Five years before the MCU, Universal Studios created the most unlikely couple in superhero movie history. An odd candidate to direct a Marvel film, the studio tapped director Ang Lee to make the first major motion picture adaptation of Incredible Hulk. The mind behind such cinematic gems as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain would have a major misfire with the green giant, making a largely misunderstood film about family turmoil. Now, nearly fifteen years since its release, Lee’s version of the character is mostly remembered for his poorly rendered CGI looks, though Marvel would probably like viewers to completely wipe the flick from their memories.
As poorly executed as Lee’s movie turned out to be, there’s still a lot of positive that came out of the project. Although it failed to become a success like Sony’s Spider-Man franchise of the time, it gave viewers their first look at one of the founding members of the Avengers and showed that a superhero film could have an artistic vision (albeit an often muddled one). Ultimately, Hulk was neither the box office smash nor the critical darling we all hoped for, but it’s undoing didn’t just take place overnight. The movie’s history was years in the making, with many decisions coming together to create the disastrous result. So with that in mind, we’re taking a look back at the production to reveal 15 Things You Never Knew About Ang Lee’s Disastrous Hulk Movie.
15. Actors Considered for the Lead Role Included Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Steve Buscemi, and Edward Norton
When the first steps towards a full-length theatrical Hulk film began in 1990, Lou Ferrigno was just finishing up his decade long career of wearing green body paint with the made-for-television flick The Death of the Incredible Hulk. When Ang Lee jumped on board, names attached to the project began flooding in.
The first major name to approach the film was A-lister Johnny Depp, but the actor would eventually pass up the project. Later, Ang Lee tried to attach Billy Crudup of Watchmen fame to the multi-million dollar blockbuster, but he soon passed as well. In time, stars such as Tom Cruise, Jeff Goldblum, and even Steve Buscemi were rumored for the part. Edward Norton, who later played the role in the 2008 adaptation, was also approached but turned down the chance after reporting issues with the script. Finally, David Duchovny almost took a shot at the big green guy in a supposed direct-to-DVD sequel to the 2003 flick which never came to fruition.
14. Early Drafts Included Villains Such as The Leader, The Absorbing Man, Zzzax…and a School of Sharks
Setting up shop at Universal in 1992, producers Avi Arad and Gale Anne Hurd brought in screenwriter Michael France (Cliffhanger, GoldenEye) to pen the first draft for Hulk. The original concept had the Hulk battling terrorists, but the idea was scrapped when John Thurman was brought in to improve the script, adding elements of Bruce Banner’s origins from Tales to Astonish into the mix.
By the late ‘90s, Thurman’s draft went through changes, including a rewrite from Zak Penn which would include a fight scene between the Hulk and a school of sharks. Co-producer Jonathan Hensleigh then began the story over from scratch, coming up with yet another unused concept involving gamma-infused convicts who are transformed into insect-human hybrids. By early 2000, another script from Michael France made its way to production, with one version including the Absorbing Man, Zzzax, and the Leader as villains. With approval from Ang Lee, a final script was approved with Zzax and the Leader being removed and the Absorbing Man’s story being fused with that of Bruce’s father.
13. Nick Nolte’s Role As Bruce’s Father Led to His Now Infamous Mugshot
On September 11, 2002, just a few months into the production of Hulk, actor Nick Nolte was arrested by the California Highway Patrol on suspicions of driving while intoxicated in Malibu. The photo that would be released the following day showed a clearly disheveled Nolte donning a bright blue Hawaiian shirt with an unkempt hairdo. The mugshot would go viral, as many wondered what was happening to the actor to appear so wild-haired in public.
Months later, Nolte would comment on the situation, calling his struggle with alcohol a lifelong disease, but one he hoped to have control over. Despite Nolte’s crazy appearance, his wild hair was actually part of the actor’s method approach to the role of Bruce’s father David. The shadowy father figure and genetic researcher who uses himself as a human guinea pig for the good of humankind sported the untamed hair as part of his persona. In order to stay in character, Nolte maintained the look outside of the set, explaining why his arrest now lives in infamy.
12. While On Set, Production Was Halted When College Students Wouldn’t Stop Urinating in Porta-Potties
When filming a massive scale production the size of Hulk, there’s a laundry list of things that can go wrong, but while working in San Francisco, the sound crew ran into an unforeseeable snag. As a prank, a group of students from UC Berkeley were systematically using the porta-potties on set, urinating loudly so that the sound would be captured on microphone. The production was halted for two hours as the culprits were rounded up and removed from the area.
Although the distraction proved to be an irritation for the actors on set, they were ultimately able to return to their serious tone after the incident. As on-set pranks go, the idea was one of the more bizarre ones for a big blockbuster film, but in the end proved to be only a minor setback for everyone involved in the production.
11. Universal Waited 12 Years to Make the Film So the Special Effects Would Be Good Enough
After the comic book financial collapse of the ‘90s, Marvel went from one of the most profitable readership brands to a bankrupt company on the verge of shutting its doors. To keep its head above water, the comic book juggernaut turned to Hollywood, auctioning off the movie rights to their properties to the highest bidding studios. While it was an opportune time for Fox and Sony, who jumped in by purchasing the X-Men and Spider-Man rights, it was Universal that was faced with the biggest challenge on how to bring their new acquisition to the silver screen.
Despite multiple attempts to write a movie that would come in under budget, Universal continually ran into roadblocks without the right technology to convincingly portray the Hulk on screen. Even after waiting 12 years to finally enter production on the project, many still felt that the movie could have benefited from a longer wait, as the final effects still looked unrealistic compared to the other superhero blockbusters of the big screen.
10. Ang Lee Kept the Tone Intentionally Morbid on Set
Despite not having the technology to render a truly realistic looking Hulk on the silver screen, Ang Lee’s comic book adaptation was a movie ahead of its time. Using a father-son story as its backdrop and dealing with one man’s struggles to deal with his inner monster, Hulk was an opportunity for the auteur to make a deeply personal film on a big canvass.
According to the director, inspirations for the story came from classic horror movies such as King Kong, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, while Greek tragedies were also a strong motivation behind the character’s development. In order to keep the story’s tone serious, Ang Lee approached the film with a straight face, with Eric Bana later calling the experience morbid. Preparation for the role required Bana to attend a bare-knuckle boxing match, while the actors were asked to stayed focused, with many of them remembering the set as being extremely silent during filming. Lee certainly ran a tight ship.
9. The CGI Model Took 2.5 Million Hours and 1.5 Years to Complete
When filming began in Arizona in March of 2002, Ang Lee told Eric Bana that he would be making two separate movies around Bruce Banner’s alter personas. The first film would be a deftly serious melodrama, while the second would be a CGI-heavy superhero blockbuster involving extensive hours to get the proper look and feel of the big green rage machine.
The behind-the-scenes computer animation work began at Industrial Light and Magic in 2001, and wouldn’t end until eighteen months later in 2003 – after 2.5 million hours of dedication from 180 different technicians. The project was one of the most ambitious undertakings of any special effects studio in movie history. Using 12,996 texture maps, 1165 muscle movements, and 100 layers of skin, the final appearance of the character still proved to be a major disappointment for fans, many of whom compared the looks of the Green Goliath to Shrek, with his movements appearing rubbery at times.
8. Ang Lee Played the Hulk Using Motion Capture
As a two-time Academy Award-winning director known for making everything from meditative art house pictures to sweeping epics, Ang Lee is a visionary who continues to defy expectations by never conforming to one genre. As the choice to direct Hulk, Lee was an unconventional selection, but given his reputation as a boundary-pushing artist, it made sense for the director. But what many viewers may be surprised to learn is that Lee didn’t just add to the Hulk mythology with his work behind the camera. He actually played the green brute himself.
Dressed in a motion capture suit at the Industrial Light and Magic studios, Lee got under the skin of Bruce Banner’s alter ego in order to get the CGI model to move the way he wanted. The work required Lee to wear the suit for eight hours a day, two days a week, for nine months. The director later called the performance therapeutic, allowing him to escape his comfort zone by screaming and smashing as he brought the hero to life.
7. In the Movie, Hulk Becomes Greener and Taller the Angrier He Becomes
For 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, Edward Norton’s version of the character would take on a whole new look, changing a darker shade of green, rocking a longer hairstyle over the military-style cut of the 2003 film, and using face-capturing technology to detail the actor’s face onto the Hulk’s body. The second theatrical version of the Hulk would stand at nine feet in height, but for Ang Lee, the Marvel character would grow as he became more accustomed to destruction, hitting his peak the angrier he got.
When viewers first witness Eric Bana’s transformation in Hulk, he stands at nine feet and appears as a greyish-green. Later, his shade becomes darker and he’s shown at both 12 feet and 15 feet tall, indicating Banner has less control over his emotions as the story goes on. In order to make the film, Industrial Light and Magic created three distinct versions of the character, each one reflective of Banner’s range of emotions.
6. Intentionally Dark Scenes Hid the Poor CGI
Despite spending countless hours in the studio working on the VFX, there was a certain level of trepidation when it came to revealing the Hulk’s look to the public. In order to get viewers used to the overall appearance of the bright green savage, Ang Lee didn’t show the character in broad daylight until much later in the film, intentionally obscuring the audience’s view.
During production, one scene would prove to be the most difficult for the special effects department. The battle between the Hulk and the three gamma-radiated dogs was such a large undertaking that the crew was only able to film a third of the fight that was originally storyboarded, due to the accruing costs. Even with the amount of detail put into the scene, the fight still remained dark to hide many of the flaws of the CGI look.
5. It Had A Record-Breaking Second Week Box Office Drop
Currently, Hulk’s Rotten Tomatoes score sits a 61%, a rating that just barely passes the fresh threshold, but the audience rating is markedly lower, coming in at just 29%, reflecting the viewers’ strong dislike for the movie at the time of its release. Critiqued for being an overly long drama that’s more talk than smash, the film was quick to gain bad word of mouth, and the results showed in the film’s second week at the box office.
Debuting atop of the U.S. box office, Hulk brought in a respectable $62 million in week one, but seven days later, that sum fell to just under $19 million, a whopping 69.7% dropoff. To date, the film still holds a record for the largest second week decline in revenue for a film that debuted number one overall. What makes the numbers even less impressive is the fact the movie brought in a total of $245 million, which is enough to consider it a failure after spending nearly the same amount in production and marketing.
4. An Animatronic Hulk Was Built, But Never Used
Whether audiences believe that Ang Lee’s Hulk was an undervalued Freudian tale or a totally incoherent mess, the general consensus among viewers was that the green behemoth could have spent more time in the VFX room. While Universal ultimately went with the decision to feature the horribly rendered CGI Hulk in their movie, there was a moment when the production company considered using an animatronic version of the Marvel character.
Constructed by veteran special effects artist Steve Johnson, whose career spans three decades and features such creations as Slimer from Ghostbusters and Doc Ock of Spider-Man 2, the completely robotic version of the Hulk was a life-sized version of the character that featured bulging biceps designed to expand and tear off sleeves as well as hands that worked and moved like the big green guy. In all likelihood, the animatronic Hulk wouldn’t have worked out, but it would have made for an interesting movie to say the least.
3. According to the Animators, the Hulk Weighs 3452 Pounds and Has a 130” Waist
When approaching a massive special effects job such as the one Industrial Light and Magic did for Hulk, an extensive amount of research must be done to achieve the most accurate portrayal possible. For the animators, that meant not only getting the 15 foot version of the giant depicted in the film to look intimidating, but also making sure the character’s measurements matched his level of intimidation.
According to Marvel’s official information on Bruce Banner’s alter ego, the Hulk generally weighs anywhere between 1040 to 1400 pounds. For the version in the 2003 adaptation, he comes in well beyond that, at 3452 pounds with a 130” waistline. To add to those numbers, he can also exert 14 tons of pressure per square inch and has skin ten times stronger than Kevlar. He can also hit a maximum speed of 300 mph, with a jump capable of reaching three to four miles in length.
2. It’s Loosely Connected to The Incredible Hulk (2008)
After a poor showing at the box office and a stained reputation from bad word of mouth, screenwriter James Schamus still hoped to push forward with a sequel to Hulk. By January 2006, the sequel was scrapped, and Universal announced it would distribute The Incredible Hulk with funding from Marvel Studios.
After The Incredible Hulk’s release, producer Gale Anne Hurd commented on the connection between the new film and Ang Lee’s 2003 version, calling the MCU flick a “requel,” both a reboot and a sequel. Although Banner’s origin was restarted in the film’s beginning and the movie largely ignored everything from Lee’s version, it still picks up with the character hiding in South America, where he was last seen in Hulk. There’s also a scene in which General Ross makes reference to all of the Hulk’s victims, deliberately naming the people he killed in Lee’s film. At the time of The Incredible Hulk’s release, the MCU had not fully been developed, which explains why the writers chose to leave these connections open to interpretation.
1. It’s Responsible for the Lack of Hulk Solo Movies Going Forward
Although we will see the Incredible Hulk clash with the world of Asgard this fall in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, the chance of a solo Hulk movie movie forward is looking less likely. Despite what some may think, Disney does have the rights to make a solo Hulk feature, but since the rights were first sold to Universal in the early ‘90s, complications have prevented them from doing so.
Much like Sony’s Spider-Man deal, Universal was given a limited amount of time to produce a sequel to 2003’s Hulk before losing the rights to the character. Marvel regained the production rights in 2005, but not the distribution rights, which still belong to Universal. Because of the structured deal which led to the 2003 film, all profits from distribution would be split between Universal and Disney (which now owns Marvel). This shouldn’t be a big deal, except Universal also has the right to first refusal, which means the studio can reject the idea to distribute another solo Hulk film, making the project a high risk for Disney.
Do you know of any other interesting factoids surrounding the highly underwhelming Hulk solo film? Let us know in the comments.
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