He’s big. He’s strong. He’s foul-tempered. And he owes his fame to dubious performance-enhancing substances.
No, no, I’m not talking about a certain major league baseballer. I’m referring to the Hulk—the 9-foot-tall green behemoth who growls “Hulk smash!” and regards it as a promise. Sorta Superman eternally trapped in his “terrible twos,” Hulk tosses forklifts like Frisbees and smashes buildings into talcum powder like nobody’s business. Needless to say, it’s problematic for anyone unfortunate enough to be close by.
Especially Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s mild-mannered alter ego. Bruce inadvertently became the Hulk’s human incubator when he volunteered to be bombarded with radioactive gamma particles for the sake of science. Now the big juggernaut lurking inside just won’t leave him alone. Whenever Bruce gets really stressed, i.e., when his heart rate eclipses 200 beats per minute, he transmogrifies into the Hulk. That’s made lasting relationships impossible (and forget about keeping expensive glassware nearby), because Bruce is afraid to get close to anyone for fear that he might hurt them. So he’s forever on the run. From Brazil to Guatemala, Virginia to British Columbia.
Bruce’s unique blood (greenoglobin?) has also made him an object of intense interest to the United States Army—the very agency whose undisclosed role in Banner’s experiment helped spawn the big green meanie in the first place. “Something went very wrong,” Gen. Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross says. “Or it went very right.”
Cue egomaniacal laughter.
Ross is so enamored with Bruce’s bad side that he keeps dabbling in “super soldier” biotechnology, never mind the collateral damage. He performs similar experiments on a willing, albeit unhinged soldier named Emil Blonsky—who’s, um, green with envy over the Hulk’s abilities—then turns his genetically altered equalizer loose on Bruce.
Bruce, for his part, isn’t interested in donating his body to the United States’ military-industrial complex. He just wants the Hulk gone so he can live a normal life. “I don’t want to control it,” he says. “I want to get rid of it.” To that end, he reunites with his former main squeeze, Betty Ross. Together, they seek out a mysterious scientist known only as “Mr. Blue,” a man Bruce believes may be able to cure him.
In most comic book tales, the character’s superhuman abilities make the hero. Spiderman slings webs. Superman flies. And so forth. But the Hulk is as much Hyde as hero—a harried beast who, in his primal rage and confusion, sometimes stomps on innocent bystanders. In contrast, the real do-gooder here is Bruce Banner, who struggles every day to master the raging forces within him. He monitors his heart rate and he warns folks—even as they’re beating him up—that they’d better stop. He knows everyone will be safer if he can just keep the green guy under wraps.
But when Blonsky transforms into a bony über-monster one person dubs the Abomination, Bruce knows that the Hulk is the only thing that can stop him. Even though Bruce underwent a “cure” that may have banished greenus gigantus forever, he throws himself out of a helicopter hoping to trigger another transformation. (It works). Thus he’s willing to sacrifice himself and his own desires for the greater good.
Likewise, Betty Ross also offers her own form of sacrifice. She clearly loves Bruce and does whatever she can—including going on the lam with him—to help find a cure. She also sees humanity in the Hulk. When the two find themselves in a cave during a frenzied rain storm, she turns surrogate mother, telling the big fellow to watch his head and comforting him as the storm thunders around them.
Hulk in turn protects Betty from explosions and gunfire, saves her from a heinous monster and wipes away a wayward tear. [Spoiler Warning] He even stops short of killing an enemy at Betty’s pleading—an act of mercy that suggests, even in the midst of the Hulk’s tornado-like rages, that a whiff of Bruce’s humanity is still present somewhere beneath his tough green hide.
Meditation is an important part of Bruce’s anger management regimen, and we sometimes see him sitting on the floor in the lotus position. That said, the film doesn’t overtly refer to any underlying spirituality. When Bruce bribes a security guard with a pizza, the guard waves him through and says, “God bless you, Father.” Elsewhere, a scientist who witnesses Bruce’s transformation describes it as “godlike.”
Bruce and Betty still really like each other, but when they first reconnect after months apart, they keep one another at a distance. Their past romantic link is expressed only in lingering glances and hesitant dialogue. When Betty offers to have Bruce stay at her house for a night, she sets him up on the couch while she’s in her bed. Such laudable restraint ebbs, however, when the pair ends up on the run and in a hotel room. Kissing leads to a passionate embrace (Bruce lies on top of Betty; he grabs her exposed outer thigh and a bit of her backside as her dress hikes up). But he brings the proceedings to a halt before the Hulk shows up. “I can’t get too excited,” he explains, while Betty complains, “But I want to.”
Elsewhere, the pair kisses a couple of times. We also see Betty in bed (alone), wearing a relatively modest white nightie; several other outfits reveal some cleavage. Bruce spends the first part of the film in Brazil, where female extras loiter in skimpy tops and short shorts. Audiences get a brief glimpse of girlie photos pasted inside a locker door. Trying to evade capture, Bruce barges in on a woman coming out of the bathroom after a shower. (She’s holding a blue bathrobe against her body.)
We also see Bruce naked in a bathtub, but with critical parts strategically obscured by a leg and steam. A men’s locker room scene includes exposed torsos, and we repeatedly glimpse Blonsky sans shirt. A cabbie suggestively tells Betty, “You don’t like a good ride?”
The body count in The Incredible Hulk is higher than we’re used to seeing in superhero movies these days, as unnamed soldiers, civilians and scientists regularly meet untimely and violent ends. Here’s a sampling of the carnage:
Hulk transformation No. 1 is a flashback from the Hulk’s perspective to when he was first created. We see a destroyed laboratory strewn with the blood-covered bodies of scientists; later, we see Betty, whose face is bruised and swollen, in a hospital room.
Hulkout No. 2 happens at a Brazilian bottling factory, where Bruce has been pursued by three local toughs as well as Blonsky’s special ops team. The Hulk is in the shadows most of the time, but we watch several thrashing people disappear into the darkness as he grabs them. Hulk withstands a hail of tranquilizer darts, bullets and even a grenade or two while hurling all manner of industrial-grade projectiles at his assailants. Lots of equipment gets smashed to smithereens, too.
All of that is merely a stretching exercise for Hulkout No. 3, where the green Goliath battles an entire Army battalion armed with .50 caliber machine guns, rockets, Hummers, a helicopter gunship and two sonic cannons. Hulk summarily shreds all this equipment (and perhaps a few soldiers as well, though we don’t see any bodies) in a chaotic whirl of ripped metal, thudding bullets and fiery explosions. When Blonsky taunts Hulk by asking, “Is that all you’ve got?” Hulk kicks his adversary into a tree—a blow that leaves most of Blonsky’s bones looking like “crushed gravel” in the words of the attending doctor.
Hulkout No. 4 ends practically before it begins, with Bruce’s body grotesquely twisting and bulging and greening before our eyes until Bruce is injected with an antidote that reverses the transformation.
[Spoiler Warning] A jump from an airborne helicopter triggers Hulkout No. 5 and his climactic, King Kong vs. Godzilla-like battle with Blonsky’s Abomination. Together, they destroy a good chunk of New York City. (It’s always NYC, isn’t it?) Buildings are smashed; cars are thrown, torn apart and used as boxing gloves. Blonsky, in particular, relishes hurling unfortunate civilians this way and that (though we rarely see their impact). He also picks up a car and uses it to crush two soldiers. Audiences see hails of bullets, torrents of explosions, flying monsters and a helicopter careening out of control across a rooftop. Blonsky shoves a sharp bone spur into Hulk’s chest, and Hulk tries to strangle Blonsky with a heavy chain.
Also worth noting: Special ops forces shoot Bruce’s dog with a tranquilizer. Several folks are injected with big needles, including one particularly graphic injection into Blonsky’s spine.
Bruce uses the s-word as he plunges from the helicopter (though we don’t hear its completion). Characters misuse God’s name nearly a dozen times (twice pairing it with “d–n”) and utter about 10 other vulgarities (“d–n,” “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—” and “p—“).
Gen. Ross smokes cigars frequently. He also drinks heavily in a bar scene, slugging down shots, then ordering the bartender to “reload.” When Betty asks Bruce what happens in his mind during his Hulk episodes, he compares it to an induced hallucination experiment they both experienced in college. Then he says it’s like having “a liter of acid” poured on his brain.
Gen. Ross cares more about the apprehension of the Hulk than the safety or wellbeing of his soldiers and civilians caught in the cross fire (especially Betty Ross). Bruce swallows a flash drive loaded with data. We later hear him vomit it up.
Spider-Man teaches, “With great power comes great responsibility.” But Bruce Banner’s story illustrates the dark side of the super-power equation: With great power comes great danger.
The Hulk might best be seen as a symbol for that danger, something akin to a nuclear warhead perched atop a ballistic missile. While some would argue such deterrents are necessary, they are frightening nonetheless—weapons few of us would call “good” apart from their ability to combat evil. In a summer chock-full of superhero tales, where fantastic powers are flaunted like the latest shirt or shoe, it’s refreshing to watch a film that seriously grapples with the concept of an unwanted power that’s barely controllable. The maelstrom of savage carnage that whirls around the Hulk reminds us that peace, when possible, is preferable.
But like many films, The Incredible Hulk is a paradox: Even as it preaches pacifism and prudence, it glories in violence. The Hulk’s CGI wizards took pains to showcase his humanity. But they knew the real payoff would come once the great green beast was unleashed—neck muscles bulging, eyes creased in anger, his mouth open in a roar. This is the Hulk fans of his comic book exploits have come to see, rendered with intense realism on the big screen. Hulk smash. Hulk smash.
And so he does. Cars. Buildings. And, on at least one occasion, people. His final abominable foe raises the body-count ante even higher—a lot higher. Thus is the heroic commingled with the brutal. Like Bruce Banner himself, The Incredible Hulk comes with a dangerous and violent split personality.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.