Scientist David Banner has the idea to create super soldiers by introducing modified DNA sequences extracted from various animals to strengthen the human cellular response, but General Thaddeus Ross denies him permission to use human subjects. Banner subsequently conducts the experiments on himself. After the birth of his son Bruce, he finds that his son may have inherited the effects and seeks a cure, but is stopped in the process. Following a traumatic event, Bruce remembers nothing of the incident, and has been raised by the Krenzlers. Years later, Bruce is a geneticist working with his girlfriend, Betty Ross, within the Berkeley Biotechnology Institute on nanomed research. The pair hopes to achieve instantaneous cell repair by using low level Gamma radiation exposure to activate the nanomeds once they are introduced into a living organism. During routine maintenance of their appropriated gamma-ray spectrometer, a circuit shorts and triggers the experiment's program sequence. Unable to prevent the machine from firing, Bruce throws himself in front of a colleague to shield the man and is exposed to a massive amount of gamma radiation.
Betty visits Bruce in the hospital and remarks that he should be dead, but Bruce feels great. A new janitor at the lab claims that he is Bruce's biological father, of whom Bruce has no recollection. When under extreme stress, Bruce transforms into the Hulk, a huge, humanoid, green-skinned monstrous being who destroys the laboratory, though Bruce later has no memory of the incident. General Ross suspects Bruce of collaborating with David Banner but deduces Bruce has repressed memories. He orders Bruce to be put under house arrest. Through a phone call with his father, Bruce learns that the radiation unleashed something that was already in his DNA, and that David Banner plans to have Betty killed by his dogs, which now have similar powers to the Hulk thanks to David mutating them with gamma radiation. Bruce is then attacked by Major Glenn Talbot, leading to a transformation into the Hulk. The Hulk seriously injures Talbot before leaping to save Betty. After being wounded in a lengthy struggle, he kills David's dogs and changes back into Bruce before being captured by the military the next morning.
Bruce is kept under observation at a secret desert base, while Talbot intends to weaponize the Hulk's powers. David tries to recreate Bruce's failed experiment, but instead of turning into another Hulk he finds himself able to absorb any material he touches or energy to which he is exposed. He hands himself over to the military after telling Betty that he had murdered his wife in front of the child Bruce. Bruce has a nightmare about the event, leading to a more powerful transformation of the Hulk. Talbot is killed in an explosion created when he attempted to use a special syringe to gain a sample of the creature. The Hulk escapes the base and rampages across the desert to San Francisco, battling Army forces sent after him. When Betty calms Bruce into his human form, General Ross realizes the Hulk is uncontrollable and that Bruce should be executed.
At their mutual execution, David tries to taunt his son into transforming into the Hulk, but fails. He then decides to "go first" and bites an electrical cable, absorbing all the electricity in San Francisco. The electricity hits Bruce, triggering his own transformation. A brutal fight ensues between David and the Hulk, with David absorbing the Hulk's energy. It proves too much for David to handle, but when he himself transforms into a massive creature, he is killed by an Army missile. One year later, Bruce is presumed dead, while General Ross mentions apparent Hulk sightings and Betty admits her love for Bruce. In a South American jungle, Bruce has become a doctor and is approached by rebel militants who want to take medical supplies from the poor. Bruce faces the militants' leader, warning him that, "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry." His eyes turn green and the roar of the Hulk is heard from the distance.Eric Bana as Dr. Bruce Banner / Hulk (known legally as Bruce Krenzler throughout the movie): a gamma-radiation research scientist who was exposed to a large amount of gamma radiations in an accident in his labs and after the incident. Bana was cast in October 2001, signing for an additional two sequels. Ang Lee felt obliged to cast Bana upon seeing Chopper, and first approached the actor in July 2001. The role was heavily pursued by other actors. Bana was also in heavy contention for Ghost Rider, but lost out to Nicolas Cage. Bana explained, "I was obsessed with the TV show. I was never a huge comic book reader when I was a kid, but was completely obsessed with the television show." It was widely reported Billy Crudup turned down the role. Johnny Depp and Steve Buscemi were reported to be under consideration for the lead. Edward Norton, who went on to play the part in The Incredible Hulk, expressed interest in the role. Norton eventually turned down the part as he was disappointed with the script.Mike Erwin as sixteen-year-old Bruce BannerDamon James as nine-year-old Bruce BannerBailey James as five-year-old Bruce BannerMichael Kronenberg as four-year-old Bruce BannerDavid Kronenberg as two-year-old Bruce BannerJennifer Connelly as Betty Ross: Bruce's ex-girlfriend/co-researcher, as well as estranged daughter of General Ross. Betty is possibly the only way for the Hulk to lead back into his transformation of Bruce. Connelly was attracted to the role by way of director Ang Lee. "He's not talking about a guy running around in green tights and a glossy fun-filled movie for kids. He's talking along the lines of tragedy and psychodrama. I find it interesting, the green monster of rage and greed, jealousy and fear in all of us."Rhiannon Leigh Wryn as young Betty RossSam Elliott as General Thunderbolt Ross: A four-star general and estranged father of Betty. Ross was responsible for prohibiting David Banner from his lab work after learning of his dangerous experiments. Elliott felt his performance was similar to his portrayal of Basil L. Plumley in We Were Soldiers. Elliott accepted the role without reading the script, being simply too excited to work with Ang Lee. In addition Elliot also researched Hulk comic books for the part.Todd Tesen as Young Thaddeus RossJosh Lucas as Major Glenn Talbot: A ruthless former soldier who offers Banner and Betty Ross an opportunity to work for him in an attempt to start an experiment on self-healing soldiers.Nick Nolte as Dr. David "Dave" Banner / The Father: The mentally unstable biological father of Bruce Banner who was also a genetics research scientist and had been locked away for 30 years after causing an explosion in the gamma reactor and accidentally killing his wife, Edith. After exposing himself to gamma radiation, he gains the ability to combine with the essence of all physical objects, reminiscent of the comic book character Absorbing Man, one of the characters that first appeared in the early scripts of the film. He also, at one point, becomes a towering creature composed of electricity, reminiscent of Zzzax, one of the Hulk's enemies in the comic series. Nolte agreed to participate in the film when Ang Lee described the project as a "Greek tragedy."Paul Kersey as Young David BannerCara Buono as Edith Banner: Bruce's biological mother whom he cannot remember. She is heard, but mostly appears in Bruce's nightmares.Celia Weston as Mrs. Krenzler: Bruce's adoptive mother who cared for him after the death of Edith and David's incarceration.Kevin Rankin as Harper: Bruce's colleague whom he saved from the gamma radiations.Jesse Corti as Colonel
Hulk co-creator/executive producer Stan Lee and former Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno made cameo appearances as security guards. Johnny Kastl and Daniel Dae Kim have small roles as soldiers.
Producers Avi Arad and Gale Anne Hurd started the development for Hulk in 1990, the same year the final TV movie based on the 1970s TV series aired. They set the property up at Universal Pictures in 1992. Michael France and Stan Lee were invited into Universal's offices in 1994, with France writing the script. Universal's concept was to have the Hulk battle terrorists, an idea France disliked. John Turman, a Hulk comic book fan, was brought to write the script in 1995, getting approval from Lee. Turman wrote ten drafts and was heavily influenced by the Tales to Astonish issues, which pitted the Hulk against General Ross and the military, the Leader, Rick Jones, the atomic explosion origin from the comics, and Brian Banner as the explanation for Bruce's inner anger. Universal had mixed feelings over Turman's script, but nonetheless future screenwriters would use many elements.
Hurd brought her husband Jonathan Hensleigh as co-producer the following year and Industrial Light & Magic was hired to use computer-generated imagery to create the Hulk. Universal was courting France once more to write the script, but changed their minds when Joe Johnston became the director in April 1997. The studio wanted Hensleigh to rewrite the script due to his successful results on Johnston's Jumanji. France was fired before he wrote a single page, but received a buy-off from Universal. Johnston dropped out of directing in July 1997 in favor of October Sky, and Hensleigh convinced Universal to make the Hulk his directing debut. Turman was brought back a second time to write two more drafts. Zak Penn then rewrote it. His script featured a fight between the Hulk and a school of sharks, as well as two scenes he eventually used for the 2008 film; Banner realizing he is unable to have sex, and triggering a transformation by falling out of a helicopter. Hensleigh rewrote from scratch, coming up with a brand new storyline featuring Bruce Banner, who prior to the accident which will turn him into The Hulk, experimenting with gamma-irradiated insect DNA on three convicts. This transforms the convicts into "insect men" that cause havoc.
Filming was set to start in December 1997 in Arizona for a summer 1999 release date, but filming was pushed back for four months. Hensleigh subsequently rewrote the script with J. J. Abrams. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were also brought on board to rewrite with Hensleigh still attached as director. In October 1997, Hulk had entered pre-production with the creation of prosthetic makeup and computer animation already under way. Gregory Sporleder was cast as "Novak", Banner's archenemy while Lynn "Red" Williams was cast as a convict who transforms into a combination of human, ant and beetle. In March 1998 Universal put Hulk on hiatus due to its escalating $100 million budget and worries of Hensleigh directing his first film. $20 million was already spent on script development, computer animation, and prosthetics work. Hensleigh immediately went to rewrite the script in order to lower the budget.
Hensleigh found the rewriting process to be too difficult and dropped out, and felt he "wasted nine months in pre-production". It took another eight months for France to convince Universal and the producers to let him try to write a script for a third time. France claimed "Someone within the Universal hierarchy wasn't sure if this was a science fiction adventure, or a comedy, and I kept getting directions to write both. I think that at some point when I wasn't in the room, there may have been discussions about turning it into a Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler movie." France was writing the script on fast track from July—September 1999. Filming for Hulk was to start in April 2000.
France stated his vision of the film was different from the other drafts, which based Bruce Banner on his "amiable, nerdy genius" incarnation in the 1960s. France cited inspiration from the 1980s Hulk stories which introduced Brian Banner, Bruce's abusive father who killed his mother. His script had Banner trying to create cells with regenerative capabilities in order to prove to himself that he is not like his father. However, he has anger management issues before the Hulk is even created, which makes everything worse. The "Don't make me angry..." line from the TV series was made into dialogue that Banner's father would say before beating his son. Elements such as the "Gammasphere", Banner's tragic romance with Ross, and the black ops made it to the final film. France turned in his final drafts in late 1999-January 2000.
Michael Tolkin and David Hayter rewrote the script afterwards, despite positive response from the producers over France's script. Tolkin was brought in January 2000, while Hayter was brought in September of that year. Hayter's draft featured The Leader, Zzzax, and the Absorbing Man as the villains, who are depicted as colleagues of Banner and get caught in the same accident that creates the Hulk. Director Ang Lee and his producing partner James Schamus became involved with the film in January 20, 2001. Lee was dissatisfied with Hayter's script, and commissioned Schamus for a rewrite, merging Banner's father with the Absorbing Man. Lee cited influences from King Kong, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Beauty and the Beast, Faust, and Greek mythology for his interpretation of the story. Schamus said he had found the storyline that introduced Brian Banner, thus allowing Lee to write a drama that again explored father-son themes.
Schamus was still rewriting the script in October 2001. In early 2002, as filming was underway, Michael France read all the scripts for the Writers Guild of America, to determine who would get final credit. France criticized Schamus and Hayter for claiming they were aiming to make Banner a deeper character, and was saddened they had denigrated his and Turman's work in interviews. Schamus elected to get solo credit. France felt, "James Schamus did a significant amount of work on the screenplay. For example, he brought in the Hulk dogs from the comics and he made the decision to use Banner's father as a real character in the present. But he used quite a lot of elements from John Turman's scripts and quite a lot from mine, and that's why we were credited." France, Turman and Schamus received final credit. A theatrical release date for June 20, 2003 was announced in December 2001, with the film's title as The Hulk.
Filming began on March 18, 2002 in Arizona, and moved on April 19 to the San Francisco Bay Area. This included Advanced Light Source, Lawrence Berkeley labs, Oakland, Treasure Island military base, and the sequoia forests of Porterville, before several weeks in the Utah and Californian deserts. The penultimate battle scene between Hulk and his father used the real Pear Lake in Sequoia National Park as a backdrop. Filming then moved to the Universal backlot in Los Angeles, using Stage 12 for the water tank scene, before finishing in the first week of August. Filming of Hulk constituted hiring 3,000 local workers, generating over $10 million into the local economy. Mychael Danna, who previously collaborated with Lee on Ride with the Devil and The Ice Storm, was set to compose the film score before dropping out. Danny Elfman was then hired.
Eric Bana commented that the shoot was, "Ridiculously serious... a silent set, morbid in a lot of ways." Lee told him that he was shooting a Greek tragedy: he would be making a "whole other movie" about the Hulk at Industrial Light & Magic. An example of Lee's art house approach to the film was taking Bana to watch a bare-knuckle boxing match. Visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren was on the set every day. One of the many visual images in the film that presented an acting challenge for Bana was a split screen technique employed by Lee to cinematically mimic the panels of a comic book page. This required many more takes of individual scenes than normal. Sound design was completed at Skywalker Sound. Muren and other ILM animators used previous technology from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (for the Dobby character) to create the Hulk with computer-generated imagery. Other software used included PowerAnimator, Softimage XSI, and RenderMan Interface Specification. ILM started computer animation work in 2001, and completed in May 2003, just one month before the film's release. Lee provided some motion capture work in post-production.
The musical score for Hulk was composed by Danny Elfman, who scored Spider-Man the previous year. Frequent Ang Lee collaborator, Mychael Danna, was the original composer for the film. However, Danna's score was rejected by studio executives for its non-traditional approach, which featured Japanese taiko, African drumming, and Arabic singing. Elfman was then approached by Universal's president of film music, Kathy Nelson. With 37 days to compose over two hours of music, Elfman agreed out of respect to Lee. While instructing to retain much of the character of Danna's score, Lee pushed Elfman to write material that did not sound like his previous superhero scores. "They did leave some of my music in the movie," said Danna, "so the Arabic singing and some of the drumming is mine. What happened is that they panicked, they brought in Danny and he heard what I've been doing and I guess he liked it."
A soundtrack album was released on June 17, 2003 by Decca Records. It features the song "Set Me Free" by Velvet Revolver, which is played during the film's end credits.Track listing
Universal Pictures spent $2.1 million to market the film in a 30-second television spot during Super Bowl XXXVII on January 26, 2003. And a 70-second teaser trailer was attached to Spider-Man on May 3, 2002. Just weeks before the film's release, a number of workprints were leaked on the Internet. The visual and special effects were already being criticized, despite the fact that it was not the final editing cut of the film.
Hulk was released on VHS and DVD on October 28, 2003. The film earned $61.2 million in DVD sales during 2003. Hulk was released on HD DVD format on December 12, 2006 and it was later released on Blu-ray on September 16, 2008.
Hulk received mixed reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes calculated a 61% approval rating out of 227 reviews. The website's critical consensus reads, "While Ang Lee's ambitious film earns marks for style and an attempt at dramatic depth, there's ultimately too much talking and not enough smashing." By comparison Metacritic collected an average score of 54 based on 40 reviews. Roger Ebert gave a positive review, explaining, "Ang Lee is trying to actually deal with the issues in the story of the Hulk, instead of simply cutting to brainless visual effects." Ebert also liked how the Hulk's movements resembled King Kong. Although Peter Travers of Rolling Stone felt Hulk should have been shorter, he heavily praised the action sequences, especially the climax and cliffhanger. Paul Clinton of CNN believed the cast gave strong performances, but in an otherwise positive review, heavily criticized the computer-generated imagery, calling the Hulk "a ticked-off version of Shrek".
Conversely, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle considered "the film is more thoughtful and pleasing to the eye than any blockbuster in recent memory, but its epic length comes without an epic reward." Ty Burr of The Boston Globe felt "Jennifer Connelly reprises her stand-by-your-messed-up-scientist turn from A Beautiful Mind." Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly stated, "a big-budget comic-book adaptation has rarely felt so humorless and intellectually defensive about its own pulpy roots."
Hulk was released on June 20, 2003, earning $62.1 million in its opening weekend, which made it the 16th highest ever opener at the time. With a second weekend drop of 70%, it was the first opener above $20 million to drop over 65%. The film went on to gross $132,177,234 in North America on an estimated budget of $137,000,000, and made $113,183,246 in foreign countries, coming to a worldwide total of $245,360,480. With a final North American gross of $132.2 million it became the largest opener not to earn $150 million.
Connelly and Danny Elfman received nominations at the 30th Saturn Awards with Best Actress and Best Music. The film was nominated for Best Science Fiction Film but lost out to another film based on Marvel characters, X2. Dennis Muren, Michael Lantieri and the special effects crew were nominated for Best Special Effects.
After the mixed reception of Hulk, Marvel Studios reacquired the film rights to the character, and writer Zak Penn began work on a sequel titled The Incredible Hulk. However, Edward Norton rewrote Penn's script after he signed on to star, retelling the origin story in flashbacks and revelations, to help in establishing the film as a reboot; director Louis Leterrier agreed with this approach. Leterrier acknowledged that the only remaining similarity between the two films was Bruce hiding in South America.