Hulking Up

The Hulk has always struck me as the perfect example of Character Degeneration. In the “original” origin-story, Bruce Banner was a nuclear physicist designing bigger and better bombs for the US government; think of him as another Oppenheimer. On the day they test his new Gamma Bomb, after the detonation sequence has commenced, he sees a slacker-kid kicked back in his Cadillac out on the test site catching some rays. Unable to stop the detonation sequence, Bruce races out, grabs the kid, and throws him into a nearby trench. The too-dumb-to-live kid is saved, but Bruce takes a huge hit of gamma rays in the blast. The radiation exposure mutates his cells, transforming him into The Hulk.

The Hulk is literally an unstoppable force, and he comes out whenever Bruce gets too mad, or scared, or is hurt. The monster does more damage than most natural disasters, so the US Army, from the get-go, is deeply invested in stopping this creature that destroys large bits of the country. Bruce also wants to stop the Hulk, by reversing the mutation or at least by burying the “Hulk smash!” alter-ego that comes along with the green skin. Stan Lee originally envisioned The Hulk as a mash-up of Frankenstein’s Monster and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (thus the original grey skin), and The Hulk became a perfect tragic hero for other superheroes to meet–and often fight.

And The Hulk, as envisioned, was a tremendously tragic figure–a curse inflicted on Dr. Banner because he saved a punk kid’s life. He does his best to manage his condition and find a cure, but people just won’t leave him alone; the needs of national security and all that. He did nothing to deserve his curse, unless you hold designing a super-nuclear bomb (that he probably thought would be the ultimate deterrent) against him. And here is where the character degeneration begins.

Dr. Banner’s origin has been updated periodically. From a Cold War weapons designer, in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe he became a socially dysfunctional scientist working to reproduce the Super Soldier Serum that created Captain America. He tests the serum on himself, becoming the Angry Green Giant through an act of stupidity rather than an act of heroism. In the recent movie, The Incredible Hulk, the US Army becomes the bad guy, tricking Dr. Banner into working on the Super Soldier Serum–he thinks he’s just working on a treatment to make soldiers more resistant to radiation–but he still tests it on himself first. Oh yeah; and the US Army wants him so they can study him and make whole army divisions of controllable Hulks.

So let’s be clear; in the original comic, Dr. Banner’s life is destroyed by an act of heroism any of us would be proud of, and the US Army, while technically the antagonists as often as not, are trying to capture him for the good of the country–i.e., to save lives and property from his devastating rampages. In his most recent incarnations, he brought it on himself (once triggering his transformation to impress his ex-girlfriend), and is now pursued by an evil military-industrial complex that wants to use him to make lots more monsters.

It’s really, really hard to feel sorry for the current Dr. Banner, or the guys chasing him.

So, what do I expect from The Hulk in the new Avengers movie? Since they’ve got a new actor for Dr. Banner, and The Incredible Hulk wasn’t tied in too tightly as an Avengers prequel like Iron Man 1, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America have been (brief appearance of Tony Stark aside), I hope they are going to rewrite The Hulk’s origin yet again. Sadly, it’s probably going to involve super soldier experiments again, but who knows? At least in the new movie Banner appears to have gotten beyond his fugitive period and is working with the Good Guys.

Just, please don’t let him eat anybody.


4 thoughts on “Hulking Up

  1. i never really thought about it but now that i read your article i realize THAT’S what’s bothered me about all the new Hulk stuff I’ve encountered. Dr. Banner used to be hero/victim, now he’s just kind of a prick who brings his trouble on himself.

    1. I’d put it more diplomatically–in fact I think I did–but that is it exactly. It’s all of a piece with the trend in comics to make the heroes more human; which is good as far as it goes, but sometimes goes too far.

  2. At the risk of being villified here for bringing up a TV version of a comic hero, but anyone recall the 70’s version? He was very much the tragic hero, roaming the country helping the downtrodden all while searching for a cure and dodging the evil army general who wanted an platoon-full of Hulks.
    The man from whom I learned all my initial cynicism, suggested that were Bruce Banner to settle down somewhere, he could make a fortune off of stretch pants

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