Wednesday, June 11, 2008

From the Archive: "Superhero Mania! Part One - Hulk Smash Puny Cinema!"

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

This is a four-part Special Feature from the summer of 2008 where, for four weeks, I put two superhero movies head-to-head to see which one was better, or if I could even make it through both of them. 

Continue reading after the jump to access “Superhero Mania! Part One – Hulk Smash Puny Cinema!”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Superhero Mania!
Part One”
Special Feature Article originally published June 11th, 2008

2008 is the summer of the Superhero.  Yes, every summer has its share of superhero movies, but this year has the best assortment of comic book heroes in a long time.  Already, we’ve seen the phenomenal Iron Man.  Friday, The Incredible Hulk smashes his way into theaters, and July will bring us Hellboy 2 and The Dark Knight. 

Naturally, my instinct is to watch plenty of superhero movies to get into the mood…but not all superhero movies are good.  In fact, many of them are God-awful abominations of mankind.  Some of these bad superhero flicks take nerves of steel to sit through, and when I thought about this, I wondered if I myself have the willpower to revisit some of these terrible superhero movies.

So here’s my challenge to myself—for 4 weeks, I will watch one good superhero movie, and one bad superhero movie, write about the experience, and post it here on YourHub.  The rules of the challenge are as follows:

1. I must designate one movie as “Good” and one as “Bad” before viewing; If I’m mistaken about the designation, I’ll fess up to it.

2. I must watch all of the movie designated “good,” but I can stop watching the “bad” movie if I can’t tolerate it any more, as long as I record how far I made it through the movie.

3. The must not have viewed the chosen movie in the past six months, so that my memories of the chosen films aren’t too vivid.

4. The two films chosen weekly must have a thematic and/or stylistic relationship with one another.
So without further ado, here’s Superhero Mania: Week 1.


HULK (2003)
STARRING: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly
HOW FAR I MADE IT: 73 minutes out of 140 (52.1%)

When I decided to write this weekly superhero challenge, I had to think of the worst superhero movies I knew of.  What immediately came to mind was Ang Lee’s 2003 film, Hulk.  I saw this the day it came out, and have tried to repress the memories of it since then.  You know it’s a bad movie when Marvel buys the property back from Universal just so they can film a new version, a total reboot (The Incredible Hulk, opening Friday). 

So I headed on over to the King Soopers video department, where they have 99 cent rentals…like I’d pay any more to see this movie.  Luckily, (or maybe not) they had Hulk, and to balance out the rental, I went ahead and rented two good movies; You, Me and Dupree, and The Aviator.  A strange assortment of films to be sure, but I needed some quality entertainment to go along with Hulk to justify the rental.

I get home, pop the Hulk DVD in, and am treated to one of the most annoying DVD’s I’ve ever seen.  As if the film was bad enough, they torture you by starting the disc with ten minutes of previews; you can’t skip through them using the chapter skip button, and the “Menu” button won’t take you to the menu.  You have to fast-forward through these.  Once you’re done with that, there’s an introduction to the menu using clips from the film that must last over a minute.  It’s torture.

So I finally get to the menu, brace myself, and hit “play.”

To be fair, I hadn’t seen this movie in five years, so making an opinion on it without seeing the movie would be unfair to the film.  I tried going into the movie with an open mind.  The real question is, “Is the movie as bad as I remember it?”

No.  It’s worse.  Much worse.

Ang Lee is a very art-house kind of director, whose art-house films have reached mammoth levels of success (Crouching Tiger, Brokeback Mountain), and I applaud the man for bringing these sorts of films mainstream, but just because his kung-fu movies made a load of money doesn’t mean he’s the right guy to direct a comic book movie!  Lee takes The Hulk, a fairly simple (but deeper for it—I’ll explain later) character, and tried to turn the film into an Oscar-worthy drama.  Well guess what.  That didn’t work.  This is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

The Hulk has the simplest origin story of all time.  There’s a gamma-radiation accident, and he becomes the Hulk.  There, I summed it up in one sentence.  It takes 35 minutes before the gamma radiation accident, and that time is spent with really awful dialogue scenes.  In the first Spider-Man movie, the film starts in the lab where Peter Parker gets bit, and before the ten minute mark, the event to turn him into Spider-Man has happened.  It’s another fifteen minutes after the gamma accident that we finally see the full-bodied Hulk…and it sucks.  The CGI is awful, but more on that later. 

The first ten minutes of “Hulk” show how Bruce Banner’s dad was trying to develop some sort of weird technology for the government involving regenerative nanobots…or something like that.  I’m not sure.  Bruce’s dad gets pissed when the government takes him off the project, so he kills Bruce’s mom (again, not sure why) and gets hauled off to jail, leaving Bruce an orphan.  So, in these ten minutes, the audience’s only thought is “What the heck am I watching?”

So finally, we see adult Bruce, played by Eric Bana.  This has to be the worst casting choice of all time.  Bana isn’t a great actor, and the fact that the dialogue in this script sounds like rejected lines for a soap opera doesn’t help.  His first scene is a conversation with Betty Ross, palyed by Jennifer Connelly (who is actually really good in this movie) and they exchange some scientific talk that sounds really fake.

Anyway, to finish summing up the plot, we later find out that Bruce turns into the Hulk because of a genetic defect his father gave him, and is angry because of all his repressed emotions.  The government arrests him, Hulk smashes stuff, and in the end he fights his dad who turns into some giant bubble…I don’t know.  I wasn’t watching at this point.  I read this on Wikipedia.

The main problem with this movie is that Ang Lee was trying to make a drama about human emotions.  Okay, that’s fine.  It worked in Spider-Man 2; that was about human problems.  I don’t read a lot of comics, but my understanding of the Hulk is that its really more about a lonely man whose alter-ego has isolated him from the world, and his struggle to get rid of his alter-ego (a.k.a., rage.)  Lee went in the wrong direction with this, but it still could have worked, right?

I guess not.  Now, I’ve never seen any of Ang Lee’s other films, but after watching Hulk, I would guess he’s an awful director.  He aims his dart in the wrong direction, and still misses the direction he’s aiming.  He’s trying to make a drama, and can’t manage to do that.  As I noted above, the dialogue is awful and more often than not, the story is completely incoherent.  The pacing is awful, with one hour feeling like ten, and the action is terrible.  The first big fight the Hulk has is with mutated dogs.  Yeah, you read that right.  The Hulk fights poodles in this movie.  Just thinking about it gives me a headache.  The fight is bland and without any creativity.

The Hulk itself looks terrible.  Now, I understand CGI wasn’t as developed in 2003, but that’s really no excuse.  The Return of the King came out the same year, and it features stranger creatures that look more realistic.  The Hulk’s body is neon-green; it just doesn’t look right.  There’s no texture, and his head it way too small for his body.  The design is awkward, and the whole thing ends up looking like a rough animatic than a finished creature.  The CGI mutated-poodle looks better.

As I said above, Eric Bana isn’t just a weak-lead.  He’s so bland that it takes a while to remember who the main character is.  Fortunately, he’s surrounded by some phenomenal actors making the best of a bad screenplay.  Jennifer Connelly is a perfect Betty Ross.  She’s one of the best working actresses, and she really gave a lot to this performance, but the material is so bad that even her performance starts feeling wishy-washy.  Watching her in such a terrible movie is sad; I think I’m going to go rent Labyrinth and forget she was ever in this.  Nick Nolte makes the best of a poorly written role as Bruce’s father, and Sam Elliot is a pretty good General Ross. 

Upon release, critics hated this movie and audiences loathed it, causing a 70 percent drop in box office from week one to week two.  Most people said that the problem was that Ang Lee tried to turn a comic book into a drama.  I don’t think that’s the problem.  The problem was that he wasn’t successful in doing that.  Look at Spider-Man 2; that’s a depressing film, but rewarding because the characters are so real, and answers the question of what being a superhero in real life would be like.  “Hulk” tries to do the same thing, and completely misses the mark.  The shouldn’t be a film about emotional trauma; it should be a film about a lonely man struggling with rage.  It misses the mark so badly that I would call “Hulk” the worst superhero film of all time; there are superhero films that are worse movie, but can at least be called ‘superhero’ movies.

I tried sitting through this whole movie, but I only made it halfway, so I took the disc out and replaced it with “You, Me, and Dupree.”  “Dupree” will never be mistaken for high-brow entertainment, but it’s “Schindler’s List” when compared to “Hulk.”

Film Rating: F

SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
STARRING: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst

I love this movie.  I love love LOVE this movie.  Not only do I have a sentimental connection to it (it was the first film I ever saw at a press screening and reviewed) but I also believe it is the best superhero movie ever made.  It’s also one of my favorite movies of all time; if I were to make a top ten list of my all time favorite movies, this would be on it.  I’m probably breaking the six-month rule by watching this for the challenge, but I couldn’t resist.  If “Hulk” represents the worst superhero movie ever made, than “Spider-Man 2” is undoubtedly the best.

“Spider-Man 2” attempts to show the viewer what being a superhero in real life would be like, and how it wouldn’t be as glamorous as we all imagine.  Realism is important in this movie, and due mainly to the fabulous performances, the world created feels very real.  Peter Parker feels like a normal college student in his young 20’s, except that he is also Spider-Man.  The film (and this is true of all three in the trilogy) never overanalyzes his powers; he got bit by a super-spider, end-of-story.  Because it doesn’t go in-depth, it’s very easy to believe.  In “Hulk,” the movie spends half of its time explaining the Hulk’s powers, which makes it feel less believable.

Spider-Man 2 is depressing.  Peter is a really great guy, but his life is just terrible.  I see the Spider-Man trilogy as the story of how Peter becomes Spider-Man; the origin story is number one, but two and three turn him into a hero.  The focus of Spider-Man 2 is Peter learning the finer points of responsibility, and how to balance his responsibility with personal happiness.

When Peter decides not to be Spider-Man anymore, his life seems to become perfect, but he quickly learns that without responsibility, his life feels pointless, and he becomes Spider-Man once more.  While the first movie gave him powers, the second movie teaches Peter about why heroes are needed, and in the end, he also learns that being a hero doesn’t mean his life has to suck.

This is why Spider-Man 2 is the greatest superhero movie of all time.  It takes a favorite superhero and analyzes him in a sincere, realistic way that is never overbearing.  Everything in the plot relates directly to Peter’s struggle; Doc Ock, played brilliantly by Alfred Molina, is the perfect antithesis to Peter, and plays right into Peter’s story.  There’s a scene where Aunt May tells Peter what it means to be a hero, and to me, this scene defines all superhero stories past and future.

Most superhero movies, even the best, have self-indulgent moments; the first and third Spider-Man films are certainly guilty of this.  Every last second of Spider-Man 2 either serves Peter’s story, advances the action, or is comic relief.  The comedy is never overbearing; it always relates to the plot or the characters.  In many superhero movies, the romance feels like something tacked on to serve a formula, but in Spider-Man 2, the romance is part of the thrust of the story.  The villain, the romance, and the sub plots all come together to form the most fluid, immersive superhero film ever made. 

I could go on for pages talking about Spider-Man 2; I’ve reviewed it twice before (once in theaters, and once for the Extended DVD) and I still have things to say, but I’m sure you get the point. 

Film Rating: A

This week, I tried and failed to sit through Hulk, which I have deduced is the worst superhero film of all time.  I also watched Spider-Man 2, which is obviously the best.  Next Wednesday, we’ll be looking at Fantastic Four and X-Men 2…can you guess which one is the bad one?

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