The Incredible Hulk: Toeing the Line Between Fun and Freud

While watching another dull scene between Edward Norton and Liv Tyler in the most recent revival of The Incredible Hulk, I found myself longing for more action, more mayhem, more special effects. The most interesting performance in the film was the CGI creation, the role that required no actor. However, once the action began (and it was certainly riveting, popcorn-noshing action), I found myself wondering about the questions the film touched upon and then casually cast aside: How does Banner feel while he’s the Hulk? What is it that provokes his transformation– something as simple and scientific as a pulse rate? We finally received the stakes for the world at large that seemed to be so drastically missing from the first film, the Ang Lee-directed misstep in 2003, yet we lost the stakes for Bruce and Betty, the emotional stakes. We no longer were able to see the inner workings of the Hulk, and while the outer workings make for a far more entertaining movie, it became typically fluffy summer fare. 

The most successful comic book films– and as a self-professed comics nerd growing up, I have a strong affinity for the genre– make us intrigued about how these characters would exist in the real world today, how their struggles somehow relate to the contemporary struggles we see in our newspapers. It sounds pretentious to think that comics might require some higher thinking and conceptualization, but without the obvious ties to racism and genocide, X2: X-Men United might have lacked the dramatic oomph that kept the action scenes so enthralling. Without the personal loss of Batman, the guilt of Iron Man, the sense of responsibility of Spider-Man, these characters simply become extraordinary powers with no soul. The importance of the hero’s capability to tap into something society understands cannot be overstated.

Ang Lee’s film in 2003 understood that. It dove into Bruce Banner’s Freudian struggles, the excitement that comes with acting as the Hulk, the ability to do whatever your id wants. The problem was while exploring the depths of the psychological ramifications of having this ability (and having your dad trying to kill you can’t help your mindstate either), he forgot the audience this film was inevitably going to be marketed to. Having a great fight scene in the desert and adding comic-book-like panels to the transitions in the editing room wasn’t going to make up for the scenes of the big green monster staring at moss on rocks, contemplating his life. It also was a poor, poor choice to make the film’s finale, which should have had the greatest action sequences of all, become literally metaphorical, with Hulk being taken into clouds which flashed with his memories, literally fighting his demons. Finally, he defeated them, and they all swirled together to form a big bubble. Or something. When even the most devoted comic book fan, who will more than likely make excuses for strange unexplainable manifestations of power, remains clueless to what actually transpired in the finale of the film, you know that you’ve somehow swerved off the road you were supposed to be driving on. Lee took the path less traveled and never looked back.

This version delivered in all the action standards. He had worthy villains, he had someone his strength to fight with, and there was a risk to the safety of the world that Hulk had to stop himself. We watched as the Hulk went from an uncontrollable manifestation of a disease to something greater, a superhero of sorts. It’s a shame the film refused to dwell on it. Norton’s Banner never pauses to think about his power as anything but a malady that desperately needs curing, and never even admits to himself that there might be any part of him deep down that likes it. He even dismisses the sensation of being the Hulk as like a drug trip, and that he blacks out during the majority of it. The film seems to be fine with making Banner and Hulk two totally separate characters. As a result of this, the characters who do see this psychological side of the power (the villains of course, because the film refuses to let any heroic character see these powers as anything good) become more intriguing, more fully fleshed out despite having less dialogue. Why did the film choose to go this direction? Is it really that bad to be an unstoppable, indestructible force of strength? Is Banner really so removed from the Hulk if he can be smart enough to protect Betty and stop the villain?

In the end, maybe we’ll never see a perfect Hulk film, a film ready to balance the mayhem and explosions alongside the Freudian elements in a happy marriage of superhero and superego. This version kept the core audience happy, so perhaps it can be seen as a step forward. I just fear that after the progress comic book films have made in a post-Batman and Robin world, studios finding their audience by removing the character’s depth is a dangerous game to play.

~ by russellhainline on June 21, 2008.

3 Responses to “The Incredible Hulk: Toeing the Line Between Fun and Freud”

  1. I hope the next gamma ray incident gives Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner a personality and leaves the animated Hulk’s face looking less like my Uncle Moe.

  2. I know the people involved with the new movie don’t want to spoil the fun but is there going to be another hulk sequel because i think the second one is much better than the first. I love the fact that the hulk finally had a worthy opponent this time.

  3. I read on Wikipedia that Marvel is holding off on a possible Hulk(2008 reboot) sequel until after 2012’s The Avengers film.

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