that a straight sequel never happened. By the time Louis Letterier made The Incredible Hulk in 2008 there had been a whole slew of new comic book based movies: Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, The Dark Knight to name a few. In the midst of the comic movie trend Universal decided to bring the Hulk back to life. The best thing to do would be to start from scratch. They almost did that: a new cast, a new director, and new writers. But instead of starting at the Hulk’s beginning, they started in the middle of the story. Basically, The Incredible Hulk picks up where Hulk left off. So when we first see Leterrier’s Hulk, he’s already been transformed and caused mass destruction, he’s now running from the military and is trying to find a cure. The filmmakers could assume that most people know the basic origin of the Hulk and therefore don’t need to see him get injected with gamma radiation. But, picking up where another leaves off and not being a direct sequel is jarring. Instead of completely reimagining the Hulk once more, Leterrier took some of the ideals that Ang Lee was working with and adapted those into his version. The problem with this tactic comes in trying to have a film that makes money. We already know that Ang Lee’s Hulk was a flop. So why would you not get rid of that version altogether? Leterrier’s version of the Hulk is perhaps the most different from the original character as defined by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. This new Hulk is a messy amalgamation of both previous Hulks. Trying to use Ang Lee’s back story, then making the Hulk feel more like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s characteristics didn’t mesh well; and to date the 2008 The Incredible Hulk has only grossed $254 million, less than double the production budget (http://pro.imdb.com/title/tt0800080/business).
Jump forward to 2012 and Disney has acquired the rights (by buying Marvel Studios) to all Marvel characters, including Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk. Disney made a new game plan leading up to the release of Joss Whedon’s 2012 The Avengers film. Disney made a strict effort to release films (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger) that all show the formation of the Avengers. In this way there is a lot of built up hype about the film. So, when the Hulk was introduced in The Avengers it made sense, and the audience was on board. The avenger’s grossed $207 million in the first weekend (http://pro.imdb.com/title/tt0848228/boxoffice); and Bruce Banner/ the Hulk emerged as the audience favorite character (http://www.comicbookmovie.com/fansites/rorschachsrants/news/?a=59452). Joss Whedon’s handling of the Hulk falls somewhere between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s version and his own comedic take on the character. Like the 2008 Leterrier adaptation of the Hulk, Whedon chose not to divulge the back-story of Bruce Banner and the Hulk; and for the purposes of The Avengers this makes a lot of sense. Instead, Whedon focuses on how Bruce Banner works to control his rage, therefore taming “the beast within.” In this way, we see the original vision of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby come through; the 1960’s Hulk was all about staying calm in the face of anger and pressure (queue the Cold War). But Whedon also added a new level to the Hulk: comedy. The Hulk has always had humorous lines, but in 2012’s The Avengers he becomes the comic relief, saving the film from taking itself too seriously. In all three film adaptations of The Incredible Hulk there are obvious notes towards Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s intentions, but none of them fit the mold entirely. Part of why they vary so much is because of the casting choices.
In less than ten years we’ve seen three actors portray the same character. We’ve also seen two of them fail miserably, and the third play a supporting role (as opposed to having his own film). In 2003 Ang Lee casted a relatively unknown Eric Bana; 2008 saw Leterrier work with an A-List actor in Edward Norton, and most recently, we have Whedon’s adaptation in Mark Ruffalo. If we look at the stage of each actor’s career during production, we can easily see what makes for the performance they gave.
When Ang Lee casted Eric Bana, the actor only had a few roles under his belt, and of those roles he had no leading parts. Bana was a relatively unknown actor; and that plays right into Ang Lee’s mise en scene. Lee has a tendency to work with actors at the start of their careers. Bana’s novice skills, however, came through in Hulk. His performance comes out more suited for a television soap opera than a blockbuster Hollywood film.
On the other end of the spectrum was Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk. Norton was, and still is, an A-list actor; previously starring in Fight Club, American History X, and The Illusionist. Norton is known for being a versatile, dramatic actor. Where everything fell apart performance-wise is when Norton did his own re-write of the script. Rumors (which were eventually confirmed) portray working with Norton on The Incredible Hulk as difficult (http://www.slashfilm.com/the-truth-about-edward-norton-vs-marvel/).
Right in the middle of the two previous castings is Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo is an accomplished actor with a number of roles under his belt. However, he’s not so big that he ends up with a mindset of “I’m above this” (Norton), and not so inexperienced that he comes off as melodramatic (Bana). Combine Ruffalo’s “just right” performance with Whedon’s true-to-heart directing style, and this is the most successful screen version of the Hulk.
Having the right director can make or break a film. The director is in charge of the visual and emotional aspect of a project. In the case of the three Hulk renderings, there are major differences that can be attributed to technology, style, and personal investment in a project.
Ang Lee is a marvelous director in the genre of drama. All of his films focus on internal conflicts within the characters. He pulls magnificent performances out of actors; and his visual aesthetics are spot on for dramatic pieces. But when you take the Hulk, which is traditionally comedic and action packed, and mix it with Lee’s style, it doesn’t fit.
Louis Leterrier’s film is closer to being a successful rendition of the Hulk. It’s action packed, has a top-line cast, and manages to successfully pull off a lot of the drama Ang Lee was aiming for. But, if you look at Leterrier’s previous films: The Transporter, Unleashed; he has a tendency to take action based stories and turn them dark. This aesthetic would be fine for a traditional action film. The dark, gritty antihero that everyone loves watching beat the hell out of things is a solid tactic. However, for a character based off of a comic book, it doesn’t work. Audiences expect comic heroes to have some amount of levity and light, even if the characters are darker characters.
In 2012’s The Avengers, Bruce Banner/ the Incredible Hulk are an important part of the story; but they are ultimately relegated to a support role. Part of this is due to Joss Whedon’s constraints in working with a “team based” film rather than a solo hero. But his treatment of the Hulk allows the audience to see some of the dark side of Bruce Banner and see the pure destructive abilities of the Hulk, and still manages to mix in some levity and comedic elements. This take on the Hulk is most like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original version of the Hulk; and is the most successful on the big screen. Being a sci-fi/comic geek, Whedon’s attachment to the project is also greater than Ang Lee or Leterrier’s is; which makes for a more personal touch on the film.
There are many factors that play a part in determining whether a film is successful or not. Those factors get multiplied and heightened when it comes to super heroes. Audiences, even if they aren’t lovers of comics, expect a certain quality of performance, script, and action to enjoy a super hero movie. The most successful comic films combine action with comedy; and throw in a touch of drama, just enough to make the story able to stand on its own. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are without a doubt two of the most influential people in the comic book world. Their original Hulk stories are the right mixture of everything a great antihero needs. But because of the fact that the Hulk is an antihero, and goes against standard hero norms, he will always work better as part of a team, than on his own. This is easily proven if you compare the three film versions put out by Ang Lee, Louis Leterrier, and Joss Whedon. On his own, the Hulk breaks too many norms for a mass audience appeal; as part of The Avengers he not only succeeds, but also becomes an audience favorite.