I am a pretty big fan of comic book movies. Tonight I re-watched the movie The Hulk (The 2003 version starring Eric Bana), and it reminded me why I liked it more than the more recent The Incredible Hulk (2008) starring Edward Norton.
First off, I remember being a little bummed by the fact that a mere five years after The Hulk, Marvel was already doing not a sequel but a total re-make with different actors and a different director. I remember thinking that if I was Ang Lee (who directed the 2003 Hulk), I would be pretty offended.
Anyway, let me talk about why I like The Hulk. First off, it has an unlikely top-notch director in Ang Lee. He is the guy who directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, and some Chinese films, the most famous of which was Eat Drink Man Woman. He is a director of art films--films who take story, cinematography, and design very seriously. He is not your typical director of a blockbuster comic book movie. I think, in some ways, the fact that he is a GOOD director made this movie less of a commercial success than it should have been.
The target audience of a comic book blockbuster is usually not looking to see an art film. They want explosions, cool special effects, and an easily digestable story that will hopefully tie into other movies--sequels, franchises, etc.
I would argue that Ang Lee's The Hulk is an art film, and that is why it didn't do very well financially.
What makes The Hulk an art film? The cinematography is unlike any other comic book movie I've seen. Throughout the film, Lee actually splits the screen into multiple panels, like a comic book, which is pretty genius. The shots of Hulk leaping across the deserts of the American southwest reminded me of the leaping forest battles of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There is a poetry and a beauty to the action scenes that is unique for a movie like this.
The film is also very thoughtful. It goes way deeper into the psychology of Bruce Banner than The Incredible Hulk, suggesting that repressed childhood trauma is part of what triggers The Hulk, who is like a physical embodiment of Freud's id. Part of Bruce's conflict is confronting his father, and the emotional wound he inflicted on his son at an early age. It's pretty deep stuff for a comic book movie.
I think the fact that Ang Lee's The Hulk did not do well commercially says more about American audiences than the film itself. American movie audiences are, broadly speaking, kinda dumb. 2008's The Incredible Hulk was an adequate blockbuster, but it was pretty standard fare, and that's probably why it did better commercially than Lee's film.
This is an example of the split screen technique Lee uses in The Hulk.