Rarely has a film unified American culture the way Ang Lee's Hulk did when it opened in 2003. Comic-book fans, critics, and everyone in between agreed: It stunk. The New York Times' A.O. Scott called the movie "incredibly long, incredibly tedious, incredibly turgid." With its dependence on digital effects, humorless tone, and apparent disregard for the source material, Hulk managed to please no one. The movie became an instant punch line, doomed to join Waterworld as shorthand for big-budget Hollywood disaster. Apparently that wasn't punishment enough. Last week, the Hulk suffered a new indignity: the release of a big-budget do-over, just five years after the original limped out of theaters.
The new Hulk movie took in $54.5 million this weekend, enough to put it at the top of the box office and likely enough to confirm Hollywood's suspicion that the problem wasn't the Hulk, it was Ang Lee. But was Lee's movie really that bad? Or was it just not what audiences were expecting? There's a familiar rhythm to comic-book movies, from the moment the hero embraces his newfound potential to the inevitable confrontation with his arch-enemy. But Lee wasn't interested in going through the motions, and instead of adhering to the usual conventions of the genre, he subverted them. Hulk doesn't really look or feel like a superhero movie. But that's what's great about it.
Comic-book adaptations typically invent new adventures for their protagonists while remaining relatively faithful to the back story of their heroes. Lee, however, reimagined the story of the Hulk for his picture, blending elements from the comic book, the television show that aired in the '70s and '80s, and his own imagination. In the Marvel comic, Bruce Banner acquires his Hulk powers from a burst of gamma rays during a military weapons test gone wrong, and his enemies are other green dudes with names like Abomination and the Leader. In Lee's movie, the Hulk's powers are the result of a toxic childhood: Since birth, Banner was the subject of DNA-altering experiments into cellular regeneration conducted by his scientist father. The Hulk's nemesis isn't some criminal mastermind. It's his own father, the man who sowed the seeds of Banner's mutation.
In your standard comic-book adaptation, there's a moment when the superhero realizes his gift, a moment typically accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of power and often elation: Peter Parker, having discovered his ability to spin his webs, swings euphorically through the streets of New York. Later, of course, the hero learns that "with great power comes great responsibility"—in Parker's case, this means stopping a power-mad, creatively dressed inventor called the Green Goblin from terrorizing the city with a hoverboard. Lee's Hulk, by contrast, isn't really all that important to the future of the world, and isn't even much of a hero. He's a physical and psychological casualty who spends the entire movie trying to save himself, not the world. Considered at once a threat to national security and a potentially valuable research commodity, Banner is hunted by his own government and eventually imprisoned without a trial. While the authorities decide on whether to simply execute him, he escapes, forced to hide out in the Amazon.
If this sounds gloomy, it is. The tone of Hulk was a common problem for critics, who were expecting more upbeat summer fare. The screenwriters had "forgotten the simple joys of pop," Ty Burr wrote in the Boston Globe. "And isn't that why we pick up a comic in the first place?" Yet while Lee deviated from the specifics of the Hulk comic, he actually made a movie that was very much in keeping with the tone of the source material. In the original comic-book story line, Bruce Banner is relentlessly hounded by the U.S. military and is nearly always on the run. Instead of embracing his powers, as most superheroes eventually do, he tries unsuccessfully to get rid of them. Lee didn't fill his adaptation with clever winks to the fanboys, but he did manage to capture the hopeless, monster-on-the-run tone of the original comic.