Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Theology of the Superheroes I: The Incredible Hulk

Before Ang Lee made gay cowboy movies he made such chop-socky delights as Wo Hu Cang Long (that's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to most of you), and the much misunderstood and maligned Hulk. A lot of reviewers canned this movie as being either too long, not true enough to the original Marvel character, or too filled with pop psychology for its own good. Empire even had an article in a recent issue entitled "Hulk: What Went Wrong?" Well, I loved the movie, primarily because it captured for me most of the key themes of the Silver Age Hulk comics I enjoyed as a kid and still enjoy reading. (Like Hulk #120 shown further down in this entry which I recently bought on eBay). There was the setting in the American South-West, a gruff General Thunderbolt Ross, overly protective but at the same time distant from his beautiful daughter Betty, who alone could pacify the Hulk, attempts to contain the Hulk (from which of course he spectacularly escapes), and lots of tossing around of tanks and generally destructive mayhem. Even the updates were true to the spirit, if not the period, of the 60s comic. There were still gamma rays involved but the experiments were updated from nuclear testing to nanomed technology (and they still managed a mushroom cloud in a flashback sequence).

A lot of people complained about the CGI Hulk. But, hey how exactly do you depict ol' green skin accurately? A guy in a rubber suit? It certainly looked better to me than Lou Ferrigno (at left) jumping around in purple shorts in the TV series. Then there was all the pop psychology and the cosmic sequence at the end when Bruce's father David morphed into this weird creature in a final slugout with his son Bruce/Hulk. If you read a Silver Age Marvel comic however you find both these elements are quite common - after all it was Marvel who reinvented comics by focusing on the inner demons of their characters who, like us, were real people with real problems. As for far-fetched cosmic battle sequences, in which impossible to believe pseudo-science thinly explained the most way out happenings, these were in every issue of The Incredible Hulk. Listen naysayers, Ang Lee got it right! By the way, the Hulk himself agrees with me, according to his piece in The Onion, "Why No One Want Make Hulk2?"

Stan Lee says that when he and Jack Kirby invented the Hulk in 1962 he had two literary characters in mind - the monster from Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson's story, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He is created by science (Frankenstein) but he can't control his transformation from mild mannered research scientist Bruce Banner into he who "smash puny humans" (Mr. Hyde). Hulk also serves as an interesting metaphor for the sinful nature. There is something inside of us which we can't control, something that has infected our nature, not something we were created with but the result of something having gone wrong in our creator's design. As hard as Bruce Banner tries to control his hideous transformation it lies beyond his ability to eliminate. "Don't make me angry," he warns, "you won't like me when I'm angry!" For a while there was an articulate Hulk who retained all of the intellectual powers of Bruce Banner. Fans argued back and forth over whether they preferred this Hulk or the one who said things like "Hulk smash!" and "Why puny humans hate Hulk?" or simply "Aaaarrrrggghhh!" The following letter is a good example of how intellectualized comic books became in the 1960's. It comes from a 357-member strong "Hulk Cult" at the University of Syracuse, New York, and was published on the letters page of Tales to Astonish #74 (Dec. 1965). "You have just ended the most prolific era in American literature by giving the Hulk a human brain...By inculcating a rational mind into Hulk's primordial psyche, you caused the downfall of Hulk's entire reason d etre. Your recent issue can be termed a resounding victory of Schopenhauer's will to live over the forces of human nature...What you have done is merely desecrate one of the most forceful genres in modern art - the mindless Hulk. Shame, shame, that's as bad as calling Spinoza a pragmatist...We are even considering switching our loyalties to John Paul Sartre..."

In terms of the metaphor I'm proposing both dumb Hulk and articulate Hulk are appropriate incarnations. Our sinful impulses can be blind, irrational, instinctive and overtly violent. On the other hand they can be wily, crafty, clever, and sophisticated. There is only one way to reach Hulk and to tame his wild and destructive impulses. The love of Betty Ross is all that can reach him. What US government tanks cannot do; what no supervillain has been able to defeat; what no superhero who has tried to take the Hulk down has been able to achieve (most often attempted by the Fantastic Four's Thing), is achieved by the influence of love. So it is with us - the love of God alone can heal our "Hulkiness," can tame the savage breast and restore us to the state our creator intended for us. Only the grace of God can conquer the beast within us all.

Here is a close up of the Eric Bana CGI Hulk, which is actually a composite of the faces of Bana, Ang Lee, and Jennifer Connelly who played Betty Ross in the film. One of the best Hulk sites is The Hulk Library. By the way the Hulk has his own blog. Check it out!

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Anonymous said...

Tame the savage breast? What the??

Glen O'Brien said...

No, it's not a misprint. It's a Shakespeare quote often misquoted as "music tames the savage beast," but Shakespeare actually wrote "the savage breast" meaning what lies in the heart. Only grace can tame the savage impulses that lie hidden within the heart.

Ludicrousity said...

Great thoguhts Glen! Cant say I've seen the hulk myself, but I do know a bit about it. It's amazing how love and acceptance can tame the wild beast inside of us. Instead of the violince we often go to first to settle our problems...

Julio Molina-Muscara said...

Thanks Glen for mentioning my site and in that way, on your very good
article about the Hulk. And I agree with it.

J.D. said...

Nice article. I think a lot of people were expecting for it to be a "Hulk smash!"-fest like the subsequent video game, or a meth-addled speedball like the Spider-Man movies. Comic readers who go to movies occasionally get lazy in the thinking aspect. I enjoyed Hulk not for what I was expecting it to be, but for broadening on the character. I did think a naked Hulk was bit much though :) (Sorry Hulk!)

By the way, if you liked Hulk's blog, then you'll also like Chewbacca's Blog!

Anonymous said...

so this comment is way behind but I was searching for this quote and this blog came up in Google. The quote is actually William Congreve from The Mourning Bride, not Shakespeare. The quote reads: "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast" which is often shortened to "music tames the savage beast"

Jason said...

I think a lot of people were expecting for it to be a "Hulk smash!"-fest like the subsequent video game, or a meth-addled speedball like the Spider-Man movies. Comic readers who go to movies occasionally get lazy in the thinking aspect


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