I love the Hulk.
I’m unashamedly in love with the Hulk. There’s something about the character that just spoke to me in ways no other superhero could. In an entire pantheon of outlandish gods and monsters, the Hulk is the one I think is the easiest to understand, and that he isn’t better represented is criminal.
And yes, I’m saying this even in the wake of Ruffalo’s performance as Banner in the cross-everything media franchise that has become the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I was lucky enough to grow up in the 1990s. Everyone who had a childhood at all in that chaotic decade knows how fantastic that decade was for cartoons. Comics were in the Extreme Nineties phase, characterized by brutal violence and continually trying to one-up each other in a game of we-want-to-be-gritty showmanship. The X-Men were household names and pop culture icons. Spider-Man was probably at his peak of popularity, years before Tobey Maguire was even a flicker on the franchise’s horizon. Marvel was spinning out adaptation after adaptation of their best-known comic stories in a series of successful cartoons, even as DC’s superhero cartoon line under Bruce Timm solidly crushed them under the weight of a lavish animation budget.
Of course, the Marvel cartoons haven’t aged anywhere near as well as anything in the DCAU. Upon rewatching it’s hard to not notice the little things, like how Spider-Man manages to go entire season arcs without ever actually punching anyone, or Wolverine never actually cutting anything apart that wasn’t a robot. The exception to that rule; the openings. Iconic even today, they’re probably the most lauded pieces of media in a storied franchise, given the sheer amount of hits on Youtube. From Iron Man’s Queen-esque shouts of exultation and Spider-Man’s effortlessly cool guitar hook to the instantly-recognizable opening bars of the X-Men theme, these introductions to cartoons defined the entire 90s era. We didn’t care that the actual episode didn’t look anywhere near as cool as the opening half the time.
And then I see this, and this blows my fragile young mind.
The use of light and dark, the booming, ominous orchestra, and the scenes juxtaposing each other one after the other – it’s impressive even today. This is perhaps the one thing in all of Hulk media that manages to perfectly encapsulate the character. The Hulk transformation and power is shown as an inherently destructive force. The ground cracks beneath Banner, his love life falling into ruins. Rick Jones stares up at him (on a motorbike), with pity in his eyes, and Hulk jumps away from him, a furious monstrosity that can’t bear to watch. Banner runs, but the Hulk and the Hulk’s nemeses drag him down; and even the Hulk is buried under the weight of fighting the whole world. He has to be Hulk, because Hulk is the only response to this nightmarish world of violence. It’s the only way to survive even as he’s aware of what being the Hulk means.
As a child, I had no understanding of any of this. I simply understood the Hulk. I identified with the character and the struggle behind him, even more than the I understood the X-Men. And they were the poster children for misunderstood teenage adolescence.
See, the Hulk, I persist in saying, is not a difficult character to understand. He is not just some strong guy, not a jolly green giant. Big tough guys in comics are a dime a dozen. Not a comedy routine, or as Marvel Animation seem to think, a misunderstood grumpy bear looking for a family of Hulks to smash together with.
The Hulk is us.
The Hulk is the roar of a human being given free vein to rage, an unstoppable, destructive id giant. All Marvel did was make him the most powerful creature alive.
I need to talk about The Thing – Ben Grimm, not the John Carpenter Thing, a bit just so that people can understand why I feel the Hulk is so misaligned. The Thing is a superhero first and foremost. The Hulk is a monster. There’s a difference there, and it’s an important one.
Ben Grimm is transformed by his scientist friend’s hubris into a monster by space magic. The Thing suffers no change in his personality or his intelligence, even as he’s transformed into a craggy rocklike creature. Ridiculous feats of strength, superhuman durability and appearance aside, it wouldn’t be out of place to call Ben Grimm one of the kindest, most humane beings in the Marvel Universe. There’s a wonderful, heart-breaking issue of Marvel Adventures F4 where it’s revealed a girl’s been faking interest in him to try and procure a skin sample for some expensive scientific research. When Grimm discovers this, he willingly breaks off a piece of his own skin and tells her all she had to do is the first place is ask. He even thanks her for pretending to be his friend. He retains all of his humanity, even in a situation where nobody would blame him for being angry, and is frequently shown to be able to put aside his own emotional pain and selflessly help others.
Ben Grimm has accepted his fate as a monster barring Richards coming up with a cure-of-the-week (that thanks to editorial mandate, never lasts that long), and is ALL about self-sacrifice. Such was his heroism that he actually gave the Human Torch the blessing to marry the love of his life (Alicia Masters) because Johnny could “be a man”, unlike him. He’s so close to saintly he doesn’t even blame Reed Richards for his condition – most of the time.
Ben Grimm is a lovable, huggable bear who on occasion gets a bit grumpy and clobbers things. He still reminds us of the nobility people can aspire to and is definitely someone to look up to, someone who reminds us it’s not what’s on the outside that matters. Ben Grimm is already the biggest man out there. There’s a reason he’s so loved, both in-universe and out-of-universe. He’s a superhero.
The Hulk on the other hand is a goddamn near-uncontrollable rage monster.
The Hulk is rage personified, and a reminder of how destructive that rage could be. The destructive impulse. Bruce Banner is aware of this. When he becomes the Hulk, there is this sense of freedom; of not having to put up with the pretense of being a man pushed around by an unfair world. The Hulk knows little to nothing of language. The Hulk cares not about your problems. The Hulk knows nothing – nothing except rage, and to express that rage openly by causing as much destruction as possible.
And it feels good.
That’s the tragedy of the Hulk. It’s something man-made, something created in pursuit of a greater power. With greater power comes the desire to suppress it, with all force possible. Because the world doesn’t need another great power, even as it drove Bruce Banner to create the gamma bomb in the first place. There’s really nothing special about Bruce Banner – he’s a smart guy, he’s a scientist, he’s got some childhood traumas (by way of retcon beam) like the rest of us. And that’s what’s made the Hulk so enduring – the feeling that any of us would, given a variety of factors, just snap one day and show everyone that we are not to be messed with. We’d all like to be the Hulk, even if just for a few moments. Live that glorious moment when we give in completely to our id and just smash the place up because you’re good and mad and you’ve just had enough of it all. Completely unconstrained. Wild, angry, and free.
Until you wake up in the rubble of a building with a hangover and no clothes except a really shredded pair of pants , that is.
The Joker mentions to Batman that all it takes is one bad day. One bad day, and you end up like him, or the Batman. The Hulk is that, too.
The Hulk tragedy is universal. It’s about the destructive potential inherent in every human being. Every so often you hear on the news about some guy – quiet, reserved, completely normal – just snap one day, buy a gun, and shoot up a place full of people. Sometimes it’s a school. What strikes me nearly every time is that the people can’t believe it’s happened, like it’s out of some fiction they’ve made up inside their own head. Like they can’t believe the perpetrator of such violence would even do such a thing. I definitely can even though I was nowhere near the event. I can’t help but think that’s also the Hulk story.
I guess this is a roundabout way of saying that Ang Lee’s Hulk, overlong, overly sentimental and po-faced as it is, is a far better movie than the completely throwaway Incredible Hulk movie Marvel decided to reboot Hulk with. Not to knock the work Edward Norton has done on the movie – mad props to the guy, but upon rewatching it’s pretty clear that Norton was allowed to rewrite the script to suit whatever he liked. It’s why the Incredible Hulk starts with Banner’s everyday life as a Bourne-esque in hiding somewhere in the ass-end of Brazil, able to successfully evade a team of trained hit men in an incredibly indulgent chase sequence until he’s finally cornered by a group of – that’s right – disgruntled locals. Who hate the gringo.
Speaking of which, Norton really got to do a lot of cool things in this movie. Like make out with Liv Tyler, almost have sex with Liv Tyler, and dive out of a chopper with no parachute. He threw himself into the role, and he definitely did an okay job – as an actor given the free rein to write his own scenes, I think he should be commended for not making Banner some kind of action star. But he still misses the point. Bruce Banner is about as interesting as a paper towel. The thing that makes him interesting is his conflict with the demon inside him, done with a handy wristwatch that reads his heart rate in the 2011 edition. Almost like a ticking alarm clock. Breach 200 to Hulk out. But that’s what we paid for, so we get to watch as Norton does his best to fight the rising heart rate (and thus delay the appearance of the Hulk a moment longer, whereupon we get to see the Hulk do cool things like say HULK SMASH and Gamma Quake the area).
Compare that to Ang Lee’s version. Ang Lee gets the psychological darkness inherent in the character of the Hulk, and the story is helped along from a script that drips with pop gravitas of a sort that belongs with the Singer X-men flicks. This difference can be illustrated in the following scene where Eric Bana, goaded by a terribly overacting Josh Lucas as toady Major Glenn Talbot, hulks the hell out:
It’s telling that Banner’s first act as Hulk in this scene is to brutally cripple the asshole, and that even before Talbot shows up the end of the phone call already hints at Banner’s anger.
Compare the Incredible Hulk. The beeping of the wristwatch is a cue that adds tension to the scene, forcing Banner to find a quiet corner to catch his breath and practice his art of zen rage control. This is the difference: it’s automatically less interesting, because we already know what Banner is going to try and do. We already know that Banner is going to fight the Hulk transformation. What we see in the Ang Lee version is Banner making the conscious choice to give into his anger, cutting loose and letting it transform him into a monster. He tries to physically overpower Talbot even before the first tinges of green are CGed onto his face. The fact that he’s unable to, plus Talbot’s taunting, is what drives him over the edge. And he doesn’t look even slightly concerned about what he’s becoming. Just pure, unrelenting mad – nothing but the desire to make this guy pay for what he’s doing, as well as anger at his father for daring to use Betty against him.
When Norton’s Hulk willingly transforms near the end of the movie to battle the Abomination (an incredibly one-note villain who is obsessed with regaining his… youthful virility? If he’s been measuring dicks with the Hulk, he’s going to come up short every time, mutant monster or not) he does it by pitching himself out of a chopper just before sharing one last kiss with Betty. It is a heroic sacrifice of a sort we’ve all seen before, from the time-honored (Superman giving Lois Lane a smooch before he flies off to break Lex Luthor’s windows) to the teenage romance (Peter Parker sneaking a kiss before he has to go leave a mess all over skyscrapers for people to clean up and leaving MJ to make up an excuse for his absence). It makes Hulk a regular superhero – and because we’ve already seen it so many times before, much less interesting.
Taking a look at the most recent depiction of the Hulk (Avengers), we see Ruffalo’s Banner, far more at peace with himself and seemingly having found a way to tap his reserves of rage. The one time he does try and fight the oncoming transformation, Joss Whedon gives us a tremendously haunting scene. Loki’s magic shenanigans force the Hulk out on the flying Helicarrier. He transforms into the Hulk even as Scarlett Johanssen tries her best to talk him down, and just before he loses his mind to the Hulk utterly, there’s a brief flash of his eyes, still the same as the rest of his body is changing. Painfully, hauntingly human, wordlessly begging the Black Widow to run as far and as fast as she possibly can.
I’m not certain, but I believe that depiction of the Hulk has received so much acclaim because it shows a Banner largely at peace with that side of himself and free to smash at will, much to the delight of people who paid to see Hulk wreck shit. The psychological darkness of Banner’s character is only touched on in a wonderful Avengers heart-to-heart so typical of Whedon’s work; Banner brings up in casual conversation that he had tried to kill himself by swallowing a bullet, trying to rid the world of a monster. The self-loathing of Banner’s character is the aspect that Whedon works off of, and learning to accept one’s self is the lesson that Ruffalo’s Hulk has managed to learn after goodness knows how long spent wandering the globe.
While seeing Banner agonize over turning into the Hulk and taking measures to stop it and/or cure himself is no doubt fodder for countless stories, I posit that these are just variations on a story we’re all familiar with and in my case hate to death.
Sound familiar? Approximately once a month, a man loses his mind and starts howling at the moon, gaining proportionate muscle and body mass, and occasionally attacks people.
I don’t want the Hulk to be a hairless green werewolf.
The classic trigger in the werewolf sense is a moon – something entirely outside the ability of the werewolf to control, and nothing short of doping themselves to sleep through the full moon. It works for whatever mythos you accept for werewolves because you’ve accepted that when werewolves… werewolf out, for lack of a better term, it’s a frequent occurrence and they have to deal with the circumstances of the change, whether it means roaming Canada in packs, slaughtering helpless bands of British soldiers on training exercises, and being in godawful books by Stephanie Meyer.
What’s interesting in the Hulk’s case is the constant allure for Banner to fall over the precipice. The trigger – rage – sets him apart. Why would you ever want to control your anger? You’d be able to destroy everything, the Hulk whispers. You’d be the strongest one there is. Nobody would ever push you around ever again. And it’s this which makes the Hulk interesting to me – and keeps the story universal. It’s the knowledge that turning into the Hulk causes untold damage to everything versus the knowledge that you’d be able to conclusively and brutally deal with whatever’s angering you.
Ang Lee’s Hulk, in my opinion, definitely doesn’t deserve the bad rap it gets. The movie goes deeply into the psychological complexity of the Hulk, lets us understand as an audience what tempts Banner into giving in, and builds its own mythos to support that complexity. The story is the same, except people are given concrete reasons to do what they do beyond what the plot requires. The role of the fathers; both Bruce’s and Betty’s, parallel each other – both men are convinced they are doing the right thing and is entirely certain of their purpose, even if it means tearing apart the next generation to do so.
Oh, and Danny Elfman’s score is absolutely fantastic. His main theme for the movie somehow manages to encompass the internal struggle for rage, and the freedom and power associated with its release.
Of course, it’s not perfect by any means. Upon rewatching, the comic book panel style presentation of the film jars heavily with the darkness of the subject matter, and does a disservice to some of the absolutely stunningly composed shots that Ang Lee seems to serve up in every single one of his movies. It’s also overlong and overly sentimental (again, Ang Lee hallmarks) and suffers from a brutal disappointment of a climax, even as it serves as an ideological and metaphorical clash between Bruce Banner and the man who through his own hubris and twisted desire for success made him the Hulk. I also don’t care whether they were in the comics or not – Hulk dogs are a goddamn stupid idea.
Just before you start sending me hate mail, let me state my position – neither of these come the closest to being the perfect Hulk movie. The perfect Hulk movie does not exist yet, which perplexes me. But the closest I think the entire film industry has come to making that movie – and they have come close – is a film called Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas as a man trying to get home to his daughter for her birthday.
Falling Down is a wonderful film. It’s about a man whose life is filled with a kind of pervasive misery. An everyman who just wants some damned respect in this crazy world of ours. A man just trying to make his way in the world, seething on the inside with the large piles of bullshit thrown in his way – and responds the only way a sane man can.
Hulk is that. Hulk is every one of us.
This is why, in many ways, I think a Hulk movie is in many ways the easiest to make. All it has to be about is a man brimming with anger, bubbling quietly just under the surface. We have to see him give in. We have to see it destroy him, and everything else. We have to see something that personifies the rage in all of us, and we have to face it. Not as a hero, but as the monster we all wished we could be, if only for a moment.