Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk's alter-ego, suffers from terrible post-traumatic stress disorder in the new Hulk movie. There are a few scenes of Banner freaking out in the bathtub as he remembers the violence of the military's latest attempt to capture him. You can't even get close to Bruce Banner (Edward Norton), because he's so wound up with his trauma. Flashes of guns and fists. But in the end, the movie suggests, Bruce's PTSD is a by-product of his struggle to hold onto his humanity, to avoid becoming the ultimate killing machine. Spoilers ahead.
If Iron Man was about America's power overseas — specifically in Afghanistan, where much of the movie takes place — then the Incredible Hulk is about what happens to our soldiers when they come home. It's about the impossibility of transforming young men into "super-soldiers" and then expecting them to blend back in. Banner is on a hair-trigger not just because he's pissed off, but because he's traumatized by being under attack and on the run — and because military-sponsored experiments have made him fit only for battle. The whole movie is about Banner's rejection of his fighting-machine identity, and his fight against Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who embraces that same identity.
Actually, the new Hulk movie reminded me of nothing so much as Kimberly Peirce's underrated film Stop Loss — both in its depictions of post-traumatic stress, and in the frustrating opaqueness of its actors' performances. Stop Loss dramatizes over and over again how the Iraq war has left a group of soldiers basically unfit for civilian life. They hear gunfire everywhere, they jump at anything, they get fucked up and destroy private property, and they get into fights. In the end, the only environment they're suited for is one where people are constantly trying to kill them. PTSD isn't just an injury to the psyche, it's actually a feature of the constant readiness for shit to go down. PTSD is part of what makes you a better killer.
The idea that PTSD plays a role in Bruce's struggle with Hulkdom is nothing new. In the early Hulk comics, Bruce Banner is repressing tons of unfocused rage, which explodes out of him when he becomes the Hulk. But starting in the early 1980s, writers like Bill Mantlo and Peter David started exploring the idea that Bruce was really struggling with a lot of childhood trauma (from his abusive dad) and this was making him have multiple personalities. (The Hulk being a separate personality that just happens to be able to manifest physically.) And then, of course, Ang Lee decided to take the "abusive dad" backstory and make it into the front-story of his 2003 movie — with disastrous results.
One reason I can buy that Bruce Banner is traumatized, rather than full of repressed anger, is that Ed Norton doesn't seem repressed at all. He seems constantly pissed off and yet wounded at the same time. Sure, we spend a lot of time on his various efforts to control his anger — everything from a metronome to a cute dog — but the main emotion Norton projects is pain and frustration.
His Banner is Jesus and Buddha rolled into one — he meditates a lot, he wanders through South America, homeless and scruffy, depending on alms, and he learns purely defensive martial arts so he can avoid having to fight.
We learn early on in the movie that Banner became the Hulk as part of a military experiment to create a new generation of "super-soldiers" — like the boy-scouty Captain America but a zillion times more destructive — and Banner was an early failure. The military wants to capture him so they can experiment on him and make better killers. But Bruce Banner isn't interested in becoming the ultimate killing machine — and that's why the military hates him.
This is a significant departure from the comics, where the military attacks the Hulk because he's constantly going on rampages and endangering innocent people. The comics stick pretty closely to the Godzilla paradigm: the Hulk is a giant monster, and the army has to try and stop him. He Hulks out for all sorts of reasons, and things get ugly when he does. In the movie, by contrast, Banner never, ever turns into the Hulk except when the army attacks him. If the army would just leave him alone, we're told in no uncertain terms, things would be fine.
And the Hulk isn't a particularly great killing machine, even apart from the fact that he only Hulks out when you fire a rocket launcher at him. He pretty much only fights in self defence in this movie, and never just goes on a tear. Even in his totally apeshit Hulk mode, he's pretty happy to live and let live. And he's mopey as often as he's angry — I lost count of how many times the Hulk looked sad, or tired, or just sort of emo, in the new movie. That's not to say the Hulk doesn't get super-violent in the new movie — he does, as you've probably seen in the trailers. He does the thunderclap-hands, he smashes a sonic-weapon truck, he rips a car in half and uses it as brass knuckles, etc.
So the military wants to turn the Hulk into a weapon, and make a ton of slightly more intelligent Hulks, to go and thrash anybody who fucks with America. The army, as personified by William Hurt's General "Thunderbolt" Ross and Roth's Blonsky, are green with envy (sorry) when they look at the Hulk. They don't see a menace to be vanquished, they see a world-beating ubermensch that could be them. And there are various moments when both Ross and Blonsky express disdain for Banner's pacifism and disgust at his unwillingness to revel in his power.
And it's not much of a spoiler that Blonsky embarks on a quest to turn himself into the Hulk's equal. There's a weirdly unconvincing scene, after the Hulk first trounces Blonsky's soldiers, where he's talking with General Ross. Blonsky remarks on the fact that Ross sent his team in cold, without telling them what they would be facing, and didn't equip them for the situation they were going into. The next logical statement ought to be, "so screw you and your suicide missions." Instead, Blonsky gets a twinkle in his eye and says he'd like another crack at the Hulk. And that's when Ross offers Blonsky his first shot at becoming a super-soldier himself.
About the only character development Blonsky gets is when we learn that he's at an age where he should have a desk job, but he just wants to keep fighting. The only thing he's good at is mayhem, and he wants to stick to what he knows. He's willing to pay the price — including some hideously painful injections, and a full-body fracture at one point — to keep kicking ass. The contrast between Blonsky's masochism and Banner's anguished trauma shows us the difference between a man who embraces his inner murderer, and one who rejects it.
There are two meta-issues that are hard to ignore when you're watching The Incredible Hulk. Ang Lee's Hulk movie only came out five years ago, and the new movie sort of acknowledges this by saying that Banner has been the Hulk for five years. It also retells the Hulk's origin very briskly in the opening credits, making some changes from the Lee version but mostly just establishing the basics. The other big meta-issue is the fight between star/co-writer Ed Norton and Marvel over the movie's edit. I went into the film thinking Marvel had probably saved us from a tedious angst-fest by slicing some of Norton's favorite scenes out of the movie, but then I was struck by how weirdly choppy it was in parts. I saw the film with someone who hadn't heard about the dispute, and she remarked afterwards that it felt as though some crucial scenes were edited out. (In particular, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) ditches her boyfriend to go off with Bruce, and it's never dealt with. We never even see the two of them talk about it at all. There are also a few individual scenes which feel jumpy.) I have a feeling the Ed Norton cut might actually be a lot more satisfying and interesting. And as fun as it is, TIH might be worth waiting to see on DVD, if your TV is big enough.
It's almost impossible to avoid comparing the Hulk to Iron Man: they're both about a guy who creates super-weapons and feels remorse. They both feature heroes whose bodies become the ultimate weapons. And they both show their main actors shirtless for long stretches as they obsess about their hearts — though Ed Norton is trying to keep his heart from speeding up, and Robert Downey Jr. is trying to keep his heart from stopping. Both heroes try to prevent anybody else from wielding the weapons they've created. And they both end up fighting an enemy who's similar to them, but more ruthless and bloodthirsty.
There are a few big differences between Iron Man and Incredible Hulk, though: Iron Man is more fun. (Iron Man has a heavy-metal score, I can barely remember Hulk's score but it was pretty standard orchestral music.) Iron Man is fairly pro-military and includes a sympathetic military character, Jim Rhodes, while the military characters in Hulk are pretty much all assholes. Iron Man transcends its comic book source material, while Hulk does justice to its comics origins without improving on them. Hulk has more random fuck-yeah moments than Iron Man, and they feel a bit more calculated — but that doesn't stop them being awesome. Bottom line: Hulk is better than 90 percent of superhero movies, but not as good as Batman Begins, Iron Man, Spider-Man 1 or 2, or the first two X-Men movies.