‘Hulk’ Was Too Smart and Weird for Its Time


In the midst of shooting Hulk in June of 2002, writer-producer James Schamus sensed a paradigm shift. After seeing Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, he left a Times Square movie theater spellbound by the origin story’s high-flying CGI, witty protagonist, and a New York City skyline filled with billowing American flags—and worried about what that meant for the film he was currently making with longtime collaborator and director Ang Lee, who he called immediately: “I think we have a problem.”

In the early days of the modern superhero boom, Raimi had made a crowd-pleasing popcorn flick, essentially creating the modern Marvel movie.“You’re never smarter than popular genres,” Schamus tells GQ now. Hulk was shaping up to be something very different, he says. “Our train had already left the station.”

At the time, Lee had conceived Hulk as something much darker than Raimi’s buoyant, web-slinging world, pouring his mammoth green superhero into the mold of Universal’s rich history of monster movies such as King Kong, Frankenstein, and Jekyll and Hyde. After the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the studio was eager to capitalize on Lee’s darker and introspective vision, giving him the freedom and finances to approach its emotionally unstable IP through the lens of a Greek tragedy. “I decided that I wanted to do a psychodrama, like a sci-fi/horror film,” he told Discussing Film. “[That’s] where my head was at.” As he later clarified to Sci-Fi Online, superheroes were “just the material that we use to make movies with.”

Writer James Schamus, producer Avi Arad, producer Gale Anne Hurd, director Ang Lee on the set of Hulk.Courtesy of Universal via Everett Collection

By the time the Hulk script got to Lee’s desk, the movie had gone through developmental hell. Over the previous 10 years, numerous drafts had been revised and repurposed by various writers, but Lee didn’t connect with the material upon reading it. Like he’d done in his research developing a script for X-Men, Schamus paged through Hulk back issues and “was really struck by the oedipal resonances” in a later version of Bruce’s origin story. “Ang immediately took an interest in that,” he says. Desperate to get the project on solid ground, Universal allowed Schamus to reinvent the bones of a story credited to John Turman and Michael France and infuse it with Lee’s sensibilities.

Though Schamus originally wrote more winking and sly repartee between characters, Lee shifted the movie into a more serious place. The result was decidedly and refreshingly unconventional, an outlier in a burgeoning Hollywood era. The film follows Bruce Banner’s (Eric Bana) search to uncover his repressed history and determine the reasons for his rage-induced monster, but well before Bruce Banner absorbs gamma radiation that unleashes his angry green giant, we learn the source of the scientist’s rage: an unstable and abusive father (Nick Nolte) who passed down his experimental genes to his son.This paternal conflict works in tandem with Betty (Jennnifer Connelly), Bruce’s governmental lab partner and love interest, and her father, General Ross (Sam Elliott), highlighting the pair’s similar family demons. It’s an intriguing if sometimes laborious interplay, interspersed with abstract memories (a green atomic explosion, for example) from Bruce’s traumatic upbringing at a nuclear test site that fill in his father’s abusive past.

‘Hulk’ Was Too Smart and Weird for Its Time

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