In his emotionally bottled-up way, Bruce Banner would fit right in with the frozen-over, lonely 1970s suburban middle-class crowd that director Ang Lee made so vivid six years ago in ''The Ice Storm.'' Banner (Eric Bana), the mild-mannered research geneticist whose amazing alter ego lends his name to The Hulk, is so repressed that he barely remembers his traumatic childhood, and so impenetrable that his pretty scientist colleague, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), has given up on identifying any Boyfriend DNA in the guy. Like the presentation mode of many moderns operating without the balm of antidepressants, his placid facade covers a bottomless pit of frightening rage. ''You wouldn't like me when I'm angry,'' he warns.
But, see, that's where he's so very wrong, and where The Hulk goes wrong, too. When Banner gets mad, he puffs up into a great green brute the bulging Hulk of comic-book (and Lou Ferrigno-on-late-'70s-TV) fame, bursting the bounds of all but his stretch-skivvies and remorselessly crushing the pathetic humans who tick him off. He's built. He's the embodiment of identifiably human emotions that feel too scary to identifiable humans. Understanding the forces of nature, nurture, and post-nuclear-age genetic mischief that made him isn't nearly as satisfying as observing him when he's...vexed. Of course we want to see Bruce Banner angry!
Joyful monstrosity is the very attitude that's missing in Lee's first feature since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, his Oscar-winning epic about outwardly cool, inwardly passionate Chinese martial-arts masters. Working with a story by his longtime collaborator James Schamus (who also reworked the script cocredited to John Turman and Michael France to better fit Lee to a T), the director anesthetizes his Marvel Comics mutant with a mopey psychological back story that leaves little unanalyzed space for fun. A comic-book superhero has seldom squandered so much screen time being conflicted about his heritage and destiny and I don't mean conflicted in a sexy, Wolverine-y, X-Men way, either; a big-budget comic-book adaptation has rarely felt so humorless and intellectually defensive about its own pulpy roots.
And that academic dampness weighs down all aspects of the project. While Nick Nolte, in full mug-shot disarray, has himself a nutty, unsupervised playtime skulking as the mad-scientist father the adult Banner didn't know he had, Bana (Black Hawk Down) and Oscar winner Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) operate as if stunned on antihistamines: They stand and stare, their logy characters so undynamic that when the two knock back a couple of beers following a failed lab experiment, the moderate activity looks Rabelaisian. In Connelly's case, the focus on her serious eyes is pleasant enough since her crystal peepers are photogenic objects that frequently do the hard work in her performances. In Bana's case, the result is more disconcertingly amphibian.
Beware the comic-book movie in which the post-morphed, computer-generated superhero is more human than the pre- morphed actual human! (In contrast, Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker is easily as compelling as his Spider-Man.) Beware, too, the comic-book adaptation that becomes obsessed with its own translation of flat panel art into kinetic moving pictures. Lee and cinematographer Frederick Elmes (''The Ice Storm'') lose themselves happily and lose us, narratively in looking for novel ways to photograph cellular transformation, especially in early scenes when the baby Bruce is being used as a human lab rat by his maniacal father. Lee also frequently divides the screen, self-consciously and to no added effect, like a comic-book page of multiple images, especially during scenes when Betty's military-brass father (Sam Elliott, a walking bristle brush) is pursuing The Hulk for revenge reasons of his own.
When bland Banner explodes into Hulk mode, though when he's so blindingly furious that he breaks things without a thought in his trapezoidal head the filmmaker seems uncomfortable with his own creation. Just when we've ditched expectations of human charisma and are ready for some dumb big fun, the crouching CGI monster is hustled through his destructive sprees like an obligation rather than a reward. In this confused comic-book parable about the cycle of godless destruction unleashed with the atom bomb (or whatever), the son's psychological struggles with his mad father are too dully heavy while the monster's displays of magic destruction are too dully slight. And really, aren't we entitled to at least a marvelous moment or two when the Beast outwits his pursuers, is soothed by a Beauty, and thrills us with how exciting it is being green?