Hulk vs. the Universe

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:



¹ Former home to legendary zinester Aaron Cometbus, and current home to alterna-comics luminaries Hope Larson and Bryan Lee O’Malley.

² Among them one of my favorite screenwriters, Michael Tolkin, who likely had something to do with why Hulk got under my skin.


15 Responses to “Hulk vs. the Universe”

  1. e. Says:

    (incredibly) funny!

  2. John Nora Says:

    Yeah, it was an interesting, dreamlike film. I think there should be more comics films made by world-class directors… Why not? Does Popeye hold up at all? I haven’t watched it in decades… I guess you have to include the Tim Burton Batmans in this group… even though I didn’t like them, and Tim Burton makes a lot of junk… they had the same unsettling, no-this-can’t-really-be-the-movie quality. Even though its not comics-based, I feel like Dune by David Lynch fits here, too… the same thing (I love Dune).

    Anyway, another great post.

  3. Jason Lutes Says:

    Popeye is nigh unwatchable as a film, but the individual performances are awesome. Best thing Robin Williams ever did.

    Burton’s Batman is an example that counts, but it comes up short in the soul department — his stuff always just feels like an empty exercise in style to me, like a goth scarecrow.

    And Lynch’s Dune totally counts! Another perfect example of a movie that pissed off hardcore fans but managed to capture something vibrant and visionary. It too is a mixed bag, but I’ll take messy and beautiful imperfection over polished formula any day.

  4. Nick Holt Says:

    I can’t bear the first Tim Burton Batman anymore, but Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a super hero movie.

    Also, I love the moment when Alfred is going on about Vickey Vale, and Wayne says “Why don’t you marry her, Alfred?”

  5. reyortega Says:

    i’ve only really heard about this comic but have never seen it, thanks for sharing! I’ll have to hunt it down for sure.

    there is even a bit of hulk vs the rain in the new hulk, too.

  6. ivan Says:

    there’s actually a scene that’s VERY VERY much like kochalka’s comic in the new hulk movie.

  7. Patrick Holt Says:

    I haven’t seen The Hulk, but your post gets at some questions that have been working around in my head lately. I had a dense comics-movie experience recently: at a showing of The Dark Knight, I saw consecutive previews of Watchmen and The Spririt. I’m not sure I enjoyed The Dark Knight (the word “brutal” came to mind), but I was mighty impressed. The Watchmen trailer really worked for me (we’ll see about the whole movie), but The Spirit looks terrible.

    It all got me thinking. I read in a review recently that “Graphic novels are the bane of the movie,” or something like that, the reviewer obviously unimpressed with the various films in question. My mind protested, but it then I remembered that on of Alan Moore’s points of disapproval for Watchmen had something to do with “doing things that you can really only do with comics.”

    Yeah, Alan, you tell ’em! Except, just what are those things? I was bored by Sin City because it was so similar to the book, and The Spirit seems to be a case of misguided homage. 300 looked bad (I didn’t see it) because it looked like it was trying to emulate still images a little too hard (plus, you know, acting), but maybe that will change for the director in time for Watchmen. X-Men 2, on the other hand was great, but it was more a superhero movie than a comic book movie. Ghost World was so-so, but it also didn’t try to be a comic book.

    So what’s going on here? What’s being translated between comics and film that’s different than the translation between ordinary prose and film? What makes a comic book movie of any quality, and what makes one good? What’s the difference between a comic book movie (Sin City?) and a movie that happens to come from comics (X-Men 2?)? I have no idea, but I’d sure like to hear some other folks’ thoughts…

    • will pearson Says:

      The Spirit doesn’t look as good as the original Will Eisner comic. It seems way to flashy and looks more like Frank Miller’s vision.

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  11. will pearson Says:

    I’m a big fan of the Hulk,the Spirit,Batman,Spiderman,and others of course.But I do have to admit that you don’t always get the whole exact version of the comic.I did like Ang Lee’s version of the Hulk movie,I thought it was a well made and entertaining film.Sure it wasn’t the same as the comics,television series or even animated cartoon versions.But the Hulk,like other comic characters is not always done in the similar way even in the comic books.Many different artists and writers take on these characters with their own ideas and visions,thus,reinventing or reconstructing the comics and their characters to suit either a new generation of fan or maybe by their own amusement.Time changes people and sometimes it changes the fictional ones as well.Like everything else,everybody has their own approach and views of how they relate or see the movies,books,art,politics,music,philosophies and even comics.Some people see the Hulk as a monster and some see him as a hero and defender of the world.Some view Banner as a psychopath,a mad scientist and some see him as a sympathetic and tragic figure dealing with his struggles with his curse and trying to make something great from it.

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