Hulk came along and was the first really noteworthy disappointment of the contemporary superhero boom. That said, it felt even in 2003 that Hulk was destined to be one of those movies that was befuddling and weird at the time, and would garner more and more respect and more of a passionate cult following as time went by, and at some point it would be due for a re-evaluation and we'd all figure out that it was actually good all along. So the question is, was nine years long enough for it turn out to be actually good?
And to that I can answer, boldly and proudly, "no, well, sort of." This much is absolutely true: nothing better could have happened for the reputation of Hulk than the release of a 2008 sequel-reboot, The Incredible Hulk, which proved a) that Lee's ambition, whether misguided or no, was at least brave and unconventional and b) that stripped of that ambition, the temptation to turn Marvel's radiation-soaked variant on Jekyll and Hyde into two dull-as-dishwater hours of watching a CGI blob break things was impossible to resist. For that matter, the simple passage of time helped Lee's film out quite a lot, for even though the 12-years-and-counting superhero boom has one continuous history that makes it feel somewhat like a single moment (2000's X-Men, which kicked off the whole trend, feels "contemporary", in a way that 1997's Batman & Robin very much does not, n'est-ce pas?), the state of the comic book movie in 2003 is not even a little bit like the state of the comic book movie in 2012. There are at least two candidates for the dividing line, the first of those being 2005, the year that comic movies grew up in a major way with Sin City, Batman Begins, and A History of Violence, if by "grew up" we mean "became really dark and angry". But the better year is 2008, because that was the bottleneck moment: from that point forward, your comic book movie could be either The Dark Knight or it could be Iron Man, but those are pretty much your only choices, and that is why there are those of us who were hugely enthusiastic about superhero movies in the mid-'00s, who just want them all to go away now, because the more money and technology and talented people on both sides of the camera who get involved in making the damn things, perversely, the less actual variety and imagination the genre demonstrates.
All of which is to say: as much as Hulk was unexpected and different in 2003, when the modern comic book movie was still new enough that there weren't "rules" as such, it is altogether dumbfounding and shocking in 2012, especially since we can stand it right next to its bland little sibling and be amazed at the harsh difference between a film made by a for-real artist who has for-real ideas even if he can't make them stick, and a film that is studio product made as part of a cunning, years-long experiment in branding and franchise-building.
But, here's the tricky part, does that make Hulk good? Or better than it was in 2003, anyway? And as much as I'd like to say that it does, the reasons that it didn't work nine years ago are by and large the same reasons it doesn't work now, and the foremost of these, then as always is this: it is a comic book film made by a man who clearly does not; appreciate or even respect comic books as a form, and is hell-bent on converting them into cinema despite fundamentally not understanding how they work. If I recall correctly, Lee was very open about this being the case.
Now, if you are tasked with adapting a famous and beloved superhero (in these Iron Man-loving days it can be hard to recall that there was a time, very recently, when the Incredible Hulk was, with Spider-Man and the X-Men as a group, among the absolute best-known of all Marvel characters), and yet you do not really "get" superheroes, you can do a couple of things. If you are Tim Burton and Sam Hamm and it is 1989 and you have been given the reigns to the surpassing prestigious and expensive Batman, you say, basically, "screw it", and make a helluva good action-adventure that really doesn't have all that much to do with the iconic character you're been tasked with bringing to life. If you are Ang Lee and long-time collaborator James Schamus, you try to make something that is exactly like the comic books that you simply do not understand how to read, and that is where we come to Hulk's famous, notorious, fascinating, and infuriating split screens. If you have not seen the film, or have forgotten, what happened is that Lee assembled it using frames within frames that recall the layout of a comic book page, with close-ups of eyes and multiple views of a single object and the like all occupying the same film frame. It's not a gimmick used constantly, but it's used quite a lot.
May I make an aside? I will anyway. Supposedly, when Roman Polanski was adapting Rosemary's Baby, he got to a scene in the book where a character is reading an issue of Life magazine. He then spent some time trying to figure out which exact issue it was, so that he could be certain to put it in the movie; eventually, stymied, he asked author Ira Levin to tell him which issue was in the book; Levin informed the director that it was made up for the needs of the story, and that any issue would be fine. According to the anecdote, Polanski hadn't realised until this incident that he wasn't obligated to copy the source material exactly, and that he in fact had whatever right he wanted to exercise to re-shape things as necessary, and without that awakening, he'd have never been able to make The Ninth Gate.
I use this story to illustrate the fundamental truth of Hulk (I do not know whether to call it a "problem" or a "charm"): Lee seemed to be stuck in that stage when he didn't realise that he could make a comic book movie that looked more like a movie than a comic book. And this again speaks to his misunderstanding of the form: reading a comic book is actually very much like watching a film: each panel is a shot, and they are pieced together with entirely cinematic tricks like shot-reverse shot, and graphic matches, and cuts on action; splash pages are essentially like tracking shots, as you move your eye over the details. This is why Sin City works so well: it's simply adding to movement to something that was already, in essence, "edited" (hence Frank Miller's directing credit). Hell, it's why 300 "works" "so well"; Zack Snyder and I will never be on good terms, but he made a film that is more legibly cinematic than Ang Lee's Hulk, despite being hardly a hair on a mole on Lee's ass as far as directorial talent goes.
But still, it's hard not to give Lee credit for trying: whatever problems it has as a story... oh my lord, here I blasted right past 1000 words without so much as mentioning it, and there's nowhere to fit in. So here goes, quickly: Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), a scientist with daddy issues, loves Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), another scientist with daddy issues, and one day he gets massively irradiated with gamma rays that interact badly with the mutated DNA his father gave to him, and whenever he is angry or threatened, Banner turns into a massive green humanoid with no sense of anything but violence. Betty's dad, General "Thunderbolt" Ross (Sam Elliott), wants to capture Banner and perform experiments on him; Banner's dad, David (Nick Nolte) wants to do the same, but for even more evil reasons. "That's just the Hulk's origin story, that's not the plot of a 138-minute movie", you say. No, no it is, actually, the plot of a 138-minute movie. I cut off the end battle, so as to avoid spoilers. This is, of course, the reason that fans have groused about the movie since it premiered, and why some particularly odd people genuinely think The Incredible Hulk is better: more incident and more action. Lee, not much caring for comics, is more concerned with the tortured characters of Bruce and Betty - he undoubtedly got the job on account of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and a scene of the Hulk bounding across the desert - and through multiple panes, yes - recalls that film's action choreography, it's worth recalling that CT,HD is much more of a character drama with fighting scenes than an action movie with character moments. Hulk is exactly the film that Ang Lee, in 2003, was apt to deliver when told to make a comic book movie, and the problem with it is not that it spends too much time focusing on the human cost of the narrative, but that Bana and Connelly do a dreadful job of selling their characters (Bana seems to have been cast specifically because of his blank face and lack of any sort of affect, frankly), and also that something as broad and trite as "daddy issues" might work in the heightened world of the comics page, but it's hard to keep it from being somewhat insipid in the more emotionally piercing mode Lee and Schamus work in.
SO, THEN, whatever problems it has as a story, at least Hulk tried, honestly and desperately, to push the comic book move into new places emotionally and stylistically - of all the many superhero movies made since 2000, this is undoubtedly the most formally unique, if not the only one that is formally unique in anyway other than the point it occupies on the "urban grit vs. shiny colors" spectrum of cinematography. That it fails in almost every regard it possibly could have failed is, of course, a shame: but better to attempt something really bold and end up a strange and compelling failure than e.g. wind up a cartoon version of Ed Norton and fling it at a cartoon version of Tim Roth.
And there are littler failures, as well: Bana's performance is one, the godawful CGI Hulk is another (it looked bad in 2003, it looks straight-up mortifying now), the idle running time is a third. These are not the reasons the film is interesting, only the reasons that it is bad.
Except it's not a bad film. It is worth grappling with; far more worthy of contemplation that several "better" comic book movies I could name. It feels uniquely like a movie made by men and not board rooms; and perhaps in 2003, when Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi were making distinctive superhero movies and Christopher Nolan was about to join them, that alone is not of merit. It is, however, of considerable merit now. And if Hulk has redeemed itself at all in nine years, that is the reason: it is a failure of execution, but decidedly not a failure of nerve, and it is exactly a lack of nerve that has sapped the modern superhero film of much of its charm and energy. Here's to Ang Lee and his big, burly monster: we could do with more of your private brand of unfocused smashing.