Bruce Bannerman’s transformation into the raging green giant Hulk is a disturbing reflection of America in the 21st century
He was not one of those fortunate people whose anger refreshes and stimulates them.
Leaven of Malice
You are nothing but a husk, a wisp of consciousness, waiting to be swept away by the real person within, the hero’s father tells him. Earlier, his foster mother put it less dramatically, telling him as he sets out to college that she is sure “some kind of greatness” would emerge from him.
The hero is Bruce Bannerman. The greatness that emerges from him gives his story its title: Hulk. Hulk is an enraged green giant, not the least bit jolly. Bannerman’s transformation into Hulk is triggered by anger, so Hulk always appears raging against his enemies. In the recent film, he rages to spectacular effect under Ang Lee’s direction, throwing cars and bursting through walls. When attacked by four M-1 tanks, he picks up one by its gun barrel, spins and hurls it away like a Highlander throwing the hammer, then demolishes the second and third with a gun turret torn off the fourth. Refreshing and stimulating.
Dr Bruce Bannerman is not one of those people Robertson Davies describes “whose anger refreshes and stimulates them”. Nor is his love interest, Dr Betty Ross. Both (as played by Erica Bana and Jennifer Connelly) have the tightly wound, intense look and restrained movements of melancholics. At the beginning of the movie Bannerman has recently broken up with her; she attributes this to his difficulty in expressing, or even experiencing his emotions, and urges him to loosen the tight rein he keeps on them. Be careful what you wish for.
Of course, what emerges when the reins do slip is the green-eyed monster. Not Jealousy, but Rage Incarnate. Each time, Hulk emerges from mild-mannered Dr Bannerman, it is in response to bullying and intimidation. It doesn’t take Bannerman long to catch on. You’re making me angry, he warns a baddie, You might not like me when I’m angry.
Bannerman likes himself angry though. He confesses to Ross after a green episode that when he’s Hulk he feels strong and free. Of course he does. It’s anger’s job to mobilise the body for conflict. It’s a huge rush, and some people get addicted to it.
Ironically, Bannerman is freer than Hulk. Bannerman enjoys the ordinary freedoms of the man who is seen as no threat. Hulk attracts the enmity of those who guard the state’s monopoly of violence.
Like Rambo and King Kong, Hulk plays to a Good Joe fantasy of the peaceful man pushed too far. To his credit, Ang Lee has made another delicate and evocative action film. But its appearance at this time has disquieting reverberations.
Hulk is disquietingly close to America’s fantasy about itself: the good guy pushed too far. The movie revels in the rage of the quiet man, the worm who turns. Tellingly, despite the ordnance turned on him, in this Good Joe fantasy the green giant’s violence is never lethal. He hurls characters through walls; they merely show up later bandaged and limping. A soldier is seen climbing, shaken but unharmed, out of the tank in which he has just been hurled a mile through the air. Hulk knocks helicopters out of the air, and their stunned pilots stumble away from the wreckage. The only damage done is to dignity and offensive power; the enemy is humiliated and disarmed. Does any of this remind you of the spin from Iraq?
Of the world’s ten biggest military establishments, America’s is not only the biggest, but gets more money lavished on it than the other nine combined. There is no precedent. No other nation in history has enjoyed such supremacy.
There is a comic-book element to this. In 1938 Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster produced Superman for DC Comics. He was invulnerable and invincible. All he needed was an opponent dangerous enough to require the exercise of such powers. Over the years he got what he needed: a parade of superhuman villains and super-villainous humans. Of the latter, we celebrate Lex Luthor, the archetypal Bad Egg, who likes to make money being mean and sneaky, but will settle for just being mean and sneaky.
America’s superhuman opponent, the Soviet Union, folded its tents in 1989. The American military budget might have shrunk then, as Americans enjoyed the ‘peace dividend’. Not so; it went from strength to strength. All it lacked was a plausible opponent.
Until Al-Qaeda came along. For all the ferocity of its real attack on the World Trade Center, and its reported hidden networks of well-funded subversives communicating through encrypted emails, Al-Qaeda has failed to strike again. Lex Luthor remains in hiding.
Meanwhile the green giant rages, invaded Afghanistan, invaded Iraq, and is now rolling its eyes at Syria.
I can think of good reasons for storming into the Middle East to ‘clean up Dodge City’; though I haven’t been able to think of any good enough to warrant actually doing it. Blair and Bush managed to find one: they assured us we were in imminent danger from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. That didn’t seem very likely, but, heck, they were supposed to know, given those expensive intelligence services. Now it turns out to be hooey, and worse, hooey that had been exposed as hooey before it was used to justify an invasion to us. Now it looks like the intelligence six months ago probably said the same as the UN weapons inspectors: Hussein was not an imminent danger to anyone but Iraqis.
So we must have invaded Iraq for some other reason.
It’s chilling to find that the US and UK governments can take us to war without letting us in on the reason. There are ample precedents, as anyone who has reviewed the origins of World War I knows. I had supposed, after all the examples of recent history, such a thing could no longer happen in the western liberal democracies. Naif of me, it turns out, as perhaps I should have understood from exactly those historical examples.
The West won the World not by not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.
Samuel Huntington The Clash of Civilizations: And The New World Order
While we persist in seeing ourselves as Good Joes, we license and justify rage against the world. In doing so, we nurse a dangerous addiction.
The words of Bruce Bannerman’s father haunt us. You are nothing but a husk, a wisp of consciousness, waiting to be swept away by the real person within.