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Taming a demon

'Hulk' puts a Freudian spin on the dualities of human nature, but this monster is a little too mild.

June 20, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

A story about a nice guy who turns as big, bad and green as King Kong on a bender, "Hulk" is based on the character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who launched their monster around the time that Kennedy and Khrushchev were set to launch their missiles. Directed by Ang Lee, the film stars Eric Bana as the Hulk's human alter ego and Nick Nolte as an Oedipal figure by way of Hubert Selby Jr., which helps explain its ambitions as well as the eccentric fact that the scariest thing in this likable if tame monster movie is Nolte's hair.

Like all Jekyll-Hyde stories, "Hulk" is essentially about the defining dualities that make us human -- nature versus nurture, freewill versus repression, child versus parent, paper versus plastic -- and that sometimes bring out the monster in us. But unlike in the original comic book, the defining battle here isn't waged between a pencil-neck scientist and his rampaging twin (or Soviet spies and good guys in lab coats), but between Stan Lee and Sigmund Freud. In one corner there's Lee, the Marvel Comics genius and World War II veteran who translated postwar existentialism into multiple-panel vernacular. In the other corner: Herr Doktor, paterfamilias of the ego, id and superego, and now often dismissed as hopelessly old-world hypothetical in our new DNA-driven world.

As conceived by Ang Lee's longtime producer, James Schamus (with co-writers John Turman and Michael France), Stan Lee and Kirby's 1962 creation has been brought up to modern speed, notably with a personal history that would make Oprah and Sophocles weep. Adopted as a young child, scientist Bruce Banner (Bana) has no memory of his earliest years. Now hard at work in a genetic engineering lab in Berkeley, Bruce comes across as a good guy partial to dressing in earth tones, and, like so many men, he has a hard time expressing emotion. Being bottled up has cost Bruce an intimate relationship with his lab partner, research babe Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), and while he doesn't seem broken up about the affair, in a strange twist, she's racked by nightmares.

The story opens with an extended prologue involving reams of scientific mumbo jumbo and radiant images of swarming cell life. In the mid-1960s, Bruce's father, David (Paul Kersey in the flashback, Nolte the rest of the time), worked for the military doing exceedingly vile things to rhesus monkeys and various coldblooded critters. Obsessed with manipulating the human immune system, David begins a round of self-experimentation that brings about alarming physiological changes ("hints of genetic mutation") which he subsequently passes onto his son. The evil seeds of David's recklessness lie dormant in the younger Banner until a lab accident doses Bruce with gamma rays. Even then, it isn't until Bruce loses his temper -- triggering a change in body chemistry -- that the combination of genetic engineering and scientific hubris liberates his demon.

Monstrously large, the comic-book Hulk was a descendant of the creature played by Boris Karloff in James Whale's "Frankenstein," newly pumped up for the atomic age. The Jekyll-Hyde dualism of Dr. Robert Bruce Banner -- originally a nuclear scientist -- and his monster within was a brilliant distillation of the split between the rational and irrational, protector and destroyer. Mostly, though, the Hulk was essential Marvel Comics -- cool incarnate and, like Spider-Man, proof that when push came to schoolyard shove, the nerds would have their sweet revenge. For if nothing else, even with that acid Kool-Aid green skin color and angry thatch of hair, alternately smooth as a schoolboy's fringe and wild as an electric-shock halo, the Hulk was never less than recognizably human -- one of us.

In the film, the Hulk's emerald flesh remains much as it was, but now the musculature beneath the skin curves more gently, more softly, with little of the original's chiseled hard angles and chiaroscuro. Online movie sites have been aflame for months with nasty scuttlebutt about the film's computer-generated imagery, caused in part by Hulk's chintzy appearance in preview trailers. As a humanoid aberration, he is not unpersuasive, but the finished Hulk does look pretty rubbery around the gills, as well as his shoulders, monumental six-pack and thunder thighs. Still, for all the fetishism of the computer-graphic detail, when compared with his flesh-and-blood co-actors, this Hulk is no more believable than the animated Br'er Rabbit walking alongside Uncle Remus in Disney's 1946 "Song of the South."

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