Elements of Classical Mythology in Ang Lee's Hulk

By Daniel James Wood

Daniel James Wood is a freelance journalist and
critic living in Sydney, Australia. His work has been published in Cinescape Magazine, Revelation, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Green Man Review


"My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind." With these words, the classical poet Ovid opens his epic tale of mythological transformations, the Metamorphoses. Lovers are transformed by passion, enemies are transformed by hatred, the poor are transformed by envy, and the rich are transformed by pride. The gods of the Graeco-Roman pantheons interfere in human affairs, and when their wrath subsides, ordinary people like you and I are left changed, altered both emotionally and physically. Human beings become something far beyond or below human, something sub-human, or as the case may be, something super-human.

In all the media coverage that preceded the theatrical release of Ang Lee's Hulk (2003; released in October on DVD) the same story was told over and over again by stars Eric Bana and Nick Nolte, and by Ang Lee himself: even though Hulk is based on the Marvel comic book of the same name, the director did not want to make a comic book movie. Instead, he wanted to make a contemporary film inspired by classical myth. He didn't understand comic books, he said, but he understood tragedy and mythology. This sounds pretentious, to say the least, and should have made for an awful hybrid-conglomerate of a film, but if you go back to the comic books you'll find fantastic universes populated by characters based on Amazonian warriors, Christian mythology, and gods from the Norse, Roman, Greek, and Egyptian pantheons. After all, comic book characters like the X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman and the Hulk are capable of holding power which inspires fear and hope alike in the hearts of ordinary human beings, so what are they if not contemporary equivalents of the classical gods?

The story of Hulk is clear-cut. A scientist, Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) has just ended a relationship with his co-worker Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), though they remain friends. They are working on a formula involving gamma rays that will allow human tissue to repair itself. Perhaps it will be implemented to allow for the regeneration of damaged limbs or perhaps it will be purchased by the government to create an army of super-soldiers. At the same time, Bruce's father, David (Nick Nolte) has just been released from prison and has returned to his son's life. Bruce, however, is unaware of his father's presence because his mother died when he was young and, since his father was imprisoned, he was placed in a foster home. Bruce's mother, we soon realize, was killed in an accident (or perhaps something more sinister) that Bruce witnessed, but which was so traumatic that he repressed those memories. One day, an accident in the laboratory leaves Bruce incapacitated after he is bombarded with gamma radiation, but the radiation has a strange effect: it makes him stronger, more powerful. When David Banner confronts his son, those repressed memories are unleashed and Bruce's suppressed anger and fury are unleashed in turn. But his anger manifests itself as unbridled physical power -- and the gamma radiation transforms him into an enormous green muscle-bound creature, the "Hulk," a product of pure wrath.

This premise might be taken straight from the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but there are three additional elements that influence this familiar story. The first is the romance-cum-friendship between Bruce and Betty, and by extension Betty's concern for the welfare of the Hulk, which gives the film echoes of both Cocteau's and Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1946; 1991). The second is the story of David Banner, who experimented on Bruce as a baby, and who now seeks to harness the results of those experiments himself in order to accumulate power that will transform him into a god. This scenario has echoes of the story of King Midas, in Ovid's Metamorphoses. The third additional element that influences the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the film is obviously the inclusion of pop-psychology explanations for the Hulk's behavior, which contributes to most of the forty-minute-long backstory that opens the film.

This pop-psychology, however, has a charming pay-off in the film's second act when we understand that the Hulk is the id personified. He is a physical manifestation of the most basic level of human awareness, he can see a particular situation and can understand it, but he cannot understand how that situation can be manipulated, nor can he understand the consequences of such a manipulation. Halfway through the film, the Hulk is captured by the military and taken to a desert base, and then he escapes. He stops in the middle of the desert to sit on the ground and to look at moss and lichen growing on a branch. Here is a creature born of anger and fury, capable of wielding more power than an entire army of tanks, yet he sits like a child and looks at a plant. There's a certain sense of wonder and charm to be found in that scenario, which, I think, contributed in large part to the disappointing commercial gain of Hulk because it does what the Law of the Summer Movie dictates must not be done: it interrupts the action with a moment of respite.

But of course, Ang Lee is not typically a summer movie director; he is an art-house director, and this respite scenario in the desert does exactly what the Law of the Art-House Movie dictates should be done: it simply and silently provides substantial insight into a character whose personality is almost impossible to express outside of demonstrations of his strength and anger, and it does so via a moment of quiet reflection set against a frenetic sequence of confusion and rage. Lee uses this technique throughout the film. When the genetically-altered spider in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002) bites Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) it is accompanied by swelling music and a startling sound effect of teeth piercing skin. But when Bruce Banner is blasted gamma radiation, the picture freezes, the swelling music cuts out and the screen cuts to black, and the next sound we hear is the slow, soft thumping of a heartbeat as we fade back in to Bruce Banner in hospital. We never see the gamma blast. Lee's bold exclusion of this crucial moment is like an expert pianist's pause in the middle of a bombastic concerto -- but the success of more conventional summer films like 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) and XXX (2002) indicates that for a film to be financially successful, pauses aren't allowed.

What Lee does with Hulk, then, is bring class and classical traditions in fiction to an already-sophisticated story, yet he presents them in a medium typical of pure, intellectually-transient pop culture. He rebels against the mainstream system by working deep within that system. His film received a lot of criticism for that. I think, however, that this is due more to expectations of what a comic book film should be versus the type of film Lee actually chose to deliver. Audiences and critics alike expected a comic book film -- a fun movie like X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man, which are more or less as good as Hulk, but don't achieve their level of quality in the same way. However, Lee's comments prior to the film's release indicated exactly what kind of film those critics and audiences should have expected to see, and a typical comic book movie it was not.

The quiet moments that interrupt the explosive action are what make the film exceptional. Consider the way in which the Hulk's rage is first subsided when he spots his own reflection in a pool of water and is so distraught by it that he reverts to his human self, the very opposite of Narcissus in Ovid's work, who spots his own reflection and is so entranced by it that he falls in love with it. Consider also the enormous climactic battle between the Hulk and the Absorbing Man. The Hulk and the Absorbing Man are caught in a vicious cycle. The Absorbing Man is absorbing the Hulk's power, and this makes the Hulk angrier, which in turn only makes him more powerful and so gives the Absorbing Man more power to take. They are caught in a loop and cannot get out. The Absorbing Man assimilates too much of the Hulk's power to be able to remain solid and human, and the order comes from Betty's father, Thaddeus Ross, a military general, to "Release them." What he means is for two jets to release bombs and to strike the Absorbing Man. But after Ross utters his words -- "Release them" -- we do not cut to the jets who release the bombs. Instead, we cut to the stars. Then the camera pans down to the jets, and the bombs are released, and the Hulk-Absorbing Man loop is destroyed. But the fact that the act of "releasing them" comes first from the stars rather than the jets suggests divine intervention from the heavens: the involvement of the gods ultimately solves the problem of releasing these conflicting forces from their endless cycle of destruction. It is hardly a coincidence, also, that Thaddeus Ross orders the "release" and that his nickname is "Thunderbolt," which is the very same power wielded by the head of the Greek gods, Zeus, and the head of the Roman gods, Jupiter.

Consider another quiet moment, when the military strike against the Hulk is in full-force. A fighter pilot in a jet attempts to strike the Hulk, but he almost hits the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and his strike is only prevented when the Hulk jumps on the aircraft in a moment of heroism. In an attempt to shake him off, the pilot flies the jet into the stratosphere with the Hulk riding on its back, and suddenly, unexpectedly, he bursts through clouds and the stars are revealed to him. The Hulk's eyes open wide and we are invited to consider for a moment how deeply this stunning view of the heavens would affect a creature who found such awe by examining fungi and moss. Consider now the way in which this brief moment of calm takes a tragic turn for the worse when the jet plunges back down to earth and the Hulk falls off, into San Francisco harbor. He slips into a dream sequence in which Bruce Banner stands in front of a mirror only to find that his reflection is that of the Hulk. The Hulk reaches out and grabs Bruce by the neck, strangles him and growls, "Puny human!" This is a catch-cry that the Hulk of the comic books says when he is fighting in the midst of ordinary people, but the fact that he says it to his human self, and the fact that he strangles Banner in Banner's own dream sequence, chillingly illustrates Banner's deeper descent into anger and into the persona of the Hulk. Banner attracted concern from his adoptive mother and from Betty Ross about how he hides his emotions and is always "so bottled up," but by letting the Hulk conquer him in his mind, he bottles himself up even further. He lets the Hulk win. And so he becomes almost exclusively one of those "bodies transformed into shapes of a different kind."

Ultimately the Hulk is subdued, and the story shifts to focus on the relationship between a father and his son. But David Banner is more interested in the product of his labor -- the Hulk -- than in Bruce, the product of his loins. David experiments on himself to become the Absorbing Man, capable of assimilating anything he touches -- and he sets his sights on the power contained in the Hulk. In the film's most startling scene, father and son sit opposite each other on a stage with only two enormous spotlights to illuminate the scene. David Banner reveals himself to be consumed by the same level of the fury as the Hulk, though he is unable to express it physically; he screams and shouts at Bruce in an attempt to provoke the manifestation of the Hulk. Nick Nolte's performance in this scene is masterful, excessive without being over-the-top, and counterbalanced by a perfect moment of humor as he mimics Bruce Banner's petty weeping. But his uncontained anger suggests that perhaps it is as counter-productive for one man to suppress his emotions as it is dangerous for another man to completely unleash them.

One of the most prominent criticisms of the film is that the climactic battle between the Hulk and his father David, the Absorbing Man, is a colossal mess, mostly because there is not a single physical object captured on film; almost every frame is entirely computer-generated. I disagree. It was obvious that a large percentage of people who saw The Matrix Reloaded (2003) only saw it because they wanted action and special effects; I doubt they went because they wanted to hear empirical philosophizing. And action and special effects are largely what they got until the very end, where Neo (Keanu Reeves) has a conversation with the Architect of the Matrix (Helmut Bakaitis) which is conducted as an unbelievably over-the-top, conceited, pompous dialogue. Watching it, I couldn't help but feel as if the Wachowski brothers, who directed Reloaded, were flipping the bird at anyone who went into the cinema expecting mindless action. Granted, most of the conversation between Neo and the Architect is as mindless as that action, but it is a bold move on the part of the filmmakers to so drastically and deliberately alienate such a large percentage of their audience, and to reveal an enormously crucial plot point in the process, virtually with the intention of not allowing that percentage of the audience to be able to follow the story any further.

I think Ang Lee does the same thing at the end of Hulk. He tests his audience. He knew he was making a summer movie, and he knew what was expected of him: a simple story, good action, all the loose ends wrapped up by the time the credits roll. Mass-market filmmaking. Instead, the climax of Hulk is like a barrage of the special effects that Lee withheld from the audience in the first forty minutes. During the climactic battle, the Hulk screams to the Absorbing Man: "You want power? Here! Take it all!" If we replace "power" with "special effects," the Hulk's exclamation is like a message directly from Lee to the audience, to the point where, as the Hulk's power overwhelms the Absorbing Man, so too do the special effects overwhelm the audience and become almost meaningless, and thus frustrating. And a colossal mess. But it's an organized mess, and it is the meaning behind these climactic events that validates the entire forty minutes of backstory. Namely that, firstly, the Hulk himself is a manifestation of anger and power released and made physical, and, secondly, that the Absorbing Man, being a mentally unbalanced man who assimilates the Hulk's power, is then unable to contain it as the Hulk did, and so this inability to contain power becomes the Absorbing Man's downfall.

How did the Hulk contain that power? Because he is Bruce Banner, and because he is "so bottled up." Because containing anger, energy and power is what he does, it's what defines him; it is what allows Banner to be the Hulk and to possess the Hulk's power, and no-one else. We would not know this without that lengthy backstory, and backstory is a crucial ingredient of mythology. It doesn't just establish character, it also necessitates the events that lead to that character's downfall. If Narcissus wasn't so stunningly beautiful, he would not have been able to fall in love with his own reflection. If Daedalus wasn't so emotionally detached from his son Icarus, he would not have used him as a test subject for his man-made wings, and if Icarus wasn't so insolent, he would not have flown so close to the sun and fallen to Earth when the sun melted the glue that held those wings together.

Those first forty minutes of Hulk garnered almost as much criticism for their deliberate pacing as the climax did for its confusion action, yet they are exactly what allow the climax to take place as it does. They justify its events. They require them to take place. They validate and affirm the nature of both Bruce Banner and his father, and the climax only re-affirms that nature. That rush of special effects, then, is a message from the filmmakers that gives the audience what they want -- CGI and action -- but does so in such a way that they will not understand and appreciate it unless they play the filmmaker's game right from the first frame of the movie. The conversation at the end of The Matrix Reloaded rewards those who attended the film based on its predecessor's intelligence and ideas more than its visual inventiveness. Similarly, Hulk's climax is a reward for those who go into the film expecting nothing in particular, wanting to be led by the director, instead of holding pre-conceived expectations and wanting to be leaders themselves. It revolts against everything that typically defines a summer movie.

Hulk concludes with a dire warning amidst an affirmation of humanity. Bruce Banner flees to South America, where he assists in the collection and distribution of medical supplies. Somewhat disturbingly, he sports a beard exactly like the one his father wore, but he uses his knowledge of science and medicine to help disadvantaged people -- something that neither his father, nor the military men who sought to unleash the Hulk for their own purposes, ever intended to do. Banner seems to be at peace with the world, surrounded by lush green forests of the jungle which are the same shade of green as the Hulk himself, suggesting that Bruce's present isolated surroundings are accepting of the beast within him while at the same time helping him to suppress it. He is provoked by men who want to take medicine from him, and he warns them: "You're making me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

It is a light-hearted and open-ended way to conclude the film, allowing for the possibility of a sequel, but at the same time the story has come full circle and has been told in its entirety. Banner was emotionally isolated and was physically unstable, and now he is physically isolated and is emotionally stable. After events in which the Hulk was a destructive figure, and the men who pursued him were even more destructive, the cycle of myth is complete. As Bruce returns to nature, balance is restored to the world; there is no-one left to provoke a creature whose power equals a god's fury, and there is no-one left to try to assimilate the power of a god. We leave Bruce Banner as the camera allows us to take a 'God's-eye-view,' and we retreat from the scenario in the South American jungles below us, moving upwards through the trees, out of the jungle, into the sky, backwards, into the stars. The wrath of the gods has subsided, and an ordinary person like you and I is left changed, altered both emotionally and physically. This human being has become something far beyond and below human, something sub-human -- the id -- or as the case may sometimes be, something altogether super-human.


                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002