Louis Leterrier’s summer dud, The Incredible Hulk, is out this week on DVD, and is available in full screen, widescreen, Blu-Ray, and—most incredibly—a three-disc special edition (no action figure included). The release affords another opportunity not to blast Leterrier’s take on the Marvel superhero, but instead to sing again the praises of Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). That version was such a critical and commercial failure upon its release that Universal Pictures all but pretended it had never happened, marketing Leterrier’s movie as a reboot akin to Warner Bros.’s similarly redundant Superman Returns (2006). It was thus pleasing to see both critics and audiences balk this past June at Edward Norton’s asexual, emo interpretation of quick-to-anger scientist Bruce Banner. It was further gratifying to see so many reviewers reassess Lee’s film in light of Leterrier’s. And yet the praise for Hulk was as begrudging as it was belated.
The main problem detractors seem to have with Ang Lee’s movie is its brightly colored, aggressively artificial mis-en-scene—as if a cartoon vision weren’t somehow totally appropriate for a fucking comic book adaptation. In contrast to the portentous air of the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises, Lee deployed every outmoded gimmick he could think of—slow dissolves, split screens, Batman-style “Kapow!”s—to mimic the texture and narrative logic of his humble source material. Moreover, while Leterrier’s film globetrots, Lee keeps the proceedings rooted in the deserts of the American Southwest, the setting for Stan Lee’s original story. It is hardly incidental, after all, that Banner gains his superpowers in the May 1962 first issue after being exposed to gamma radiation from the testing of a bomb he himself invented. More than any other Marvel character, Hulk was always intended as a metaphor for the moral burdens of the atomic age. Weapons of mass destruction are dangerous in anyone’s hands is the point of the Hulk myth—even our own.—Benjamin Strong