What Iron Man brought to the screen was a character with problems – an imperfect, though extraordinary, man who’s problems we could relate to, even if his solutions were only something we could fantasize about or aspire to. In The Incredible Hulk, the emphasis isn’t on extraordinary ability defeating ordinary problems – it’s about extraordinary ability being an extraordinary problem.
Through Bruce Banner, this movie dwells in a relentless despair. It takes for granted through the opening credits that we know Hulk’s origins. It drops us right in the archetypal underworld, being played this time by Brazil, and Banner’s sense of shame over the part of him he’s hiding. We see Banner seeking the peace that evaded him at home while he works with the anonymous “Mr. Blue” to help him find his way out of being himself, all while hiding from a US Army who are determined to turn the monster inside him into a weapon. Banner is sad. He walks sadly down the lanes of Central America half-naked and far from home with sad TV series music playing behind him.
This is a Marvel movie?
This very un-Marvel sense of self-reflection and despair doesn’t belie the fact that this story has something extraordinary to offer.
Banner is full of regret – regret for his deal with the devil, General Ross (his estranged lover Betty’s father), and the monster within him that was unleashed as a result. So many of us have come to similar realizations about ourselves, whether through the development of an addiction, a bad reaction on our part to some loss or disappointment, an ugly thing said or done, a deal we knew was ill-advised but which we followed through with anyway – we’re monsters.
Maybe The Incredible Hulk came too early in the development of the Super Hero genre? It breaks a lot of new ground and doesn’t play by the rules most super hero films feel beholden to. Banner never has a “whoa, cool!” moment with his powers. He knows what he can do and that’s the problem. What’s more, he pays and pays for it. He’s even consigned to a monk-like celibacy, wearing a heart-rate monitor that might as well be made of inch-thick cast iron. He’s a suffering saint struggling to cloister himself.
That all changes when Banner finally meets “Mr. Blue” in person, Dr. Samuel Sterns, a SHIELD scientist who basically shares the same goal as General Ross. Banner and Betty wind up leading Ross’ power-hungry attack dog Emil Blonsky right to Sterns – the one man who can give Blonsky the brutal power he craves, but which Banner would gladly give up. Blonsky becomes Abomination – a browner, spikier mirror image of Hulk, who then proceeds to make giant holes in the buildings of Harlem.
Banner and Betty are being spirited away in General Ross’ helicopter to escape the mayhem. But Banner knows something has to be done. Betty tries to talk him out of it, reminding him that he can’t control the Hulk. Banner agrees, but ventures “maybe I can aim it.” Banner, for a moment, embraces the monster, and defeats the very evil he’s feared in himself. Banner walks away from this questioning his beliefs about this monster inside him. Is he really so monstrous after all?
Confronting our dark side is a loss of innocence that’s difficult to overcome. It’s a challenge that determines your character and your destiny. Will you commit suicide (as we later learn Banner would do if the Hulk would let him)? Will you embrace the monster and become an Abomination, taking your revenge on the apparent meaningless of your suffering by destroying everything in sight?
Or will you try to – if not control your dark side – at least “aim it”?
In this way, The Hulk is maybe the most morally realistic of the MCU heroes this side of Spider-Man Homecoming. Banner’s true super power isn’t turning into a huge green rage monster, it’s allowing himself to lose control – just enough.
Banner doesn’t live happily ever after at the end of this movie, and he’s not meant to. And, while not his origin story, The Incredible Hulk is the beginning of his story and it’s a very slow arc. You can still hear the fear in Banner’s voice in Thor: Ragnarok when he pleads with Thor not to force him to become Hulk again: “I might never come back again!” It will take Banner a few movies to even recognize that any good can come from “the other guy.” The partnership of Banner and the Hulk is a grudging one – painful for both because both so badly resent, and yet so badly need, the other.
We almost watch with frustration along with Tony Stark, marveling (no pun intended) at Hulk’s abilities, which Banner won’t accept or embrace until he feels he has no other choice. What’s interesting about Banner’s decision is that what puts him at the tipping point is when he sees, not Hulk’s opposite, but a mirror image of himself – a mirror image he doesn’t like.
This theme makes The Incredible Hulk one of the more introspective entries into the MCU. Does it feel relatively damp and joyless in the company of the other MCU movies? Maybe. But there’s real beauty to be found here.
We’re all monsters. We’re all at the mercy of forces seemingly beyond our control, whether it’s as benign as our road rage or our inability to balance a checkbook or as malignant as domestic violence, self-harm, or addiction. Our personal monsters will destroy the world around us if we don’t face them, grapple with them, and learn from them.
“Maybe I can aim it.” The line is beautiful because it’s inherently humble. (Could Banner be any more different than Stark?) Banner is recognizing that he’s at the mercy of forces well beyond his control, and that the best he can do is morally aim himself in the right direction and hope for the best.
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes