The Incredible Hulk is one of the most misunderstood characters, and not just in the comic book universe. Even to most non-comic book fans, he is easily dismissed as just a big green monster. Certainly it is an apt conclusion as when the Hulk is unleashed he is a rampaging behemoth that is virtually unstoppable, and can and will , “SMASH!” everything in his path. It is for this reason in his own universe he is hunted and pursued by the military, ordinary people, and at times other superheroes.
However there is one person, more then any other in the Marvel Universe, who wishes to put a stop to his terror. His name is Dr. Bruce Banner, the man who transforms into the Incredible Hulk. The fact of the matter remains that while he may be labeled as a superhero, Banner does not want to be the Hulk. While no superhero ever asks to be one, Banner asked for it the least.
In many interviews Stan Lee said he was influenced by two literary sources. One was that of the monster of Frankenstein as depicted in the old horror films. Frankenstein, like Hulk, just wanted to be left alone. However, much like the angry villagers chasing the monster with torches and pitchforks, they only make an already bad situation even worse. The end result is usually billions of dollars in property damage and countless implied deaths.
At one point in his comic book career, much like the monster in Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein, Hulk did develop a fully functioning mind. Even then, when the Hulk was actually capable of coherent thought and speech, he was still pursued by the military and hunted like an animal. In one instance as they opened fire on him, Hulk said:
“All these years, and you soldiers haven’t gotten any smarter. And I’m smart enough to know that you guys won’t leave me alone just by my asking you. I have ta step on you, like the bugs you are!”
This leads to the second literary influence of the Hulk. Because of his inner struggle between two natures, one a benevolent doctor, and the other a monster who is ruled by his passion and emotions, he is very much like the modern day equivalent to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
What is it that causes this struggle in Dr. Banner? In the original comic books, Banner was bombarded by radiation during a test of a Gamma bomb as he tried to save a young man who strayed onto the compound. However, the origin of the Hulk that is more familiar to most people is the one that was provided by the 1970’s TV show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. The show’s opening monologue described the following:
“Dr. David Banner: physician; scientist. Searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans have. Then an accidental overdose of gamma radiation alters his body chemistry. And now when David Banner grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs. The creature is driven by rage and pursued by an investigative reporter. The creature is wanted for a murder he didn’t commit. David Banner is believed to be dead, and he must let the world think that he is dead, until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him.”
This change made to the show makes him even more like Dr. Henry Jekyll. Both Banner and Jekyll had altruistic motives for their endeavors, namely to tap into some kind of limitless potential for strength that all humans have. Most likely that place is within emotions and adrenal glands, it is after all love and adrenaline that can give a woman enough power to lift a car off of their child. In the case of the Hulk, the 2008 live action film implied that much of the research was an attempt to recreate what had been done in the Super-Soldier program during World War II that had created Captain America. However instead of creating a perfect warrior, it created a dangerous monster, one who in moments of pure rage can not easily recognize friend from foe, save one.
It can be said that the safest place in the Marvel Universe to be whenever the Hulk is around, is nowhere near him. If another hero wants to try and stop him when he’s on a rampage, they are inclined to tag team with another hero. Even Thor nearly died when facing a (mind controlled Hulk) in the animated movie Hulk vs. Thor. In the “Planet Hulk” story arc, a council of the wisest superheroes in the Marvel Universe (Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, Namor the Submariner, Tony Stark, and Blackbolt of the Inhumans) exiled the Hulk to a remote and desolate planet so he could do no more damage. However when the nuclear weapon on board the ship that brought him to that world exploded, Hulk went back to Earth and nearly destroyed all the superheroes in his rage.
Because of this, the one thing that Dr. Banner wants more then anything else, is to be left alone as to insure that not only does he become the Hulk, but that no one gets hurt. The recent film and the old TV show often depicted him walking down an open road with the iconic “Lonely Man theme” playing in the background. One issue of the Hulk pondered what this not so-jolly-green giant dreamt, and the very last panel was just the Hulk, sleeping peacefully while he cuddled a kitten.
The burden of the Hulk is increased by the fact he can’t allow any of his emotions to get out of control. In a scene in the recent film his long-time love Betty Ross wishes to be intimate with him. Banner informs her he can’t allow his pulse or heart rate to increase in any way shape or form, even in that fashion. The result would turn him into the Hulk and he would destroy her.
She remains the only person that can ever calm the Hulk. In the 2003 film as he is rampaging through San Francisco he looks up and sees her in a helicopter. As she touches down and approaches him he begins to revert back to Banner. In the 2008 film as the military is fighting him she breaks through the ranks and faces him. He begins to calm down but then when he fears she is in danger, it is all over. He protects her and runs off with her to a cave. It is not until the next morning that he reverts back to his human form.
A vast majority of the Hulk’s story-lines are about the military chasing him. It was a feature in both of the live action films and it was a common theme in the old TV show. Very few of the more memorable stories are about him against some sort of arch-nemesis. He is an unrelenting force of anger and as such very little can break the Hulk. In one of his many skirmishes with the military, as a helicopter opens fire on the giant green behemoth, the narration reads:
“It’s clear to all that the Hulk’s incinerating touch is gone, for the bullets are reaching him. But they have no effect except to amuse him.”
While he has the Abomination and Leader as foes, and squares off against heroes like Thor, Iron Man, Wolverine, and The Thing, his worst nemesis is himself. Banner and Hulk are always at war with each other. The Hulk hates Banner because he views him as weak and useless and he is always trying to destroy Hulk. Banner hates Hulk because of his rampant destruction, the financial and social burdens he places, and overwhelming power.
His worst enemy is really the same as ours. It is himself and his own desires, his anger, his rage and his emotions. Not that desire and emotions are bad, but if a person’s emotions are out of control they become unbalanced and even dangerous. Like all of us, he seeks to control all that which is inside him. Often times he is seen learning various breathing and relaxation techniques all in an efforts to tame the beast within.
Is the Hulk a hero? That has been debated by comic book and movie fans for decades. One thing is for sure, the thing that makes Dr. Banner a hero is his desire to do good, and his desire to tame the beast within.
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Wein, Lein and Herb Trimpe. Incredible Hulk. Volume 1. Issue 181.November 1974
Various commentary and interviews with Stan Lee.
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Incredible Hulk created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Photo Credit: 2008 Marvel Comics, 2008 Marvel Studios and Universal Studios.