Most of you probably remember the history of these two movies. In 2003, Ang Lee’s version of the Hulk hit screens. Though highly anticipated, it had a huge second-week dropoff. In short, most people viewed it as a disappointment. Common complaints were spotty visual effects, slow filmmaking, and a lame villain.
Then came the Avenger Initiative. Marvel reignited their comic-based films, including a fresh take on the big green guy. To helm it, they selected Louis Leterrier, he of of The Transporter fame. Leterrier’s involvement promised action, and lots of it.
Oddly enough, the two movies grossed almost EXACTLY the same domestically, and even their international totals were pretty close. So, two Hulk movies, released a few short years apart, with very different approaches, making almost the exact same amount of money.
But… which one’s better? Let’s dig in…
Obviously, this is the guy we all came to see. The movies aren’t called “Bruce Banner,” after all. This is actually an area where the movies are somewhat similar. I guess it’s pretty hard to miss the “huge angry green guy” target.
Ang Lee’s Hulk, though, has a very different physicality than Louis Leterrier’s. Lee’s is more bulky, more clumsy. The Hulk is a being seemingly unused to living in his own skin — makes sense; given that the movie is first and foremost an origin story. Personally, I really dig this detail in the 2003 movie; the scenes of Hulk flinging things or simply barreling at his opponents take on a really scary, visceral quality when the monster doesn’t even seem to be in control of himself.
Leterrier’s Hulk, on the other hand, has clearly gotten the hang of the jumping and fighting. This time around, Hulk is more focused; pursuing clearly defined goals throughout his combat scenes. Just watch him leap from building to building after the Abomination. This Hulk is lucid and on a mission.
He also gets to utter the classic catchphrase, “HULK SMASH!” That has to count for something.
That said, I really like how, in The Avengers, both sides of the character were used, and both felt legitimate. So why don’t I just call this category a draw? They’re both effective in their own right.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), Hulk has to quiet down and deal with his more human side, too. I’ll go ahead and admit upfront that there is a very clear winner of this category for me, and it’s Eric Bana.
Bana — aside from being a criminally underrated actor — brings a real sense of intelligence and conflict to the character. Part of this is the difference in storytelling (which I’ll get to in a minute), but part of it is that Bana is a bit more of a chameleon, on most days, then Edward Norton. He makes the scientist, wanderer, and beserker sides of the character come together really, really nicely.
Norton’s Banner is a more typical action hero, at least for most of the movie. He has some nice scenes here and there, but I never really feel like he’s all that well defined. Honestly, it’s a little strange to me, as Marvel’s OTHER movies have done a really nice job of sketching out their main characters. Thor’s misguided bravado, Iron Man’s cynical playboying, and Captain America’s reluctant heroism leap of the screen. By contrast, I always find that Norton’s performance doesn’t stick with me very long at all.
Point to Hulk.
THE LOVE INTEREST
Jennifer Connelly. No contest. Don’t even start.
2003’s Absorbing Man (right?) is obviously a cooler concept. Hulk has already proven himself to be the strongest thing around, but Absorbing Man adds a new wrinkle by being able to take on the form of the elements themselves. You can’t fight water or electricity just by being strong.
This villain, unfortunately, is marred slightly by being used in a more abstract, metaphorical context for much of the movie. The end battle is less of a brawl and more of an impressionistic interpretation of the concept of power. I rather like it, actually, but it took me a couple viewings to clue into what was actually going on.
The Abomination, on the other hand, is pure comic book. He’s kinda stupid looking, and it’s really not all that interesting to me to watch a big brown guy punch a big green guy for fifteen minutes, but I can’t deny that it’s got a certain appropriateness to it.
I am, however, enthralled by the performance Tim Roth gives as Blonsky BEFORE he turns into The Abomination. That’s what I call a villain! He’s driven, professional, desperate to be the guy who brings in Bruce Banner, and British to boot. Roth’s wolflike performance is the best part of the movie, bar none.
In fairness, Nick Nolte does a pretty solid job in the Lee version as Bruce’s father before he loses himself to The Abomination, but he’s simply not as involved in the plot as Blonsky is, so I have to give the point to Tim Roth — and The Incredible Hulk.
And here’s where we get to the core of the issue. The character of the Hulk always has the potential for really fascinating stuff. It’s essentially a werewolf story, only with the added “anger management” angle. Lee’s take reallly explored that note, delivering a story that delved deep into the “why” of the Hulk. The not-so-jolly green giant isn’t just a monster, he’s the monster inside of Banner.
This is leagues more compelling than the blase take of the Leterrier flick. In that, “Hulk mode” can be triggered by a simple increase in pulse. I guess it’s easier to wring “suspense” out of that device, as Screenwriting 101 often encourages the use of a ticking clock to amp up the pace. But the result is a much less complex monster for Banner to deal with.
See? He’s just sitting there!
Basically, The Incredible Hulk neuters the potential for any real, compelling character beats by removing one of the most interesting layers of Banner’s internal conflict. Which, is quite a sentence to write about a movie featuring a big green ape smashing things. No wonder I keep siding with Lee’s Hulk.
I mean —
Truth be told, I never understood the disdain for this movie. I mean, I get it, but I don’t get it — you get me? It’s a different slant on the superhero model, and a fairly intelligent one at that. It’s really more like a good movie that happens to be about the Hulk than anything else.
And maybe that’s just it. Also, the Lee version allegedly doesn’t hew very close to the comics, but I’ve only read a scant few Hulk books, so I can’t comment about that (and frankly don’t care just a whole lot). Anybody in the comments want to enlighten me as to the problem there? No promises that it’ll change my opinion, but I’d be curious to know where the friction is.
(I also just realized that I went this entire article without bringing up the Hulk dog fight in the 2003 movie. I know some people don’t like that scene, but I think it’s just great, and I wanted to make sure you all knew it.)