Angry Flower vs Angry Man

I've been reading Bob the Angry Flower pretty regularly for some months now, on the recommendation of a reader. Now, when I say I've been reading it, I mean I've been reading the comics, the meat of the site's content, without really sparing a glance for the bits of commentary, personal updates and buy-my-book pleas that go with them. (To be clear, I will indeed buy his book as soon as I have a reliable cash flow for a while.) Just lately, though, I looked at some of the author's many movie reviews, and they're quite good. Not that Notley is infallible by any means--he harshes erroneously on Lilo & Stitch, and even more mistakenly, praises the current batch of putrid Lord of the Rings movies--but when he's on, he's very clear about why. His Matrix Reloaded review is uncannily in tune with mine, only better said and more thorough. And his review of the new Hulk movie is also solid.

But I had similar impressions of the movie for different reasons, so I want to stick my two cents in. There will be some plot spoilers in here.

I was cajoled into seeing Hulk a week or two ago despite my pessimism. I'm basically suspicious of this rash of movified comic book characters. But I went and rented the first X-Men movie, finally, the night before, and I liked that okay. So I figured I'd take a chance on the Hulk. And to be fair, it was fun, and I don't regret seeing it. But it can't be said to be good.

There are a host of little problems, mostly to be laid at Ang Lee's door. Incredibly corny 70s split screens for no reason. Obsessive, endless facial closeups--when a long, lush gaze into the face of Jennifer Connelly, of all people, makes me impatient to back the hell up and find out where she's standing in the room, then the director has to be abusing the closeups badly.

Speaking of Connelly, the acting was in need of help too. She wasn't bad, but much as I love her face and her voice I've never thought she was a particularly gifted actor. Sam Elliott, oddly, didn't manage to do much with his part either. But Eric Bana as Bruce Banner was the bottom of the pile. Like Keanu, he does okay when asked to stand around expressionlessly. But his idea of deeply repressed rage seems to be something to do with wrinkling his nose and hyperventilating, a thing which moves me not at all. Shamblin' Nick Nolte was actually far and away the best thing going on in this movie--perhaps aided by the fact that despite being the resident paranoid lunatic, his was the only character in the film whose personal motivations made a lick of sense.

Perhaps deeper than any of this was the tangled writing. It's a liability for any of these comic book movies: comic books in the 60s and 70s explained everything with radiation, because nobody really understood how it worked and it had an aura of infinite possibility. Really all science fiction in those years was marked by a heavy dependence on radiation. But now, trying to sell these same characters to audiences who have a somewhat better grasp of the dangerous but fairly drab and predictable effects of radiation, screenwriters are going crazy trying to restore a pseudo-scientific mien to premises that everybody knows are essentially magical. And as with the inexplicable advent of midi-chlorians, these fixes on what wasn't really broke serve chiefly to complexicate the stories. So now (this is where the spoilers start and this is your last warning) our new Bruce Banner has experimental DNA from birth, because his father was experimenting on himself--and then he is horribly traumatized as a child--and then he gets some "nano-meds," this movie's midi-chlorians, introduced to his bloodstream--and then he's irradiated with the canonical gamma rays. And then his transformations kick in a couple days later, by which time the movie is like halfway over.

The end is worse yet; some two weeks later I still have no real idea what in hell it meant. At this point Nick Nolte, Papa Banner, has gotten himself irradiated etc as well, and has become some sort of energy-absorbing thing, seeking to suck hulky power from his son. The two battle in the wilderness, and after passing through several physical forms, daddy finally getts his mitts on Bruce. At this point several things happen, all very rapidly.

So now you've got all of that, right? Well then, see, the army nukes that. And the theater is very quiet for a moment. In the silence, one true believer says quietly but audibly, "oo-kay...."

And he speaks for all of us. We're trying to roll with it here, really, but Jesus.

Lamentable as all this is, much as I could go on talking about it, I haven't touched yet on the heart of the matter. Hulk, in a way, is the opposite of the X-Men movie; it does characterization badly, and does combat well. The fifteen-minute flight and pursuit, wherein Hulk gets to beat the crap out of a couple billion taxpayer dollars' worth of military hardware, is a party on wheels. No wonder the Flower liked it; he loved Peter Jackson's little "cave troll" abomination, and essentially this is a whole movie about the cave troll. But better: the cave troll lacked a real sense of mass, but damn, they worked hard to make the world around the Hulk react to him. He moves as if he's throwing his weight around, and when he stomps on the ground, the ground looks stomped on. Here, for a while, the movie taps into the same visceral vein that The Crow did; give a character limitless cause for wrath (though I make fun of the overall excess, Bruce's mother's murder is actually a good plot asset), then give him invulnerability and more or less infinite energy, and let him go. For a certain demographic--to wit, mine--this idea of total tantrum license can really hit home.

But ultimately, that's just the problem. The movie couldn't decide who its audience was supposed to be. In all of the Hulk's property-damage rampages, only one person dies, and he kills himself with a ricochet. The Hulk knocks helicopters out of the sky and kicks them when they're down, flattens tanks by smacking them with other tanks, and throws missiles back at people, but somehow he never manages to kill a soul. The soldiers and pilots cower, crawl out of the wreckage and scurry away to safety. All of them. It's like the A-Team.

Were they trying to keep this safe for kids? Was this a kids' movie? If so, why bother with all the gestures toward psychodrama? Just hit Banner with the gamma rays right at the top and let the army chase him around for the whole movie.

The problem with the Hulk is that he's not a very good character. He teeters constantly on the edge of catastrophic dullness. Brutish fury and invincibility are easy to understand, and it's about all he's got to work with. So digging into his psyche is really your only hope for getting any mileage out of him. And the sad thing is, this movie really wanted to do that. It started to. I would say it tried--but it didn't fail because the difficulty of the task was too much. The material is all right there. It's plain as day that the writer and director saw that material and wanted it. But they lacked one of two things--the resolve to follow it through, or (more disturbingly) the moral sense God gave a dog.

If you want to play the Hulk as a metaphor for the culture of emotional repression in modern males, you'd start about the same way this movie does. Bruce is sitting on a groundswell of violent anger, and goes through his days neither raising his voice nor smiling, just holding it in. We all know somebody like that. And in case anybody misses the connection, we're told immediately that Banner's girlfriend has dumped him because he's so bottled up that he frightens her, so the parallel between sci-fi and a genuine real-life concern is made firm in one person. So far, so good. We're ready for a drama about internalized anger and what it would mean if that rage were allowed to reify itself, to become what rage wants to be: an endless attack on anything in its path, an insatiable and directionless vengeance, the savage destruction of the offending world.

But as soon as it gets started, the movie chickens right out. Bruce transforms for the second time under direct attack, being beaten up (improbably even in Eric Bana form) by the inexplicably sociopathic MBA who's trying to seize his research. Finally he transforms, and as the Hulk puts the smackdown on the bad guy. Kicks him through a window and porch railing, finally, after smacking him gingerly around the living room a little.

Later this giant will deflect missiles in flight, burrow through asphalt streets like a mole through topsoil, and smash one armored military vehicle after another with his bare hands. But this hairspray-wearing bureaucrat seemingly cannot be killed by mere physical demolition. Why?

Sadly, I'm afraid it's because they want to keep him around as a villain. That's even worse than not wanting to let the movie be too grim, which I suspect is what saves all the army guys. Saving the maniacal Talbot actively obscures the moral significance of Bruce's hulkitude.

If you're going to do this, you have to let the story have some moral weight. As is, the film's lesson to those kids it seems to be targeting is only this: that a total loss of self-control is satisfying and fun, and not otherwise particularly significant. That in fact, the guy who goes berserk and lashes out at everyone around him is (as near as I can tell) the hero.

In an interesting movie, one dedicated to exploring the meaning of the situation, Bruce would have laid his obnoxious persecutor down dead with one careless swat before bounding on out of the place. Then, instead of being lulled into believing that Talbot was simply a villain, and that when he finally does die he deserves it, the audience would have been forced to ask themselves whether Talbot was really being so objectionable that it was okay to just kill him. And so on from there.

The culture of repressed anger is serious stuff--but it is dangerous precisely because it can explode into no self-control at all. If the audience sees no harm in that danger, is actually rooting for it, no point is being made. And the film has essentially given away its only chance to make one.