There’s a new Hulk trailer out this week. The new film is supposed to be better than the Ang Lee angst fest that we had a few years ago, but I have to admit that that the latest trailer doesn’t give me very much hope
Unlike a lot of Marvel characters, there isn’t an inherent “great Hulk story”. As a friend of mine pointed out, of the original characters that Stan Lee created in the sixties, he’s probably among the weakest ones.
Even his comic-book origin is kind of unfocused. It’s a cold war fable involving a new kind of atomic bomb, and some very red communist bad guys that include a scientist named Igor (that nobody notices is a spy), and villain named the Gargoyle, who changes sides once he’s cured by good-old American science.
That original version of the character also wasn’t triggered by anger. Instead he was a cross between Mr. Hyde, and the werewolf; a monster by night and a man by day. The book wasn’t really a hit, and it was canceled after only six issues, eventually coming back after some succesful guest appearances in the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers.
The entire history of the comic has really been a study in ways to to tell good stories about an out of control monster. The different takes have been more or less successful, as the Hulk’s intelligence runs the gamut from grunting animal to erudite leader. But sooner or later he ends up back where he started, yelling “Hulk Smash” as he rips apart a tank. He’s also gone through a number of color changes (he’s currently red in the comics).
On television the solution was to turn Banner into a version of the Fugitive. Each week he’d visit a different town, and face a new set of corrupt officials or menacing gangsters. It allowed him to “make a difference in the lives of everyone he touched,” and then move on, While it wasn’t perfect, it worked pretty well as a vehicle for the character. They also used that “man on the run” plot in the comics recently, and it was probably the best the book had been in a while. But like every Hulk story, eventually it gets stale , so they shot the character into space and made him the warlord king of an alien planet, ultimately leading to his coming back to Earth, and tearing a lot of stuff apart.
The main problem is that the human side of the character, Dr. Banner, has to disappear whenever the title character is around. So if you’re trying to tell a story about a man working to free himself of the monster inside, that comes to a screeching halt whenever the Hulk is around. Suddenly your hero is an out of control beast, smashing up the landscape, and basically doing the things that would make you a villain in any other story. That works great when he’s not the main character. The recent Ultimates series did a great job of showing that the character can be used as a weapon, but only with great consequences both for Banner, and the people using him. You also can’t cure the guy, or the story is over.
As a metaphor, the idea of the Hulk as a living atom bomb held back by nothing more than the weak spirit of an average man is probably the most useful from a storytelling perspective. I’m just not sure that’s ever going to work for the main character in a summer action blockbuster.
Sure, “Hulk smash,” he just may not be able to smash box office records.