Ang Lee’s Angst-Ridden Hulk: The Not-So-Jolly Green Giant

Ang Lee’s The Hulk , from a screenplay by John Turman, Michael France and James Schamus and a story by Mr. Schamus, is based on the Marvel comic-book character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. But our not-so-jolly green giant has many other rambunctious ancestors, including Frankenstein, King Kong, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and, according to Mr. Schamus in a recent New York Times Arts and Leisure piece, Homer’s Achilles. Unfortunately, in the grossly Gargantuan world of contemporary superhuman heroic blockbusters, The Hulk seems to have been found wanting, both by critics and by audiences. The first week’s takings-a new record for June openings at $62 million-were still not big enough for Marvel Enterprises, whose stock dipped, and not nearly enough for the reported $150 million production costs, or the producer’s ambitions for a long-running franchise with at least one sequel.

I happen to like and respect The Hulk more than most of my fellow reviewers, and it’s not because Mr. Schamus happens to be a highly valued professor and colleague at the School of the Arts at Columbia University, where I also teach. Rather, it’s because I think that many of my esteemed colleagues were much too hard on the prescribed adventure-comic performances: Eric Bana as research scientist Bruce Banner, who at angry times swells up into The Hulk ; Sam Elliott as General “Thunderbolt” Ross, the fanatical nemesis and tough-love father of Betty Ross (critically slighted Jennifer Connelly), Bruce’s beloved; and Nick Nolte as his demented, megalomaniac scientist father, David Banner.

As it happens, I saw the film after I had read most of the reviews, and so I was prepared for more hamola than I actually saw on the screen. Come on, people, The Hulk is a tall tale, literally and figuratively, and requires at least a few morsels of expressionistic exaggeration, like the way Mr. Elliott always cocks his head as if it were a pistol ready to fire, and the way Mr. Nolte re-enacts the crucifixion as a fire-and-lightning suggestion of Christ being electrocuted on the cross, though spouting the curses of the devil.

This is wild stuff that goes far beyond poor Oedipus. Bruce is burdened with the repressed memory of a childhood horror that, when released, leaves the young scientist more alienated from himself than ever before. Now this kind of emotionally tangled case history is not likely to entertain the targeted kid audience in search of slightly less complicated power fantasies.

The difficulty with The Hulk as a blockbuster attraction is that his acquired prowess is more a problem than a solution. We are consequently thrust into the adult world of mental breakdown triggered by long-suppressed anger exploding when the protagonist is provoked. Despite the Hulk’s “cool” green-giant coloring, he is red-hot with fury as he demolishes everything in his path with no clear strategy or purpose in mind, unlike the mission-driven Superman and Batman. Mr. Lee’s editing tricks of simultaneity-which suggest multiplicity and complicity in the narrative where, at least on the surface, there isn’t either-has led to critics demystifying the “Ang Lee” aura. I myself didn’t particularly mind these flourishes, because at the very least, they kept the movie from becoming tedious and turgid, a fate from which its recent rivals in the genre do not entirely escape.

Yet, if The Hulk is at best a character study with enough angst to satisfy Ang Lee’s inner demons, (on display in John Lahr’s exhaustive profile of the director in the June 30th issue of The New Yorker ), still the question remains: How feasible is it to have so much interiority in a genre so dominated by the externals? That I was more than a little moved by the final eye contact exchanged between Bruce and Betty, betokening love and his need for absolution, does little but reconfirm Mr. Lee’s sensitivity to themes of emotional displacement in such works as Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Ride with the Devil (1999) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

Curiously, The Hulk seems to be considerably out of sync with what is perceived in many quarters as the public’s triumphant pride in the feats of our armed forces. The biggest villain in The Hulk is neither General Ross nor Bruce’s father, David Banner, but a corrupt government scientist, Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas), whose cold-blooded search for the Hulk’s chemical constituents (in order to develop a weapon of mass destruction, perhaps) makes him a likely candidate for C.E.O. of Halliburton, à la Dick Cheney and the rest of the military-industrial complex. Yet even though the usually subtle Mr. Lucas plays his part with cartoonish relish and abandon, he is disposed of rather easily by the energized Hulk, who then proceeds to take on the whole American Army-the tanks and the planes as well as the terrified soldiers. This isn’t a foreign enemy or a traitorous domestic foe he’s sweeping away like tenpins; it’s our own glorious boys in uniform.

This anti- Zeitgeist hostility to the established order is less text than subtext, which may be why it hasn’t been more widely noted. But trust Mallard Fillmore, in the comic strip of the same name-a rabid right-wing duck with an affinity for the more advanced thinking of the Republican National Committee in defending the noble rich from the ravenous rabble at the bottom of the ladder-not to be fooled by the Hulk’s “inner demons.” Mallard can spot a subversive troublemaker from a long way off: In the strip, he scornfully watches as one of his “liberal” simpleton stooges gets excited over the Hulk’s roaring destruction of a U.S. Army tank. This may be another reason-albeit a subconscious one-why I enjoyed The Hulk more than did most of my esteemed colleagues. But I would add that it’s not the only reason. The Hulk is hardly a great film; it remains entrenched in its genre and all the standard special effects that go with it. But it is nonetheless an interesting effort to give one of the staples of mass entertainment something extra in the way of insight and feeling.

Angels with Thongs

McG’s Charlie’s Angel’s: Full Throttle , from a screenplay by John August and Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, and a story by Mr. August, would seem to have all the ingredients of joyous summer entertainment: three pretty women with saucy personalities and exuberantly playful flirtatiousness bounced hither and yon between delivering martial-arts drop kicks to the bad guys. Nonetheless, boyfriends for all three Angels seem to come out of the woodwork. These paramours are pointedly excluded from all this violent fun, like the schoolmarms of yore who waited on the sidelines while the old-time western heroes gunned down the varmints, or whatever. So is this a feminist statement? Not really.

The Angels still take orders from the unseen but much-heard Charlie (played forever by John Forsythe). When Charlie’s Angels was an early tits-and-ass television entry, James Wolcott wrote a provocative essay about the double-entendre involved in Charlie’s pimp-like command and control of three nubile females, the most notable and most memorable of whom was Farrah Fawcett with her glorious blond tresses. The show was a joke-at most, a guilty pleasure of the most condescending kind. Ms. Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith were pleasant enough at the time, though never as high-powered as the current trio, who each deserve better vehicles after two tries with Charlie’s Angels , first in 2000, and now in 2003.

Though I hope never to see another, the first week’s take will tell the story, as always. But I don’t care; this is where I get off. A flimsy idea has been stretched to the point of truly offensive silliness and cynicism, with vulgar bumps and grinds and laborious double-entendres about what the Angels really do for a living.

Things get off to a rocky start in Mongolia when Cameron Diaz rides a mechanical yak, reminiscent of Debra Winger riding the mechanical bronco in James Bridges’ Urban Cowboy (1980). I kept thinking how much sexier Ms. Winger was, and I decided that I was beginning to get tired of Ms. Diaz. From there on in, it’s all downhill-bikini-beach teases, motorcycle races, Demi Moore making an ill-advised “comeback” as a “bad girl,” cameo appearances by Bruce Willis, Eric Bogosian, Carrie Fisher and even Jaclyn Smith (appearing as the ghost of an Angel to give Drew Barrymore some institutional advice about the indestructability of their kind). Ms. Barrymore is given a more serious back story than Lucy Liu. Bill Murray has been replaced by his “brother,” played by African-American Bernie Mac in a remarkably coy performance that was consistent with the low standard of humor throughout.

I hated it! I hated it! I hated it! And you can take my word for it or not.

A Valiant Code-Breaker

George Axelrod (1922-2003) has been honored in the obituaries primarily as the writer of the convoluted screenplay for John Frankenheimer’s typically tortured The Manchurian Candidate (1962), based on the eerily prophetic novel by Richard Condon, which seemed to have anticipated the traumatized era of the Kennedy and King assassinations. The Manchurian Candidate was a critically underrated box-office flop when it first came out. As history has vindicated much of its political paranoia, there is a tendency to overrate this film because of its belatedly fashionable anti–Joe McCarthy message.

My fondest memories of Axelrod, whom I once met at a theater box office, have little to do with The Manchurian Candidate , or with the politics of the 60′s generally. I prefer to remember him as the playwright, screenwriter and, finally, the director of comedies in which consenting adults managed to go to bed together at least once in three acts or nine reels, depending on the medium. This may sound like no big deal, but back in the 50′s and early 60′s, the Hollywood powers that be would not allow Marilyn Monroe, for example, to go to bed with Tom Ewell in Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955), adapted from Axelrod’s Broadway play, with a screenplay by Axelrod and Wilder. In the stage version, Vanessa Brown played the Marilyn Monroe part and did go to bed with Ewell’s summer-in-the-city-husband, whose wife and kids are out taking the fresh air of the country. (Wilder himself later failed to convince his backers that Felicia Farr’s suburban housewife should consummate the sex act with Dean Martin’s Vegas swinger in his 1964 film Kiss Me Stupid .)

People asked for so little back then, and the censors gave them zilch. Now the lid is off-sometimes to a sickening degree-but I still don’t wish for a return of the Production Code. Axelrod wrote and directed only two films to his own specifications, Lord Love a Duck (1966) and The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968). Both are grown-up classics, and both have been ridiculously underrated. Catch them if you can on VHS or DVD.