Now that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has officially become the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse, we've seen several earlier variants of popular heroes start to make their surprise returns to the big screen — from Patrick Stewart's Professor X to the three Spider-Bros to Hugh Jackman's ragin' Canadian, Wolverine. But there's at least one vintage Marvel movie hero that isn't getting a repeat performance: Eric Bana's Hulk.
The Australian actor played Bruce Banner and his green-skinned rage monster for the first and only time in Ang Lee's divisive Hulk movie, which opened in theaters nearly twenty years ago on June 17, 2003.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment alongside Mia Wasikowska for their new family film, Blueback, the 54-year-old Australian actor makes it clear that he has no plans to return to the MCU.
"I think my body of work since then speaks to the answer to that question," Bana says when asked whether he'd reprise the role should Marvel invite him to participate in their multi-phase multiversal shenanigans. He hasn't revisited the movie in advance of the 20th anniversary either. "I haven't seen it for a long, long time," he admits.
Bana has confessed to having mixed feelings about his brief time as the Hulk in the past, describing his experience playing the character as "frustrating," and expressing disappointment at being separated from the rest of the cast for so much of the shoot. "It always felt like I was working on a small film," he says now, referring to how he was rarely present for the extended sequences of the Hulk in full rampage mode. "I was kind of in a room with another actor just doing normal stuff. It never felt like a massive film until I sat down and saw it."
Seen again twenty years later, what's fascinating about Lee's film is that the Oscar-winning director — who was coming off of his global wuxia hit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — made an intensely dramatic story about inherited trauma dressed up in (tattered) superhero clothing. The crux of the film is the beyond-toxic relationship between Bruce and his father, David Banner (played by Nick Nolte), who passed along his own mutated DNA to his son — genes that help create the Hulk when the younger Banner is hit by a dose of gamma radiation.
"I had a lot of fun working with Nick on the father-son stuff," Bana recalls. "It was such a different film to everything that was coming out at the time. That whole [Marvel] world hadn't exploded yet."
Hulk hit screens on the heels of two other non-Marvel Studios Marvel movies: Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil and Bryan Singer's X2: X-Men United, both of which also play fast and loose with comic book canon. But Lee's film remains one of the most extreme departure from what was on the page, and the reaction from both fans and critics was decidedly mixed at the time. It didn't help that the visual effects required to bring the Hulk to life weren't quite where they needed to be two decades ago.
"I think we did some motion capture stuff, but they realized that it wasn't really helping them given the technology at that time," Bana says. "It was so raw back then, because it was still so early for all that stuff. So I didn't really have too much to do in terms of playing the big guy."
Bana also has a relatively small role in Blueback, but he makes a Hulk-sized impact in the life of the movie's main character, marine biologist Abby Jackson. Based on the beloved 1997 novel by Australian author, Tim Winton, Blueback's story charts her coming of age from a young girl (Ariel Donoghue) who makes regular diving trips with her mother (Radha Mitchell), to an impassioned teenager (Ilsa Fogg) who first makes her stand against local developers and fishermen seeking to exploit the sea, to an adult (Wasikowska) deciding how best to protect and care for both the ocean and her increasingly ill mom.
Bana plays another diver, Macka, who befriends Abby in her younger years and helps foster her love for marine life in all its forms. Although he and Wasikowska don't share any scenes in Blueback, they do share a love for Winton's novel and previous ties to the film's director, Robert Connelly. "The book is a really important piece of work here in Australia," the actress says. "And we've both got friendships with Robert individually, and had always heard about each other for years from him."
Wasikowska filmed all of her scenes as the grown-up Abby before the younger actresses and Bana assembled to shoot the scenes that depict her early years. As Macka, the actor plays an eccentric diver who helps foster the young girl's love for the world beneath the waves. "He's almost like the crazy uncle," Bana says of his alter ego. "I really adored the way he was written and how mischievous and mysterious Macka was. There's something about him that the young Abby is really drawn to, and he becomes a significant part of her life."
Funnily enough, Macka's nickame in the film happens to be "Mad" Macka — a reference to Australia's most famous action hero, Mad Max Rockatansky, the post-apocalyptic road warrior played by Mel Gibson. Born in 1968, Bana saw director George Miller's inaugural 1979 Mad Max picture as a child and has credited it with making him want to become an actor. (He was reportedly in the running to take over the part in Miller's 2016 revival, Mad Max: Fury Road, but the role went to Tom Hardy instead.) But he insists that Mad Max didn't influence his portrayal of "Mad" Macka.
"Mad Max is my favorite film of all time, and it's had a huge influence on me," he says, chuckling. "I never made that connection to this character, but I'm happy to hear it made! As a lover of young cars as a boy, you can imagine the impact Mad Max had on me."
Meanwhile, both Bana and Wasikowska hope that Blueback's environmental message makes an impact on young viewers. "One of the things experts say is that increasing the biodiversity in your local area is the best way to contribute to protecting the Earth from climate change," the actress notes. "It's little things like that that really make a big difference. The best chance we have [for the planet] is individuals changing their behavior in small ways."
Like her co-star, Wasikowska is also celebrating a personally significant cinematic anniversary this year. Ten years ago, she starred alongside Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch's typically unique spin on a traditional genre movie — in this case, a vampire tale. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013, the film followed a crew of immortal blood-sucking beings who contemplate the ends of their existence. It's an experience that the actress still ranks as one of her favorites.
"I really adored Jim," she says now. "He's so unique: I've never worked with anyone like him. He was very protective of his script: he didn't want agents to read them, and I think that's because they're kind of like a skeleton. When you turn up on set, he likes to take little bits of what you're bringing. I remember there was a drum kit on set one morning, and I was bashing around on it. He said, 'Let's start with you there.' He's got his own specific and authentic vision."
Blueback opens in theaters on March 3; Hulk is available for rent or purchase on most VOD services