Marvel’s Hulk Absolutely Tortured Its Director: “Ang Lee Had Tears in His Eyes”

Exclusive: Five years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched, Ang Lee tried to bring an arthouse sensibility to The Hulk...and paid dearly for it.

The CGI Hulk in Ang Lee's Hulk (2003)
Photo: Universal Pictures

Nostalgia has played a significant role in the movies and television series of the modern era. Legacy sequels can wait 20, even 30 years to come to fruition and still make a major impact at the box office. And nowhere is this more apparent than with comic book films.

Spider-Man: No Way Home brought back Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, The Flash is set to bring back Michael Keaton, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness gave Patrick Stewart one more spin in the hovering yellow wheelchair – and every time, audiences ate it up. At this point, it is safe to assume that if a studio thinks they can have an actor fit into the iconic tights one more time, they will. 

Josh Lucas, who played Glenn Talbot in Marvel’s 2003 pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe film Hulk, recently sat down with Den of Geek to discuss the most recent season of Yellowstone. But when asked if he believes the world of Hulk may one day find an opportunity to somehow return, Lucas had a lot to say about his experiences in that oft-derided movie. More importantly, he reflected on director Ang Lee’s experiences as well. 

“I’ve never seen a director be more tortured by a film than I feel he was with that movie,” Lucas says of Lee. “His vision was so clear. I just don’t think he had the technology available to do what he wanted to do, and I think it really broke his heart.”

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At the time, it was certainly a bold decision for Universal Pictures and then “Marvel Enterprises” to go with Ang Lee. Granted, there had been critically successful directors such as Sam Raimi helming major CBM properties, but Lee was coming fresh off the epic and imaginative Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (and would go on to win the Best Directing Oscar for Brokeback Mountain). Yet according to Lucas, Lee had a deep connection to the titular jade giant. 

“It was an interesting choice for Marvel to choose an auteur at Ang’s level, but if you look at Ang Lee, he has some personal connections to the Hulk. He’s a quiet, scientific kind of mind. He’s a very gentle soul who has this deeply powerful, creative, and overwhelming urge to create. Not just great art, but transcendent, difficult art. All of his movies, they’ve done that – Crouching Tiger obviously, Brokeback, each one of them.” 

Creating “difficult” art can obviously come with challenges, but as Lucas recalls, the experience for Lee went beyond even that.

“He poured his soul into [Hulk], and you could see that he was exhausted. It looked like he went to war.” 

As Lucas tells it, there were a few times where that “gentle soul” within Lee, much like the tortured part of Bruce Banner’s (Eric Bana) character, was the cause for some of the inner turmoil during the production of Hulk. There are more than a few specific occasions that Lucas remembers quite clearly, including one instance when the cast and crew were at Industrial Light and Magic. During an early screening of the post-production work, Lucas remembers Lee telling him “this has been one of the most painful experiences of my life.”

Lucas delves further into Lee’s mindset, revealing that wasn’t the only time the director seemed tortured. Coincidentally, Lee could have perhaps used a little more Hulk to go with his Banner-like qualities. According to Lucas, it appeared that studio influence or other factors were pulling the film away from Lee and his true vision, and that Lee was perhaps not advocating for that vision enough. 

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“At one point, we were walking off the soundstage at Universal and Ang had tears in his eyes,” Lucas says. “I asked him, ‘are you alright?’ He said, ‘If I could be mean, I’d be a great director.’ You could tell he was sort of tortured by what he put himself through.” 

Lee has always had a reputation as a congenial and admired captain of his films, which Lucas is more than happy to corroborate. Lucas begins to smile as he warmly recalls his overall experience with Lee. 

“I have nothing but the most profound respect for what he was doing. It was an amazing experience. I totally remember it being one of the most artful experiences I’ve had, and I think that’s kind of saying something.” 

Fans of Marvel realize that Lee’s Hulk was far from a perfect film, but considering the turmoil behind the scenes, and the fact it was the first feature film to star the green mean machine, it can be forgiven. There are some that realize Hulk walked so that the MCU could run, especially considering how quickly Marvel went back to the property, making The Incredible Hulk the sophomore MCU film, following the groundbreaking Iron Man only a month after the mega hit came to theaters. It would seem that Lucas will be a fan of the original Hulk film, and his experience, regardless of what others may think.

“That movie stands up in odd ways. It’s flawed, obviously, but I love that movie. I love the attempt to show the flipping pages and all the different things that I haven’t seen done like that since. As great as the [recent] Marvel movies are, the artfulness of that flawed film remains a high mark.”