Most superheroes are not monsters, but there are a select few who qualify as both. Perhaps the most famous is the alter ego of Robert Bruce Banner, a brilliant physicist who is infamous for the beast he transforms into. He was one of the first Marvel characters to break through into the mainstream with a popular TV series in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and he remains a popular character to this day.
The Incredible Hulk
The Comic Book Origin
Bruce Banner was a scientific genius with some deep-seated psychological problems that came from an abusive childhood. While he was not known as a particularly social person, few would have suspected that he was capable of becoming a raging monster. But when he was caught in the radiation of a gamma bomb while saving an innocent bystander, that is exactly what Bruce became. When Bruce loses control of his emotions and anger, fear or other strong emotions take over, he transforms into the enormous green man known as The Hulk. Possessing impossible strength and seemingly impossible to kill, The Hulk may be the strongest living being in the Marvel Universe.
Hulk comics often tackle Bruce’s struggle to cope with his dual identity; sometimes he tries to cure it and other times he does his best to cope with it. The Hulk is often hunted down by the military, especially General “Thunderbolt” Ross, who wishes to use him as a weapon. These battles with the army often send Hulk into fits of uncontrollable rage, and as a result he has been pitted against almost every major and minor Marvel hero, almost always winning. Despite this, the creature has shown that he mostly just wishes to be left alone, and has even shown a heroic side, having helped to form both The Avengers and The Defenders to fight the forces of evil.
The Real Life Origin
Like most of Marvel’s most popular heroes, Bruce Banner and his alter ego were created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, two absolute legends of comic book history. He debuted in May of 1962 in the first issue of his self-titled series, though more casual fans might be surprised by some of the ways in which he was different. The Hulk’s skin is gray in this comic; it only became green because the colorist had trouble with keeping the gray color consistent. The transformation is also not triggered by emotions, but simply by the sun setting and rising, making him seem more like a werewolf than anything.
Stan Lee’s main inspiration for the character of The Hulk was Frankenstein’s monster, from the classic Mary Shelly novel and the various adaptations of it. Lee was fond of the misunderstood monster, feared and hunted by people while simply wishing to be left in peace. Stan also drew influence from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, with Bruce transforming from one form to the other and never staying the monster.
The original series lasted only six issues, something that was indicative of a recurring problem throughout Hulk’s long life. While a great character, the very nature of the character somewhat limits the types of stories that can be told with Bruce and Hulk as the main character. Hulk has always worked better in comics when working with or against another popular character, with only a handful of runs truly standing out as truly special. But that doesn’t mean that The Hulk can’t bring a lot of value to something.
The Hulk in Other Media
As strange as it may seem, I think The Hulk is a concept that may actually be better suited to film than comics. There is evidence in this from the successful TV show starring Bill Bixby as “David Banner” and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno as The Hulk, an extremely popular show that elevated Hulk from an iconic but underperforming comic book star to a pop culture phenomenon. It says something when Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk film, which honestly is closer to the comics than some would like to admit, drew criticism for being so different in tone from the TV show that people knew and loved. When Marvel rebooted the character for their Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, they paid tribute to many aspects of the show, from its actors to its music. And Lou Ferrigno is still providing the voice for Hulk in The Avengers films.
One of the reasons Hulk has fared so well in live-action media is that the monster is a force of destruction that is just fun to watch. When viewers watch a movie with Hulk there is a certain combination of anticipation and dread that comes from the concept that is just inherently engaging; we want to see the transformation and we want to see the Hulk in action. These are visuals that film can do extremely well. And when one thinks about the Hulk’s primary influences (Hollywood monster movies), it does begin to make sense.
While there has been plenty of demand for Marvel to release a third Hulk movie with Mark Ruffalo starring, I think that for now Marvel is utilizing the character in the most sensible way. Ruffalo brings a lot to the character of Bruce Banner that makes him enjoyable even when he isn’t going green, but The Hulk works best playing off of other characters. The strongest Hulk scenes on film have been his fights with and against his teammates in the two Avengers films. And Hulk is more popular than ever because of what he brings to those movies.
Everybody Gets Angry
Besides the idea of a super strong green machine of destruction being awesome, there is a reason that the idea of the Hulk connects with pretty much any audience on some level. The Hulk is a monster inside of a man, and Banner is constantly struggling to find a way to deal with the emotions that make the beast come out. While Hulk is usually associated with anger, he appears just as often because of fear; he is an exaggerated version of our biological “flight or fight” response, protecting Bruce when his life is threatened. When we are afraid or angry, we often lose our ability to think rationally and behave in a way that is destructive to ourselves and to the people around us.
The Hulk is simply an analogy for a universal problem. That’s why I connect with Bruce as a character, and if you are fan of Hulk I can almost guarantee it’s because you relate to that issue on some level. There’s a reason we cheer for Banner in the climactic scene of The Avengers; the monster isn’t controlling him, he is controlling the monster and channeling it in a direction where it could do some good. Anger isn’t evil; it’s what we do with it that makes us a hero or villain.