We’ll continue our look at masculinity in the modern superhero by taking on the unstoppable force himself, Marvel’s Incredible Hulk. There have been several different interpretations, origins, and incarnations of the Hulk, depending on the writer’s vision. I will be speaking in general terms that reflect across most notions of the Hulk.
The Hulk, of “HULK SMASH!” fame, draws most of its narrative premise from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde” and applies a modern dose of superhuman origin story. Bruce Banner, fictional genius, creates a gamma bomb with his considerable talents. Through an ironic twist, he winds up exposed to the gamma radiation. Though Banner does not die, he finds that moments of extreme stress and anger cause him to undergo a physical (and mental) metamorphosis until he is completely transformed into the Incredible Hulk, a green rage-driven engine of destruction.
Widespread destruction ensues until the Hulk reverts back to his alter-ego of Bruce Banner. The hero’s major conflict comes from this dichotomy and the havoc the Hulk wreaks on Banner’s personal life.
Bruce Banner possesses a brilliant mind, even in a world populated by superheroes and otherworldly intelligences. He is remarkable enough in the world that other superbeings come to him for advice and solutions to scientific problems. Bruce Banner delights in solving the problems of the world using his bright intellect.
Beyond that, he finds himself emotionally withdrawn from people for a number of reasons, chief among them being his alter ego. Despite this lack of social emotion, Bruce does harbor feelings of shame, panic, and fear. He simply wants to be able to live his life without the Hulk persona. Underneath all that, Banner represents logical thinking and positive emotion.
On the other hand, the Hulk uses his vast strength to punch things, mostly. When Banner transforms into the Hulk, he typically loses control over his thoughts, reverting to a primal state of mind, where survival supersedes all other thoughts, and rage seems the only emotion. Not only that, but the Hulk draws his power from his rage, actually increasing his strength in direct proportion to the level of anger he feels at the time.
The Hulk is a destructive force to such a degree that his presence necessitated the formation of the Avengers team of superheroes in order to stop him from senselessly rampaging across the country for no particular reason. He has been exiled to space because he cannot be stopped, either by force or by reason. The Hulk is brute force incarnate, driven by instinct and negative emotions like anger and hate.
On the one hand, we have Banner, master of cool intellect and rational problem solving. On the other, we have the Hulk, a mindless rampaging monster who regularly defeats the entire U.S. Armed Forces as par for the course.
Banner has limited to no control over when he transforms into the Hulk. His role in the change is passive, as he relies on outside stimuli to effect the emotions that fuel the change. Once he’s the Hulk, he makes no effort (having no control) to change back, instead using his time and energy to destroy all that upsets him.
How does all this reflect on masculinity?
I believe the Hulk persona represents a hyper-masculine interpretation of power. Power in the Hulk’s world means the ability to solve problems by causing the problem to cease existing. Where Banner would like to solve problems by puzzling them out, the Hulk would punch it out. Additionally, the Hulk completely consumes the Banner persona, rendering it incapable of making rational decisions or complicated reasoning.
Banner’s personality complicates things further. Various writers have depicted Banner as a recluse, a survivor of abuse, and a stew of psychological problems. Though Banner may attempt to treat these issues in a healthy fashion, they usually act as triggering mechanisms for his incredible transformation. Rather than teaching comic readers to deal with their problems in a constructive way, the writers show that resorting to brute strength produces results quicker and often “solves” a problem, however temporarily.
This seems to be a stereotypical example of a man hiding his emotions and putting on a strong front. “Hulking out” represents taking this to the extreme, as Banner loses every part of what makes him a person in favor of a mindless, one-emotion force of aggression and destruction.
Is this a good interpretation of masculinity? Decidedly not. Using power to satisfy base and animal instincts is not a good representation of masculinity, even less so when triggering emotions or situations are covered up in the process.
However, the Hulk story captures more than simply aggression and power. When the Hulk is not leveling city blocks or headbutting meteors, Bruce Banner is left to deal with reality and the consequences of the Hulk. The conflicts of Banner reveal a more nuanced interpretation of the dichotomy between force and thought that the Hulk comic book focuses on.
Which persona is more popular with readers? Just look at the title of the comic.
See also: Superheroic Masculinity – Captain America