Despite making one of the most (unjustly) ridiculed Marvel films to ever be released, it’s clear that Ang Lee understands more about the emotional struggle and strangeness of Marvel characters than almost any other director that’s been put behind the camera. His Hulk is messy, audacious, and easy to poke fun at because of its bolder, not-always-coherent visual and narrative ideas. And yet, the movie is genuinely personal, if not always personable in its narrative development, and the movie handles dark subject matter deftly where so many other superhero tales barely touch on the darker side of power. It’s implicit in how badly Marvel Studios has handled their villains on the whole – Corey Stoll’s Yellowjacket in Ant-Man and Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian in Iron Man 3 may be the exclusive exceptions to this.
Lee’s Hulk is about how one man handles grief in an extraordinarily expressive and hugely destructive way, an Oedipal reckoning writ large in wondrous, wild CGI explosions of color and pulsating light. And grief has been the primary concern of the director throughout his career, even in his more seemingly cheerful efforts. Death seems to hang over each of his narratives, whether in the form of the tragic sinking of the liner holding the titular character’s entire life in Life of Pi or the symbolic passages of Fantastic Four that open his magnum opus, The Ice Storm. And he’s become one of the great populist auteurs to explore how tragedy engenders not only maturity but also a rare kind of inventiveness, which seems to be Lee’s defining trope.
His best films are searching and progressive in imperfect yet sincere and imaginative ways, and a narrative tension that likely is a product of his close relationship with the great screenwriter Jim Schamus. Lee has directed every kind of movie, so it can occasionally be hard to keep track of what exactly is his movie if you haven’t become accustomed to his stylistic and narrative tropes.Here’s where you can start, but it should be noted that he’s one of those guys who speaks louder with his entire catalog than his individual triumphs.