In Hulk‘s first full-on action sequence, we find our big green superhero (played as Bruce Banner by Eric Bana, as the Hulk by CGI) protecting ersatz girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) from a pack of mutated dogs, including one giant killer poodle. Before the fight, we have something of a King Kong moment. Hulk, towering above the lithe Betty, picks her up in his massive hand and places her out of harm’s way.
The image suggests a shift in this movie’s racial implications from those of the Marvel Comics’ The Incredible Hulk, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The original was plainly about race, and more importantly, institutional racism. The Hulk was popular during some of the most racially charged times in U.S. history, from his creation in 1962 through the ’70s (including the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series). In Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, historian Bradford W. Wright observes, “Alienated superheroes like the Hulk and the Silver Surfer especially empathized with African Americans. The green Hulk befriends an impoverished black teenager and explains to him, ‘World hates us… both of us… Because we’re different.'”
Ang Lee’s Hulk, scripted by John Turman, Michael France, and James Schamus, shows no such attention to racial dynamics. In fact, the King Kong scene demonstrates just the opposite, aligning this film with the notoriously racist giant ape movie, with specific parallels: the excessive bodies, the primitive “nature,” and the unquenchable desire for one frail white woman. And, there is the castration. Like Kong, Hulk’s genitals are apparently so scary that they must be done away with. This is not to say we “need” to see Hulk’s goods. But conveniently, while all other clothing shreds to pieces during his transformations, Hulk’s underpants always expand to fit. In the Kong scene, when the fight is over and Hulk has turned back, Bruce Banner is naked. Apparently, a nude white man is okay, whereas a green meanie in the buff isn’t. The erasure draws attention to racist fears and stereotypes of black men’s genitals and (sexual) aggression.
In the comics, the Hulk’s racial dimensions were subtended by the public’s misapprehensions about the Hulk, and the State’s attempts (as represented by the military) to “keep him down.” In the movie, this critique of institutional authority and the way U.S. culture perceives and deals with difference is evacuated.
At the same time, Hulk does change the story to fit with our times: military authority is superseded by the nebulous corporate entity, Atheon, and its smarmy agent Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas). It is a truism of contemporary global politics that multinational corporations like Atheon have more power than governments and armies. But what this does in Hulk is let institutions like the military off the hook for their ongoing promotion of intolerance — of gays, lesbians, and women within their ranks, and of anyone and anything “Un-American” without.
This is most obviously effected in the recuperation of General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliott), Betty’s father and the man in charge of the Hulk hunt. Ross is the classic military stereotype. He’s all blind loyalty and duty, making him a stern and alienating father. At the beginning of the film, we realize just how fractured the father and daughter’s relationship is. Upon receiving a rare call from Ross, Betty goes to meet with him and finds his only interest is intel on Bruce Banner. She tells him, “When you called, I thought for once you might be interested in me.”
That General Ross is also intolerant of difference is made clear in his monomaniacal search for the Hulk. When Betty pleads with him to remember that the Hulk is really the human Bruce, Ross replies, “He is a human being, but he’s also something else.” He is definitely not one of “us,” which makes him, as Ross observes, a “threat to national security.” (I can’t help but think here of the hundreds of unnamed Arab men being held indefinitely by the military today for reasons of “national security.”)
Hulk makes General Ross responsible for protecting the U.S. populace from the dangers of the Hulk. This changes the comic book past, where the Hulk protects the innocent, while the military and government are rapacious and exploitative. The film does recognize that the military’s interest in the Hulk is not merely custodial (the potential weapons applications of his genetic mutation are immense), but it passes most of this buck to Atheon. All so General Ross can experience his own transformation. Through his daughter’s feelings for Bruce Banner, he becomes more tolerant of the Hulk. See, even bigoted military types can change!
What Hulk offers instead of a critique of racism and authority is family drama of the hackneyed “difficult daddies” variety. His absence, sense of duty, and his abandonment of Betty in an ice cream parlor when she was a child explain Betty and General Ross’ distant relationship. He came back for her (which we don’t see), but the event left scars so deep she still has nightmares about it as an adult and can’t trust that any man will stay by her side.
But while Betty does work through this traumatic familial relationship, there is no such recuperation for Bruce and his father, David Banner (Nick Nolte). Bruce must reject his father entirely. David Banner, you see, is a very bad man. Working for General Ross as a young man, David was a genetic scientist. When his project on medical regeneration was threatened with closure, David decided to step up the process and test his theories on himself. He then passed the resultant mutation on to his son. The effects of this aren’t clear until the adult Bruce, himself a scientist working on the same theories, is exposed in the lab to nanomeds and gamma radiation. This is the combination that activates his genetic mutation and allows for the emergence of the Hulk at times of intense emotional and physical stress.
In Hulk, the trigger is the same as it was in the comics and TV series — Bruce’s anger — but what motivates that anger is radically different. Rather than feeling anger at, say, injustice or discrimination, this Hulk is motivated by frustration over repressed memories and Bruce’s coming into consciousness of his own family dysfunction and trauma. It’s a totally self-involved anger.
When we first see Bruce as an adult, he goes by the last name Krentzler. Raised by an adoptive mother, he believes his birth parents were killed when he was very young. It is the realization of the abuse he and his mother suffered at David’s hands that necessitates Bruce’s rejection of his father. This break gets played out in the father and son’s final confrontation. And this is Hulk‘s ultimate disappointment. Whereas the original Hulk (and King Kong, for that matter) fought against injustice, intolerance, and abuses of power, all that this Hulk has to fight is his Big Bad Daddy.