In October of 2002 I moved from Seattle to the beautiful mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina¹, with the intention of starting my life over in a place where I didn’t know a soul. Driving into town in a rental car for the first time, having never laid eyes on it before, was a thrilling and terrifying experience, and in the months that followed I came to realize how much a person’s identity can depend on the reinforcement of friends, family, and familiar turf. Sudden and complete anonymity stripped away all but the last shred of my sense of self. I felt like a bundle of exposed nerve endings in a vast expanse of nothingness.
Although there were plenty of negative aspects to feeling simultaneously nonexistent and overexposed, I also felt tuned in to my surroundings in a way I never had before. As soon as “I” became an open question, that openness went both ways, and I absorbed every detail of my environment — birds, trees, fireflies, the incredible roaring chorus of cicadas outside my window at night — like a sponge. There were times when the line between what was inside of me and what was outside of me got pretty blurry, and in those times I had never felt a greater sense of terror and possibility.
In June of 2003, six months after moving to Asheville and in the throes of this state of mind, I took a short trip to Seattle. On my second day there, I took a bus to the University District to meet a friend, and to kill time I decided to catch a matinée of Ang Lee’s Hulk, which was showing at the Neptune Theater.
The best way to experience any film is with as little knowledge or expectation as possible; all the better if you happen to be in a mood that jibes with the director’s sensibility. Hulk is a mixed bag, but even where it falters (as when the screen is sliced up into comic book panels), I admire Lee’s willingness to take chances, especially in the pursuit of the poetic over the bombastic (in a comic book movie, of all things). Despite the missteps, I was enthralled by what I saw at the heart of the film: a man caught between the hard definitions of human civilization and the boundless forces of nature. All of Ang Lee’s movies, from The Wedding Banquet to Brokeback Mountain, are about people struggling to communicate something against some restricting force, and with Hulk he created yet another fresh variation on that struggle. I walked out of the theater in a sort of daze, wandering across the campus of the University of Washington in the pouring rain, staring up in wonder at the brilliant green of the trees.
Of course, the fanboys hated it. In its second week of release, ticket sales dropped by 70%, one of the worst rapid declines in box office history. It was roundly derided for being overly serious (it’s a comic book movie, after all), for failing to stay true to its roots, and for failing to deliver on the summer action movie formula. I actually enjoyed all of these aspects, but the last one — the absurd way in which Hulk subverts the “final battle” expectations of its audience — is one of my favorite parts of the film. The showdown is between Bruce Banner and his father, David (Nick Nolte). From the Wikipedia plot summary of the film:
At night, David is taken to a base to talk to Bruce. As a precaution, [Bruce has been placed] between two large electrical generators which will kill them both with a massive electical surge when activated. David, having descended into megalomania, rants of how the military and their weapons have ruined their lives, and dismisses Bruce as a pathetic shell of his “true son,” with whom he can destroy the military. He bites into a wire, and absorbs the electricity to become a powerful electrical being, and Bruce transforms to battle him. The two fight in the sky before landing near a lake, where David takes on properties of rocks and water. He tries to absorb his son’s power, but is unable to contain the grief and pain that is its driving force, and swells to an energy bubble. Ross orders a weapon (a Gamma Charge Bomb) be fired into the lake, and David’s swelled form is destroyed, leaving no trace of either man.
Yeah, that’s right. The climactic final battle is between the Hulk, electricity, rocks, and water. I’m sorry, that is all kinds of awesome. No wonder so many people were disappointed.
Which leads me to wonder whether or not the Incredible Hulk Annual 2001 was among the piles of comics Marvel gave to Ang Lee and his various script doctors². This book’s main attraction was a forgettable, fan-mandated slugfest between the big green fella and Thor, but the backup story was a beautiful four-page summation of the nature of existence. Starring the Hulk, natch.
Re-presented here, for your enjoyment and with the permission of its creator, the fabulous James Kochalka, is that story:
² Among them one of my favorite screenwriters, Michael Tolkin, who likely had something to do with why Hulk got under my skin.