I always hate it when people call superhero movies “comic-book movies.” It feels pejorative, but that’s not why it bothers me — despite being paid to write about them, I harbor vast stores of resentment toward the damn things. I suppose part of it is me being offended on behalf of comic books, which, as a medium, encompass an intoxicating bouquet of genres, not just those of the cape-and-cowl variety. But the main issue I have with the phrase is the fact that nearly all “comic-book movies” are just movies. They may have their roots in intellectual property that originated in the funnybooks, and they may be serialized like comics are, but that’s about it. On a formal level, there’s nothing comic book-y about them.
But there’s one superhero picture I absolutely feel comfortable calling a comic-book movie, and that’s Ang Lee’s Hulk. I can hear you tiptoeing toward the exit, but please allow me to assure you that I’m not writing a contrarian reassessment. There’s a reason the movie has a 54 percent on Metacritic and experienced an historic 69.7 percent drop-off in ticket sales between its first and second weekends: It’s not terribly good. Today marks the 15th anniversary of its release and, in honor of that occasion, I took it upon myself to rewatch the thing for the first time in many years. I was expecting to write a piece about how it’s a forgotten masterpiece. By the time the Hulk started fighting enormous mutant CGI dogs in a forest, I gave up on that mission.
However, one feature kept popping up in my notes: the panels. Lee made a bold, potentially disastrous choice when he crafted Hulk. He decided to imitate the experience of reading a comic book by regularly dividing up the screen with black borders. Each bordered section is its own shot, coexisting in time and space with the others. It could easily have come across as condescending, like the 1960s Batman TV show’s campy fixation on aping comics by spelling out sound effects, thus damning the world to generations’ worth of headlines like “Bam! Pow! Socko! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” Perhaps it’s the overall earnestness of the movie, but the panels don’t feel condescending at all. Indeed, they’re a fantastic, admirable formal experiment that should be studied by every superhero filmmaker.
Hulk didn’t invent the split screen, of course. British film pioneer George Albert Smith employed it as early as 1898 in a short called Santa Claus, where we see a child’s bed on the left side of the frame and a circular insert of Santa creeping along a rooftop on the right. Technological advancements in the ’60s gave way to experimental uses of screen division in shorts like To Be Alive! and In the Labyrinth. You can find split screens in all manner of mainstream flicks, from Woodstock to When Harry Met Sally to Mean Girls. I’m not a confident enough cinephile to claim that Hulk provided the all-time best example of the technique. What I can argue is that no one has used it in superhero cinema the way Lee and editor Tim Squyres did in Hulk.
An example is in order. Let’s start with a (relatively) straightforward one. Watch this scene in which the Hulk is cornered by cops and soldiers on the streets of his native San Francisco, starting at the 01:45 mark:
Let’s break down what we just saw. The camera is initially positioned behind Hulk as he looks down a street at oncoming police cars. A square frame slides into the bottom-left corner, with a tighter, diagonal angle on those same cars. Simple enough so far. Then the frames begin to dance. That square panel expands into a rectangle while simultaneously switching its contents to an image of the path of destruction our hero has left; the other panel hasn’t adjusted its shot of the Not-So-Jolly Green Giant. The left panel cuts to another shot, then another. Suddenly, two more panels slide in from the top and bottom to take up the negative space. New shots appear in the four panels, flitting around out of sync. We return to a standard single-shot screen, but it’s not to last — soon, that screen shrinks to a panel while another appears, then two more. They all show the growing masses of gun-wielding authority figures. Back to standard shots, then again to splits, ones that change through blurs instead of slides or hard cuts. Then Jennifer Connelly’s Betty Ross shows up and the fun is, alas, over for the time being.
Whew, that’s a lot of words to describe a few seconds of movie time. But that’s sort of the point. The panels create a visual maelstrom in a moment when we need to feel as though chaos has arrived. They also convey the Hulk’s sense of entrapment by literally boxing him into contracting spaces on a number of occasions. Plus, it just looks cool. There’s an excitement in novelty, and you rarely see that sort of visual insanity in tentpole pictures.
The panels can augment action sequences in other ways. Take, for example, this scene, in which the Hulk escapes an underground bunker in which he’s being held by Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliott) and Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas — and by the way, whatever happened to Josh Lucas?), starting around the 01:19 mark:
Here, the panels appear, disappear, and move in irregular ways that suggest varying degrees of urgency. Hulk trudges through a hallway and Talbot’s head slowly slides across the bottom of the screen while he declares that he needs soldiers to be nonlethal in their attacks on the Emerald Avenger. His panel whooshes into full size, then immediately shrinks into a vertical rectangle alongside a tight shot on Ross; both panels disappear quickly, suggesting that both men are being distracted by the latest developments. Ross and Talbot begin to bicker with one another in panels of varying sizes and shapes that exist on either side of the main shot of the Hulk, allowing the viewer to be reminded of the enormity of what they’re talking about, even as we see each of them in opposition over what to do about it. (There’s also a nifty millisecond in which a stream of weaponized foam extends beyond one of the borders.)
Skip ahead to 02:36 and you get the craziest panel sequence of the entire movie, in which a fireball explodes behind Talbot and he becomes his own person-shaped panel, which freezes and is promptly consumed by the flames. We then zoom out to well over a dozen panels of various shots from the rest of the movie, conveying the pivotal nature of what’s happening at this given moment. Ross orders a lockdown and we shift to a six-panel grid of the process initiating. “Target’s still moving,” a soldier says while a panel showing the Hulk literally moves across a digital map of the facility. Again, beyond all the meaning you can pick apart about each choice in the sequence, the whole thing is just viscerally cool. Lee and his collaborators are engaging in an experiment and we’re the guinea pigs. Such chutzpah on his part! Who else takes risks like that in this populist genre?
The panels even work in quieter moments. I can’t find a YouTube video of this one, but there’s a scene early on in the film where Betty and Talbot run into one another. She walks into a building while he sits near the door, and as she walks past him, the camera follows her but a new panel opens up where he was sitting and stays on him even as he exits the main frame. Our field of vision is thus subtly expanded in width without either of the actors having to shrink in size due to a zoom out. He follows her to an elevator bank and the two panels remain in close-up on the two heads in perfect sync, allowing us to warp our sense of space and somehow see the same set of events from two different angles. There is no action-scene chaos here, only a director who wants us to expand our notions of what our eyes can process in a single moment of time.
That’s a concept familiar to anyone who’s ever drawn or analyzed a comic-book page. Part of the magic of comics is their challenge to the reader: Are you ready to visually navigate a narrative in a way that your eye is incapable of doing in normal environments? We’re not insects — we can’t see in multiple dimensions on our own. We need the assistance of a creator who’s skilled enough to pick out those dimensions and lay them out on a surface where we can focus in on one, move back and forth between multiple of them at will, or mentally zoom out and, in defiance of physics, see an array of lived moments at once.
There are a few other merits to Hulk, most notably Nick Nolte’s bizarrely compelling turn as the Hulk’s sociopathic dad. But in a world where superhero movies are among the least ambitious cinematic products in the marketplace, one can’t help but feel that Hulk’s greatest gift is this vast formal leap. In other words, the movie declares, Bam! Pow! Socko! Comic-book movies aren’t just for visual blandness anymore! Those in power would do well to listen.