Lee’s first major work of digital experimentation and a highlight of his robust catalog.
Speaking with The New York Times in the summer of 2003, shortly after the release of his wrongly maligned comic book blockbuster Hulk, Ang Lee offered this, presumably as an explanation for a movie many found inexplicable: “I just go for what excites me. I’ve got to go to new territory, find a new innocence. I had to test a new terror in myself.” Since then, Lee has only continued that push to “find new innocence.” His recent pair of high-frame-rate 3D experiments, 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and last year’s Gemini Man, are two such examples. They are two of the most unusual mainstream American releases in recent memory, and though they have (unfortunately) failed to catch on critically or commercially, it’s become rather undeniable that Lee is one of the most formally audacious directors working in Hollywood today. His mode of image-making has become practically avant-garde in its singularity, as no living filmmaker has both the desire and the resources to explore the possibilities offered by evolving digital technologies like he has. The journey to that lonely island is one that effectively began with Hulk, Lee’s first major work of digital experimentation and a highlight of his robust catalog.
Much like he would later use his Life of Pi Oscar as leverage to get Billy Lynn and Gemini Man financed, the mere fact that Lee was even able to execute Hulk the way that he did was directly reliant on the surprise success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. So eager was the studio for Lee’s next box office smash that he was able to release Hulk without running it through any test screenings, and that it went on to baffle moviegoers and critics alike does not come as much of a surprise in hindsight. By 2003, the 21st-century superhero movie mold had already begun to set, thanks to the success of Spider-Man and X-Men, but Hulk has little in common with its ostensible precedents. And in fact, it’s a film that only looks stranger with distance. In that same Times interview, Lee commented on the freedom of the as-yet-undefined superhero genre, remarking that “there aren’t rules to follow”––a retrospectively amusing sentiment given the ubiquity of staid MCU conventions 17 years later. With the exception of an ill-conceived coda, Banner/Hulk hews much closer to the Aristotelian tragic hero than he does any traditional conception of a superhero. He is not saving the world; his battle is with his own psychology. And this is to say nothing of Lee’s idiosyncratic formal choices, which far outpace any superhero movie made before or since. The seeds of another underappreciated film, 2008’s visionary Speed Racer, can be found here in the way Lee breaks the frame into dynamic panels darting around the screen, multiple perspectives and images colliding in a previously unimaginable manner.
Further contrasting with the MCU’s chaste mode of filmmaking, Hulk is surprising in its linkage of its protagonist’s “powers” with his sexuality. Shortly after our introduction to the stodgy, rigid Dr. Bruce Krenzler (Eric Bana)—adopted as a young child, he does not yet know of his original surname, Banner—we learn that he has recently been dumped by his colleague Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) due to his emotional unavailability. And while the details are largely elided, it’s no stretch to imagine that his dissatisfying lack of passion was a problem that also extended to the bedroom. His transformation into the titular green behemoth is one that seems to (over)correct that deficiency; if Bruce is passionless then his muscular alter-ego is his direct inverse, a rippling mass of pure desire––and it’s not insignificant that when he eventually shrinks back to human form he’s always left soaking wet and shivering. But Bruce’s repressions are also more than strictly sexual: he has wholly, and unwittingly, blocked out deeply traumatic childhood memories, and his metamorphoses bring those fragmented memories back to the surface, connecting him to his forgotten birth parents psychologically, but also physically, as the radiation that induces his transformation is the result of his father’s scientific experiments. In Lee’s formulation, Hulk is the externalization of Bruce’s id––all of his repressed impulses, desires, and traumas unleashed in violent, uncontrolled fashion. It’s typical of Lee, whose interest in masculinity and generational tensions can be traced back to his trio of films made in Taiwan known as the “Father Knows Best” trilogy, to turn what might have been a silly comic book romp into a searing Freudian psychodrama that locates the damage associated with paternal abuse and neglect within the brutality and exploitation of the American military-industrial complex.
When discussing his recent interest in high frame-rate shooting formats, Lee has talked at length about the technology’s capacity to present “hyper-real” images, “like looking through a window.” But critics (and, presumably, the viewing public, who mostly ignored Lee’s last two movies) seemed to feel just the opposite, with complaints tending to center on the “uncanniness” of the smoothed out digital images. To our eyes, which have been conditioned to viewing 24 frames per second, rather than five times that, the images often feel less “real.” But what Lee is perhaps overlooking in his pursuit of so-called “hyper-reality” is that the “uncanniness,” the undefinable strangeness of those movies, is precisely what makes them so compelling. We can look at Hulk’s oddball formal choices in much the same way: the decision to digitally fracture and splice together multiple disparate shots was certainly inspired by comic book panels, but the actual effect of those choices goes far beyond recreating the experience of reading a comic book. Put simply, comic book illustrations don’t move; comic panels don’t glide across the page, shrinking and expanding and colliding, their contents bleeding into one another. In his efforts to pay tribute to his page-bound source material, Lee did the opposite, pushing film language to new places and producing a work that is acutely and thrillingly cinematic to its core.
But crucially, those new tools aren’t merely exciting experiments, they’re also essential to the film’s dramatic success. The fractures in the frame align with another of the film’s visual motifs, shattered glass, working as a straightforward, though effective, representation of the broken man at its center. Bruce is a mess of buried memories, haunted by fragments of his past, and the kineticism of the CGI-assisted editing matches his emotional volatility. But further, it allows for so many new and thrilling ways to communicate information. Numerous scenes allow us to observe a character and the object of their gaze at once, all contained within one frame. Other examples are more abstract––a memory of an outstretched hand melting in the reflection of an eye. Maybe the film’s most astonishing moment comes during a climactic duel between Bruce and his genetically-empowered father (Nick Nolte). The two mutants soar through dark storm clouds, strobing flashes of lightning lending a mythological expressionism to their epic brawl, making them out like Greek Gods battling for the heavens.
Perhaps just as remarkable as his technological prowess, however, is Lee’s direction of his performers, which bears the same emotional precision as that of his more straightforward melodramas. The tech adds a fascinating dimension to the grandiosity of the narrative, but none of it would work were it not grounded in the same sensitivity and attention to character detail that define films like Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain. Just as important as shifting panels and impossible CGI zooms are the minute gestures and subtle changes in expression of the film’s characters, details which Lee has always been deeply attuned to. Many of the film’s most memorable images are unadorned, static close-ups, like that of the ruthless Gen. Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliott) gazing on in pained sympathy as his daughter embraces the monstrous man she loves. It’s in these moments that the film transcends its status as a technological curio, and stakes its claim as simply a great film.