But Lee's movie also incorporated elements rarely seen in a comic-book adaptation, and this is where he really lost viewers. The script presents a series of relationships—between Banner and his ex-girlfriend Betty, between Betty and her estranged father, and between Banner and his own murderous father—that are all strained and ultimately doomed. There are no benevolent nuggets of wisdom from the likes of Spider-Man's saintly Aunt May or Batman's martyred father. In Hulk, family ties are the alpha and omega of emotional trauma.
In Banner's father, Lee conjures an arch-villain who's just pathetic enough to feel real, a man prone to anti-establishment rants and poor hygiene. When Banner's father eventually develops his own powers, he doesn't give himself a weird nickname or devise some overwrought scheme for world domination. Like Banner, he's just trying to save himself, hoping to stabilize his own restructured DNA by absorbing his son's powers. The fact that Banner won't survive that process is an afterthought.
Even the much-maligned finale of Lee's movie, criticized for featuring one CGI guy beating up another CGI guy, is a surprisingly complex scene. Lee tries to avoid the kind of WWE Smackdown style that's an apparent selling point for the new movie, giving us instead a supremely weird confrontation. In the climax, the Hulk's father has merged with a lake and is simultaneously drowning the Hulk and draining his power. Everything about a superhero movie's final, cathartic punching match is subverted in the scene, with the Hulk left slapping helplessly at the water. The bizarre father-lake is eventually destroyed, but not through guile or cunning or heroic determination—Betty's dad, an Army general, has run out of ideas, and fires a nuke at the both of them.
Elsewhere in the movie, Lee uses visual effects not to blow up city blocks or show off a spectacular feat of acrobatic fisticuffs, but to find moments of unsettling, alien beauty. Banner dreams of luminescent jelly fish hovering in desert mesas as desolate as the surface of Mars. In the movie's most surreal scene, the Hulk passes out in midair after falling off of an F-16. Lee cuts to a completely domestic moment, a daydream in which Banner is shaving in the bathroom. The Hulk then shows up in the mirror, wrenching Banner back into the present. More polished superhero movies like Iron Man or Spider-Man don't waste frames on scenes so full of raw, haunting emotion, and ones that don't advance the plot.
None of this is to say that Lee's movie is perfect—far from it. Some of his decisions were confusing, some just plain bad. The attempt at comic-book editing, where the screen is routinely sectioned off into panels, is the worst kind of gimmick. It seems tacked on in the editing suite, and worse, it works against the whole tone of the film. This is a story of domestic abuse, psychological damage, and the futility of rage. Campy visuals are just out of place. (Imagine if Lee had replaced the subtitles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with zany, dubbed English.) Ultimately, Hulk is a messy effort, but it's also intricate, beautiful at times, and undeniably ambitious. Whether or not those are attributes audiences want to see in a comic-book adaptation is up for debate, but one thing is certain. For better or worse, there won't be another movie like Ang Lee's Hulk for a very long time.