Universal’s upcoming adaptation of Marvel Comic's The Hulk (search) may be more a story of an angry green monster for adults than a friendly green giant for kids.
The PG-13-rated Hulk, to be released June 20, is reputed to be darker than other recent superhero movies such as the box office blockbuster Spider-Man, with producers playing up the Hulk's monstrous nature and psychological rage and torment. Where many superhero movies focus on fantasy bad guys, the Hulk must wrestle with his own inner demons.
But Hulk director Ang Lee (search), who has helmed a wide variety of films including Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, says younger audiences are capable of dealing with mature topics in movies.
"Maybe that's the best way to level with children -- show them with respect -- it's probably healthier than a lot of other things," Lee told Fox News.
The $9.5 billion a year U.S. movie industry has reaped huge profits by remaking comic book heroes for the silver screen. Box office successes like Spider-Man, X-Men, X2: X-Men United and Daredevil have a wide demographical appeal and lend themselves to multimillion-dollar product tie-ins and sequels.
But big profits require big audiences. And in an industry that has a young target demographic, this means avoiding an R-rating that could prevent moviegoers from seeing flicks. In recent years, PG-13 movies have brought in the big bucks; not one of the top 20 grossing movies of 2002 had an R-rating -- down from four in 2000.
But just because a movie has a PG-13 rating doesn’t mean its content is appropriate for children. The voluntary rating system, established in 1968 by the Motion Picture Association of America (search), grades films on how they treat topics like violence, language, nudity, sensuality and drug abuse.
But a rating is determined only by what is shown on screen and not by what is implied. Because elements like profanity and violence are considered with equal weight, a film may receive a lower rating even though it contains a lot of one kind of adult subject matter and is lighter on others.
In the film, after an experiment goes wrong, scientist Bruce Banner, played by newcomer Eric Bana, becomes afflicted with the ability to turn into the Hulk. His green, mammoth alter ego is triggered by Banner's own inner demons and raw emotion -- particularly anger.
As the Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt said in his review, "Bana conveys the inner turmoil of a man at odds with his very essence."
The premise of The Hulk is more emotionally intense than, say, Peter Parker's transformation into Spider-Man, in which a spider bite gives him superhuman abilities and he happily bounds from rooftop to rooftop. The Hulk essentially overwhelms Banner and taps into his unresolved feelings and repressed childhood memories, which seems like a big concept for kids to swallow.
Hulk producer Gale Anne Hurd, however, said the film is not necessarily more adult than traditional fairytales and may even help children deal with their fears.
"Grimm's fairytales -- I mean, let's think they are pretty grim -- but I think it enables children to make sense of things that are very frightening by hearing about them and seeing them in fables," she said.
Lee, a father himself, agrees.
"I think this is being honest with the kids. It really deals with how they feel and what they're fearing for their parents, their fear, inner fear," he said. "They might get nervous if they believe that's real but perhaps, psychologically, that's healthy."
Marvel Comics executive and Hulk producer Avi Arad thinks that some of the inner turmoil of The Hulk will go over younger audience members' heads, but children will be able to relate to the underlying themes in the film, which tap into Banner's relationship with his estranged father.
"I think you have a combination of relationships if you look at children's literature throughout the years," he said. "The successful ones deal with relationships. What do we feel about mom and dad and siblings? And above all, there is a great love affair here. I think the kids are going to relate to that."
C. Spencer Beggs contributed to this report.