Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Superhero Movies and Ang Lee's Hulk

There's something about the superhero movie that appeals to my nerdliness. I never was a comic book nerd as a kid, but they were always around my periphery. There were games or cartoons or friends with comic books that managed to appeal to me without ever actually getting me to make a serious effort to invest in them. So, in many ways, the recent spate of superhero movies was aimed at me. No massive backstory or continuity to learn, but good amounts of fun, right? Not entirely, it turns out. While I have liked most of the ones I've seen to some degree or another, I haven't actually watched one and said "Wow. That's really what I wanted to see, how I wanted to see it."

Last week, I saw Ang Lee's Hulk. This movie was much-derided, called "too slow" or "too boring" or just plain bad. Yet I thought it was the best comic-based movie I'd seen. I think it's because it actually managed to solve the comic book paradox.

Superhero comics depend on a kind of balancing act with the reader. The reader sees the action as, to a certain degree, absurd or humorous. But it's always supposed to be fun. On the other hand, the story inside the comic is almost always deathly serious for its characters. New York, their mother, the world, something is about to explode or die.

The modern superhero movie exists solely within its own context. They are treated as deathly serious. The Dark Knight may be the pinnacle of this, with its grimy city, growly Batman, and psychopathic Joker. Any humor that exists in the movies is firmly within the movie's context - we're laughing with the characters, not at the absurdity of the film.

This all sounds somewhat counter-intuitive at first glance. Don't we want our movies to be realistic? Isn't absurd usually used as a negative descriptor? Not really, when it comes to comic books. They derived their success from the '60's "Silver Age" by placing realistic characters in unrealistic situations. Spider-Man became the best-selling superhero because he was a nerdy wisecracker who had cool adventures, not because his spiderness was inherently marketable. Superhero teams like the X-Men get a lot of their popularity from their examination of small group dynamics in stressful situations. The push in films to have more action and be "darker" or more realistic results in a flip of the normal comics plan - comic book movies take unrealistic characters and put them in realistic settings. It might be cool, but it's not all that fun. Part of this is the medium. Comics allow for much more imagination and playfulness by their very design - they play with space - where movies are more linear - they deal with time.

Ang Lee's Hulk, on the other hand, keeps the absurdity of the comic book universe alive, while maintaining a level of seriousness with its characters. It does this primarily with Lee's directing and editing. The film regularly has parallel scenes in comic-book style panels, or it split-screens to show two halves of a scene. Most jarringly, Hulk sometimes suddenly reverses the angle of a scene, either flipping a person to a mirror image. These gimmicks serve to remind the viewer of the artificiality of it all, and they say "hey! I'm the director, and I'm having fun!" The director's playfulness manages to combine almost perfectly with the characters' problems.

To be honest, I have no idea why this movie was so disliked. There's also plenty of action in Hulk - at least four distinct sequences - which is more than any other Marvel-based movie I've seen. It just seems to me to click in the way that a comic-based movie should.