— Admit it: You'd love to release the green creature within you.
No, not The Great Gazoo, the condescending martian stuck serving Fred and Barney on The Flintstones in the cartoon's later years. Not the "Ho, ho, hoing" Jolly Green Giant who used to be all over the airwaves pushing canned veggies.
Marvel Comics' raging, roaring, muscle-bound Goliath is the only one of those green guys who's had his own show and is now starring in his own big-screen movie.
But for a character that has been angry for more than 40 years, the Hulk should be happy with his resurgence in pop culture. Thanks to the hype surrounding Friday's opening of director Ang Lee's The Hulk, the not-so-jolly green giant can be found almost everywhere outside comic book shelves — in commercials, toy stores, T-shirts, billboards nationwide, video games, bed sheets and underwear.
Lee's computer-animated vision of the Hulk may be new, but the character's appeal is not. Long before "anger management" became a common term, we loved Bruce Banner when he got angry.
Maybe fans cotton to the idea that a wimpy-looking scientist could turn into a monstrous creature — against his will — when provoked by his enemies. Maybe it's always been the Hulk's beyond-superhuman strength and loner mentality. Then there's the way his unfocused rage led him to take on heroes and villains alike; he's had no qualms battling Spider-Man one minute and then Dr. Doom in the next.
More likely, fans want to be the Hulk — or can at least identify on some level with Banner's suppressed rage.
"He's [The Hulk] not really a superhero. He's really the misunderstood monster," said Axel Alonso, editor of Marvel Comics' The Incredible Hulk. "You have the inherent pathos of a 98-pound weakling turning into a 1,000-pound monster — against his will — who can level an entire city."
"At the heart of the issue are anger management issues, and who hasn't wrestled with those?" Alonso continued. "There's something cathartic about this situation. … Who hasn't been in a situation when they would've wanted to release the Hulk, whether it be at the dinner table on Thanksgiving or on someone who's getting in your face?"
The Hulk was among the new breed of darker, conflicted, more "human" comic book characters that Stan Lee, now chairman emeritus of Marvel, unveiled in the 1960s. He and artist/writer Jack Kirby's new character melded aspects of a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde with Frankenstein's monster. People feared scientist Banner's darker alter ego because of his appearance and destructive tendencies — no matter how innocent his intentions were at times or how many lives he saved.
In the comics, Bruce Banner has always been a man of conflicts. He was a military scientist who wanted to use his talent for good, but he also was responsible for creating the gamma radiation bomb that poisoned him. (Banner was poisoned by gamma-radiation while saving the life of a teenager, Rick Jones, who wandered onto a bomb-testing site. The overexposure to gamma rays causes him to turn into the Hulk when he becomes angry or excited.) In the TV series, Banner (called "David Bruce Banner"), haunted by the death of his wife during a car accident and his inability to save her, suffered a gamma radiation overdose while experimenting on himself.
The public never saw the Hulk as a heroic figure. He was seen as a threat and hunted by the U.S. government, particularly by Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, father of his love interest, Betty Ross.
"The Hulk is the Marvel character whose internal conflict is the most obviously manifested externally," said Kent Worcester, professor of political science who also teaches a comics and animation course at Marymount Manhattan College. "I'm talking about a deeper conflict, a conflict involving Bruce Banner, who does not want to be the Hulk, who does not want his anger unleashed, does not want his id to run free, and who is caught in a soap opera involving the general, general's daughter, this secret world of the military, and the media.
"The conflict is just not whether I should use my powers for good or should I save the world," Worcester continued. "It's personal. It's psychological."
Identifying With the Demons Within
Banner saw the Hulk as his curse, not his ally, even when his transformation into the titan saved his life. The Hulk had cost him his chance at normalcy. Banner was constantly on the run and was guilt-ridden over the destruction and injuries his inner monster had caused.
"Just the idea of the monster within you … your worst fears of your worst anger come to life, is real to some, despite the crazy, farfetched story involving gamma radiation," said David Jay Gabriel, executive director of the New York City Comic Book Museum. "Bruce Banner has always had this guilt about anything the Hulk has done, but I always thought that he could say that wasn't really him, that was someone else. I always thought that the idea that he could blame someone else for something that he did was a really cool aspect of the character."
In years since the Hulk's debut, Banner's character has evolved with the times. The comic book has become as psychologically driven as it is action-fueled. The 1980s saw Banner's mind take over the Hulk's body and he was able to control his transformation. Later, the monstrous Hulk would return as Banner would lose control over his demon.
And Banner isn't just a man who always seems to find himself in terrible predicaments where enemies trigger his metamorphosis into the Hulk. In recent years, it was revealed he was a victim of child abuse who continues to grapple with his anguish over those memories.
"He has this shameful inner life that is so disruptive and he can't share with anybody," Worcester said. "But the world around him is so dysfunctional that he can't help but express this inner rage."
Indebted to Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno
Today's comic storylines — and even the movie's trailer — hint that Banner does not feel as much guilt about his alter ego's destructive tendencies. In the comic book, he is coming to terms with being the Hulk and can now once again control his transformation. Just as some people struggle with their own demons and addictions, he's just not sure if he can prevent the monstrous Hulk from taking over once he lets him out.
"The relationship between Banner and the monster has occasionally been strained, but it hasn't always been that way," Alonso said. "He is exploring his relationship with the Hulk and does seem more willing to open Pandora's box. But he's not quite sure he can always put him back in."
Lee's movie is said to explore the darker, more complicated nature of the Hulk-Banner relationship — and is a far cry from the series that ran on CBS from 1978 to 1982. Some fans who eagerly watched Bill Bixby hitchhike his way from town to town and a green-skinned, wig-wearing Lou Ferrigno run around in ripped jeans may admit that the show was a bit cheesy. But they also credit the show with making The Hulk one of the summer's most anticipated movies.
"I really believe that the TV series has some fond memories for a lot of people who may have watched it as children and those people have passed on that love to their children," said Gabriel. "Sure, some of the special effects are outdated compared to what can be done today. But some of the stories are timeless."
Timeless — just like the green monster within us all. Maybe when Bill Bixby's Banner told reporter Jack McGee, "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry," he really meant "Don't make me angry. I just might like it when I'm angry."