Iron Man and the Hulk: Conversation Between Mike and Kate

I recently saw Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. I liked Iron Man, so much I saw it twice! I didn't care for The Incredible Hulk. I referred this conflict to Mike who presents the following explanations. (Mike's wife also prefer Iron Man to The Incredible Hulk, so this could just be a guy-gal thing. Mike tackles this posssibility as well as others.)

MIKE: The Incredible Hulk was fun for me because it, far more than Iron Man, really wove together and created the Marvel Universe on the screen. This is important because Iron Man and Hulk were the first two steps of a multi-movie franchise that will culminate in a couple years with the "Avengers" movie.

But it's not fair for a movie to be only accessible to the fans.

I think the main problem that exists with bringing the Hulk to the screen is that they keep trying for superhero when they should be going for more man-on-the-run western. The TV show got it right on some points, but many of the areas where the TV show got it wrong are the areas that the films also get wrong.

In truth, the Hulk is not and never was originally a hero. Jekyll and Hyde weren't heroes either.

KATE: This is an interesting point, Mike! I think it is notable how often the creation or alternate ego takes over in terms of interest. Frankenstein, for example, is actually the doctor, not the monster. The Beast is more interesting than the Prince. Dracula--who hardly appears in the original novel--gets more attention than the scoobie gang. The list goes on . . .

MIKE: The tragedy of Bruce Banner is that the Hulk is the consequence of his genius, and the price he paid to save a life. In the comics, there was no lab accident. Bruce Banner had created a bomb, a very powerful bomb. And when they were about to test it, a teenager wandered into the testing ground. Banner went and saved the kid, but he was almost too late: the blast went off, showering Banner in radiation, turning him into the Hulk.

I think the film does a better job than the Ang Lee Hulk (which is awful). A Hulk movie should, absolutely, be a chase movie. I think the film also does a great job of finding the humor in the circumstances. And, as I said, it really lays the foundation for the world that the next few Marvel films are going to exist in.

But marketing the film as a superhero flick is a mistake. While Banner has done good things, and is a hero in some ways, this is not a man out to save the world; he is seeking to save himself. And the Hulk, as an entity, is also not heroic. The Hulk can't be a hero because he embodies the worst of Banner: his rage, his guilt, his desire to be alone. Banner is seeking to reconcile himself: to bridge and repair his shattered psyche.

KATE: Speaking of heroes (what makes a hero, etc.), in my folklore class, I have used three traditional folklore images to explain modern superheroes:

1. The strong, down-to-earth countryman: Bill Bunyan, Superman
2. The wise-cracking Yankee: "The Yankee Peddler," Tony Stark
3. The backwoodsman or vigilante: George Magoon (famous Maine poacher), Batman

In all three cases, the hero is larger than life and, even if burdened by personal concerns, has some other larger objective.

MIKE: Now, in the film, when Banner is able to finally control the beast, to bend the Hulk to his will, THAT is when he becomes a hero. Not because he saves the city, not because he takes down a beast that his work unleashed. But, rather, because he is able finally to take the anger, fear, and other emotions that are raging beneath the surface and direct them; he is able to be constructive, instead of destructive.

Controlling our emotions and impulses can sometimes take heroic effort, and Bruce Banner's struggle controlling the Hulk is an amazing, though exaggerated, illustration of that struggle.

The problem with superhero movies is that, for most people, they are only compelling when the character is obviously human, like Spider Man or Iron Man. Superman or the Hulk are both difficult because they cannot go through the same things as a human hero. They can't always be hurt or screw up. The last Superman movie disappointed a lot of people, but that should not have been a superhero movie; it was more of a disaster movie, since Superman is more of a force of nature.

KATE: I think my dissatisfation comes in here. It isn't so much that I demand human characteristics, but that I prize cleverness over brute strength. I quite enjoyed the last Superman movie but what I enjoyed, when it came to the battle/action scenes, was Superman's choices. He makes quite active choices about who he will help next and how and when and where. You can see him thinking through the problem. This is true of Iron Man as well. Tony Stark is--in his blithe, capitalistic way--always thinking through his options.

In The Incredible Hulk, the action sequences were just . . . the Hulk throwing stuff. It was, I hate to say this, boring. (To be fair, I did enjoy the beginning of the movie: the chase stuff.) It reminded me of the critique of The Phantom Menace where the critic explains how much more satisfying the fight scene between old Obi-Wan and Darth is compared to the fight scene between their younger selfs. The fight scene between their younger selfs goes on and on and on and on and where's the emotional resonance? On the other hand, the fight scene between the older dudes is short and to-the-point and filled with emotional resonance.

That's how I felt watching The Incredible Hulk. He wasn't making choices, so I didn't care how many cars he ripped up. But when Superman decides to go back and lift Lex Luthor's island out of the ocean: THAT was cool.

MIKE: The strength of the Hulk concept is that through Banner, you have the protagonist and antagonist wrapped together in one person. A true Hulk movie would make the Hulk the villian with Banner and a close friend the heroes, working to overcome the Hulk and use him, when they can, for higher purposes.

The trouble, though, is that people want violence and action, and parents want their children cheering for the good guys. Which may be why Godzilla eventually went from Godzilla destroying the city to protecting it from other monsters.

KATE: There's a great philosophical problem here! The Hulk could struggle with whether the damage he unleashes as the Hulk is worth the good he could do if the power was controlled.

Mike also addresses the guy-gal issue:

MIKE: I think the Hulk resonates more strongly with men because rage, anger, guilt, stress are all emotions that a lot of men struggle controlling regularly. The Hulk is the end result of losing control: he is rage and emotion unleashed. To lose control, to fear cracking and having the emotions escape is something that all men feel to some extent.

KATE: I think this is an interesting point! And much more honest than the politically correct mantra that men and women are the same (I think women can do as much damage as men but not physically. It's a matter of straight-forward mechanics: the strongest woman in the world will never be as strong as the strongest man.)

I have had a few male students write essays on "Why the Hulk would win against Wolverine" or "against Superman," etc. In general, these male students are burly football types. I wonder, sometimes, how frustrated they feel--sitting cramped behind tables having a 5'2" 110 pound woman yap "Essay writing is fun!" at them--and if the Hulk speaks to them in some way. (By the way, they are also almost always my sweetest students.)

Mike gets the last word:

MIKE: But you are right: Hulk doesn't work as a hero. But I believe it's because Hollywood is trying too hard to make him one.


Joe said...

I preferred Iron Man over [the second modern] The Incredible Hulk. One reason is that Tony Stark didn't sit around naval gazing and being all angsty--he was a man of action!

One great thing about Iron Man is that if someone actually had an authentic Iron Man costume, it would be very cool. You can't say that about many superheroes.

From a purely filmatic standpoint, Iron Man is a better made movie. Furthermore, Robert Downey Jr. is a much better actor than Edward Norton.

Mike. C said...

Kate, I'm continually amazed by your ability to take my inane dribble and turn it into something structured and coherent. Thanks for making me sound like I had a point!

I do agree with you, the rampant smashing of the hulk (while part of the fun of the character), if not presented in the right context,can get downright dull.

But, when done right, the destruction the Hulk causes can serve a structural and emotional purpose for the story.
When banner loses control and becomes the hulk, his rage is unleashed, and any element of control is gone. His is irrational rage and emotion run wild. I think it's important for an audience to see this, as they see the danger the hulk poses. It helps complete the metaphor. This is a Man with deep emotional issues, and unless he is able to own up and control it or heals the wounds, the whole world may be at risk.

And as I said, that's why the Hulk is not a hero. he is the threat, the danger, the consequence of Banner loosing his ability to choose by giving in to his rage (though, admittedly, it is somewhat involuntary).

I think the film did a great Job of portraying banner as a Man with a problem- a normal man with problems and issues, loves and hates. And he does try to be noble when he can.

As for Stark in Iron Man, the film did a good job pf portraying him as well. The problem is that where Banner is an everyman (except for the whole genius thing), Stark is the icon- the poor little rich boy.

Stark, while he does suffer for his mistakes, he is quick to go about his business in the flashiest way possible, that will obtain the most attention. And when he is given the opportunity ti humbly pass the credit along, he is unable, and selfishly proclaims his identity.

Where Banner is stuck with a curse that has no good side. He doesn't want, doesn't like, and struggles to be free of it. While I understand that the movies needed a big physical confrontation, the real struggle is between Banner and the Hulk.

While I blush to be mentioning Superman III (which should really, for the sake of human dignity be forgotten) There was something amazingly satisfying about the fight between Clark and superman.

Anyway, This all came from your statement of Hulk not making choices- just smashing. And you're right. There is no point to the smashing... it's a tantrum. This film needed an emotional element to the end fight- that element should have been Banner overcoming the hulk persona in order to save the city. Instead, the focus of the fight was changed to the villain, that had no emotional connection to banner or the hulk. and that was where the film failed.

Sorry to go on and on, especially after your giveing me another blog post to go on, but a way to fix the main problem of the film would have been show, in some way, the struggle of Banner vs the hulk during the action/fight sequences. perhaps a dream like sequence of them wrestling?

Kate Woodbury said...

Speaking of Superman . . .

I think superheroes do need some kind of internal conflict.

Which brings me to Superman . . .

I think it is fascinating that in the Christopher Reeves' Superman movies, Clark is the alter ego or mask while Superman is the real self.

In Lois & Clark, on the other hand, Clark perceives himself as the "real" person while Superman is his alter ego or mask.

There's a great episode where Clark is "killed" and has to pretend he is dead. His mom says something like, "Well, you can still see Lois and Perry and Jimmy," and Clark goes into this monologue about how that isn't the same. Superman is SUPERMAN while Clark gets to relate to Lois and Perry and Jimmy as a normal guy.

(Later, there's a great scene where his mom goes, "This is why I took psychology classes at Adult Education this winter. Clark, you've begun talking about yourself in the third person!")

But I am starting to think that this is the essence of all superhero movies: who is the "real" person?

I admit, I get a kick out of Tony Stark not playing the game at all. Although, one could argue that Tony uses flash and glam to hide his "real" persona!