Monday, January 03, 2011

'The Incredible Hulk'

My apologies for taking a sabbatical from my sabbatical, but I'm angry; and as those who know me know all too well, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.
Like so many men in my now over-40 age group (aarrggh!!), I grew up with Marvel comics. Not Marvel movies, a thoroughly different beast, but Marvel comics, those wonderful effusions from the mind of Stan Lee, the 20th Century's most under-rated writer of serious fiction. Why Lee has never been considered as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature is beyond me. All of his stories are built upon the twin bulwarks of plot and character, indeed are nothing but plot and character, and they're still selling after 60 years. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created three great serial characters, Sherlock Holmes, Brigadier Gerard, and Professor Challenger. Stan Lee has created The X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil, The Silver Surfer, et al, et al, et cetera, et cetera. What higher credentials does the Nobel committee need?
Oh, but the guy writes books that have pictures in them! If that were the sole criterion of his output's merit, it would also rule another serial writer, a bloke called, er, Charles Dickens, out of the running. See how silly intellectual snobbery can be?
Yet sometime about the year 2000, something happened to Marvel. I'm not suggesting it was Lee's fault. Marvel without Stan Lee is unthinkable. However, at some point, probably about the time that Hollywood's imagination began to run out, finally petering into the dust with the casting of Jack Black as Lemuel Gulliver, the suits turned to Things They Knew And Things They Knew Would Sell -and what would sell better, and be more likely to get both fathers and sons chomping at the bit to go to the movies, than movies based on Marvel comics superheroes?
These must have been fabulously easy movies to sell to the suits - after all, the suits knew the characters and the stories! We are not talking Balzac or Turgenev here. We're talking serious literature, for sure, but we're also talking The X-Men.
And so the Marvel movies have rolled on for a decade now. At this point, I must claim a preference.
For what should be rather obvious reasons, The Hulk is my favourite Marvel character. Bruce Banner struggles with something within himself that he didn't ask for, and, more importantly, can't control. Despite its grossly undeserved bad press (and if it were so bad, why would ITV2 show it so frequently?), Ang Lee's 2003 movie 'Hulk' has easily been the best of the Marvel adaptations.
While many big-budget action directors might hold the conceit that they would like to direct small, intimate stories, Ang, a hugely accomplished director of small, intimate stories, was clearly bursting to do a successful big-budget action movie, and with 'Hulk' he achieved this ambition with bells ringing and whistles blowing. However, in doing so he made one critical mistake.
Whistler once sued Ruskin for suggesting that, with one of his paintings, he had thrown a pot of paint in the public's face. With 'Hulk', Ang Lee threw art in the public's face, overestimating its intelligence and taste, and the movie going public, forever prey to word of mouth, turned round and spat art out. They preferred to listen to deadhead critics and guys who squash beer cans on their foreheads rather than look at, or listen to, the damn movie.
Everything about that movie was perfect. The casting, in particular of that marvellous everyman Eric Bana as Banner and of Nick Nolte as The Old Crazy, was perfect, the script was perfect, the colours were perfect, even the acting of Sam Elliott's best supporting eyebrows was perfect; but it still didn't wash with the public. If the experience of 'Hulk' put Ang Lee off the idea of doing another big-budget action movie, that would be an enormous pity; because I think that deep down, and like me, Ang likes The Hulk, and perhaps would prefer to make Hulk movies rather than love stories about gay cowboys.
However, if Ang Lee's mistake was to treat The Tragedy Of Bruce Banner with a measure of intelligence and finesse, the suits' mistake was to try to do their own remake in their own image and likeness.
At 17.00 hours on 2nd January 2011, the ITV network broadcast the premiere of 'The Incredible Hulk'. In my opinion, this was a disgraceful act.
We can cavil about the movie as much as we like, so we shall. Casting Edward Norton in the role of Bruce Banner was, with all due respect to that gentleman, as about as artistically credible as casting Stan Laurel in the role of Clark Kent (OK, so I know he's DC Comics, yadda, yadda, yadda). Let us merely say that it was an act of miscasting not dissimilar to putting John Wayne into the part of Genghis Khan in 'The Conqueror'. In my opinion, the mere act of casting Norton as Banner is only marginally more daft than expecting him to provide a credible male lead in a movie whose romantic interest is played by Liv Tyler. One has to wonder whether the suits were doing the casting by either Ecstasy or tombola.
Oh, there were plenty of opportunities for cameos by Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno, with the big guy even getting a few lines of dialogue this time. In a gesture of respect for the dead which the producers of 'The Incredible Hulk' didn't seem to see fit to emulate, unless I'm greatly mistaken Ang Lee didn't really feel it necessary to include a clip of the late Bill Bixby in his movie; but in this trashy remake, Mr. Bixby's image was on screen within the first 10 minutes. His appearance was as out-of-context as the casting of Edward Norton, a strange comment to make about the performance of an actor who's been dead for nearly 20 years.
What really marks 'The Incredible Hulk' as being a vastly lower calibre work from 'Hulk', and which made the fact of its broadcast, not merely at the time it was shown but for it to be shown at all, is the appalling level of the violence it depicted.
That might seem to be a strange observation to make about a movie based upon a character whose raison d'etre is to get angry and smash things up. For sure, Ang Lee's Hulk destroys assorted pieces of vastly expensive military hardware, obliterates millions-of-years-old rock formations, and cuts a dashing swathe through the San Francisco traffic; but it is always comic like. It's a Hulk movie, and that's what you expect The Hulk to do. You never have to avert your eyes while you're watching it, because you know it's not real.
The final sections of 'The Incredible Hulk' depict The Hulk going at it hammer and tongs with another Hulklike character in New York City. Ang Lee's Hulk almost always does his thing in daylight, his green skin offset by other bright, vivid colours around him. The remake's final sequence depicts urban carnage perpetrated in the dark. You cannot see The Hulk. It was terrifying, not a comic book movie but a horror movie. That it's a load of badly made, badly written crap, a pot of CGI-generated paint thrown into the public's face, notwithstanding, it was far, far too violent for pre-watershed viewing. The Hulk is a character from comic books written for children. The Hulk should not scare children. Movies in which The Hulk appears should not scare children. I watched Ang Lee's movie, and wasn't scared. I was petrified by this, and not in a wholesome way. God only knows what effect this movie had on children watching it, because at the age of 40 it was like seeing the execution scene at the start of 'The Dirty Dozen', or the guillotining scene in 'Papillon', as a child all over again. On the other hand, the nippers might all be desensitised mini serial killers by now, their minds overloaded with 'Medal of Honor' and 'Assassin's Creed', but somehow I doubt it. I can't believe that, refuse to believe that, and won't accept any attempt to treat them as if they are, which is more than I can say for anyone involved in the making of 'The Incredible Hulk'.
If this is what movies are like now, thank God I don't go any more, and if this is what comic book movies are like, thank God I stopped reading comics years ago. And if this is what the ITV network needs to show to keep its ratings up, I guess they need Simon Cowell even more than they might imagine.



Blogger Martin Meenagh said...

I agree with you about Marvel--DC are so insipid in comparison. I think that Freeman Dyson wrote a nice piece on the contrast a few years ago in the NYRB.

I just wanted to add my two pennyworth, for any interested reader of yours. I'm a great lover of the 'Marvel Essentials' series, which brings together the classic books in an easy, black-and-white form, and I would suggest to anyone interested that they get hold of some of those editions. My own favourites are the 'non-team' of oddballs including the Hulk and occasionally the Silver Surfer known as 'the Defenders', and those dealing with Marvel's women of the seventies.

Marvel was always playful; I note that the Hulk's cousin, She-Hulk, was just as green and raging as he, but kept her mind and became a feminist lawyer when she hulked. Spider-woman, by contrast, found herself surrounded by weak or obsessive men, some of whom she had to do for with a venom-blast. Have a read!

My second pennysworth would be to ask if you had read Michael Chabon's beautiful peaen to the world of golden age comics, 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay'? It traces a Jewish escape from central Europe to Al Smith's New York, and the creation of a pulp hero, 'the Escapist' and of course makes me think of the former Stanley Martin Lieber. Stan's new venture, since being pushed out of Marvel, is POW! entertainment, and it promises more from him in the near future. He is very entertaining on Twitter, and I know from personal experience that he actually does respond to messages.

All the very best, as ever, Martin

04 January, 2011 09:09  
Blogger Martin said...

Thanks, Martin

04 January, 2011 20:31  

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