First, a clarification: though created in 1962 by Marvel Comics legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Hulk is not a superhero. ''Not in the traditional sense, like, say, Spider-Man,'' says producer and Marvel Enterprises exec Avi Arad. ''He's more of a tragic, misunderstood monster, but capable of heroic things.'' The character's secret origin is a comics classic: Bruce Banner (''Black Hawk Down'''s Eric Bana) is a scientist who gets pelted by gamma rays during an experiment gone bad. The only side effect is that when he gets angry, he gets green. And extra, extra large. ''It's just great psychodrama,'' says director Ang Lee (''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon''). ''Everyone has a Hulk inside them. My idea was to make a movie that made the viewer confront that Hulk.'' He laughs. ''I suppose it's a very high standard.''
It's been a tough one to meet. Lee, the year's most surprising comic-book-movie director, and writer James Schamus struggled through several drafts of a screenplay until a brainstorm -- introducing Banner's father (Nick Nolte) into a mix that also includes a love interest (Jennifer Connelly), her Army-brass dad (Sam Elliott), and a professional and romantic rival (Josh Lucas) -- provided a breakthrough. Yet the $100 million-plus production's most hulking obstacle was its completely computer-generated (and thus nonexistent) title character. ''To me, there was never any other way to go. I mean, where are you going to find a 15-foot green actor?'' says producer Gale Anne Hurd (''Terminator 2''), who's been trying to make a Hulk movie for 12 years. (Marvel's bankruptcy and shuffles at Universal slowed development.) So the cast had to use its imagination -- except for the man playing Bruce Banner. ''I got the easy part -- I got to act with human beings,'' says Bana, whom Lee cast after seeing his acclaimed turn as a psycho in the 2000 Australian indie ''Chopper.'' ''The bizarre thing for me was that this movie was basically just a traditional drama.''
Following the five-month shoot, Lee retreated to San Francisco to oversee Industrial Light & Magic's animation of the Hulk, whose size and skin tone fluctuate (depending on how cranky he is) throughout the film. There have been complications; green, for example, ''can make you look like a toy,'' says Lee. ''When this is over, anything green is going to make me want to Hulk out.''