In the version of The Hulk that I recently saw, there is a moment where Betty Ross, the partner-in science and love-of the emotionally distant Bruce Banner, asks him if he can remember anything when he becomes the rampaging green monster of the movie’s title.
“It’s like a dream,” Banner tells her.
“About what?” Ross says.
“Rage. Power …. Freedom.”
Then Banner says, a few scenes later: “You know what scares me the most, though? When it happens, when it comes over me, when I totally lose control-I like it.”
Who can not identify with that? Who does not find some primal release in letting go? There is nothing quite like the high of getting angry-that moment when the primal electricity of rage bubbles up out of our reptile brains, limbic systems or wherever it originates and not only floods the circuitry of our nervous systems, but overrides centuries of civilization. Rage, power, freedom. We feel it, too, as we lash out at the tourist on the sidewalk, the confused taxi driver, our parents, spouses, children. For a moment, the governors of religion, morality and humanity burn away and something else, something pure and high-octane, courses through us. We don’t think; we act.
And as much as we don’t want to admit it, we like how it feels.
Unfortunately, experience tells us that’s where the trouble starts. The price of unchecked anger is steep and often irreversible. As Betty Ross tells Bruce Banner, “a physical wound is finite, but with emotions, what’s to stop it from going on and on, and starting a chain reaction?”
America used to be good at harnessing its anger. From the start of this country, in battle and in speech, from George Washington all the way to Lenny Bruce, Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Pryor, the American hero has known when to lash out and when to use restraint. That was the power of the strong, silent guy, Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood: slow to anger, but when provoked … wham! That’s an American. In the 60′s and 70′s, that technique created a new society-more tolerant, open and humane-by sublimating and focusing, laser-like, on trouble spots.
But something went awry in the 1980′s and 1990′s, when Americans began to glory a little more in their anger. Schwarzenegger, the Hummer, Oliver North-Americans began to exult a little more in their right to lash out. Restraint gave way to instant anger gratification. And since then, this city-and this country-have had to work hard at suppressing instead of expressing our anger, tamped down and paved over with a thick asphalt of political correctness, celebrity obsession, prescription-drug abuse, stock-market distraction, technological amusement and economic anesthesia.
But the anger didn’t go anywhere. It was still underneath. And we didn’t forget about it. There was a reason Seinfeld was so popular-it spewed. But mostly the culture split into a kind of bifurcated territory with a Teletubby-land surface, on which Jerry Bruckheimer’s summer 2001 production of Pearl Harbor sufficed as historical drama-but underneath, our national fury was pushing against the borders of its confinement. Like the stuff that turned Bruce Banner into a muscle-rippling, vein-popping behemoth, our anger is part of our national essential. Many have wondered about it, and hundreds of doctoral dissertations have been written on it. It’s one of the main American topics, from government to education, from religion to our ideas about relationships and sex and love-all cast in the same crucible.
And, incidentally, it’s why Marvel Comics was born. D.C. Comics’ Superman was the soul of the Depression and World War II-a Gary Cooper–like figure, polite, reserved, dignified, lethal.
The Hulk was unmentionable, unspeakable anger.
The attacks of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq-not to mention the rebuilding process that is beginning to look more dangerous than the battle that preceded it-heightened the anger. In preparing for the war, President Bush directly tried to draw upon it as the rationale to attack. But many ordinary Americans found their favorite emotional device hijacked.
The Fox News Channel was among the first to craftily tap back into a vein of those anger reserves-specifically, the powerful suspicion that the bulk of conservative Middle America harbors against the East and West Coast liberal elites. Unfortunately, Fox News has been heavy-handed with its power, and its sin is not that it’s a conservative-leaning cable channel, but that it has rabidly abetted the current administration in the anti-American tactic of shouting down any dissenters in the name of a country that was founded on freedom of speech and expression.
That has left a lot of cowed but furious people. After all, when the very legitimate tactic of anger expression has been hoarded by one rigid, doctrinaire political group, where are the other refugees to go? It’s as though Fox and the right wing have trademarked and monopolized American fury, leaving everybody else to drool.
Meanwhile, Martha Stewart, who built an empire on sublimation and a glue gun, has been muzzled. And perhaps the most infuriating thing about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Living History is that even the passages that purportedly recount her rage at her philandering husband, Bill Clinton, ring hollow.
“I was furious and getting more so by the second,” Senator Clinton writes on page 466. “This was the most devastating, shocking and hurtful experience of my life. I could not figure out what to do, but I knew I had to find a calm place in my heart and mind to sort out my feelings.”
It takes very little contact with Senator Clinton to know that she’s a whole helluva lot angrier than that. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that New York’s junior Senator is a real She-Hulk-you could practically see her turning green on The Late Show with David Letterman on June 16 as she deflected the not particularly deferential talk-show host’s nettlesome questions. She has said that she had gotten by with some prayer and the help of some very good friends. But I bet Mrs. Clinton would be even more effective if she let out a roar every once in a while. Her most quoted passage from the book is that she wanted to “wring Bill’s neck.” But the true She-Hulk would have done a lot more than wring it. How about crush, stomp, flatten, pound and tenderize? Hillary smash Bill!
Listen closely, however, and there are moments when you can hear the rivets popping elsewhere.
“You call Donald Rumsfeld and tell him our sorry asses are ready to go home,” Pfc. Matthew C. O’Dell told The New York Times . Weeks after fighting with his platoon from the Kuwait border to Baghdad International airport, Private O’Dell and his fellow soldiers were not being fêted and honored for their bravery. Instead, they were bunked in what Times reporter Steven Lee Myers called “fetid quarters” at the “ransacked headquarters of Iraq’s Interior Ministry” and charged with keeping peace amid the chaos. Speaking through the Times reporter to his country’s Secretary of Defense, Private O’Dell said: “Tell him to come spend a night in our building.” It was a little drop of nitroglycerine on the front page.
In this summer of seething comes Ang Lee’s The Hulk , a movie for our time. Mr. Lee, along with screenwriters James Schamus (who also happens to be a co-producer of the film; see the adjoining story), John Turman and Michael France, has created a movie which says, in part, that anger can be a good thing-as Ms. Stewart would say-depending on how you harness it.
The Hulk of the old Marvel Comics series, which debuted in 1962, was always a bit of a sheep in wolf’s clothing and a creation of the Cold War. Bruce Banner, the typical white-bread scientist with thick-rimmed glasses, becomes the monster when, minutes before the testing of a gamma-bomb of his design, he spies a ne’er-do-well teenager named Rick Jones loafing about the test site. When Banner races out to save the kid, his nemesis-a Communist spy named Igor-allows the countdown to proceed, exposing Banner to a seemingly lethal dosage of the radiation. Of course, he doesn’t die, but instead becomes, as Banner himself declares in The Incredible Hulk No. 3, a “brutal, bestial mockery of a human-that creature which fears nothing-which despises reason and worships power!”
Not surprisingly, the Hulk as a character never reached the heights of another Marvel creation, Spider-Man.
This time around, however, the filmmakers have thrown out the clankier aspects of the Hulk’s mythology-Rick Jones, thankfully, is nowhere to be seen-and added a psychological twist in the form of Bruce Banner’s mad-scientist father, played appropriately by that amateur mad scientist, Nick Nolte. The result is a smarter, more complex and subtle film: a philosophical picture disguised as a popcorn blockbuster. Mr. Lee’s The Hulk works both as a modern psychoanalytical fable and as a sneakily subversive anti-war story that’s mostly set, appropriately, in the capital of our 60′s discontent, Berkeley, Calif.
In terms of the former, Bruce Banner turns out to be the more evolved but emotionally distant son of a disgraced and unstable military scientist who conducted cell-immunity research experiments on himself and passed on the results genetically to his kid. When the military puts an end to his work, Papa Banner does some Really Bad Things, and Mr. Lee’s equation of childhood trauma with a nuclear explosion will not soon be forgotten. And, of course, Dad, like Darth Vader, pops up later in Junior’s life to attempt to woo him to the dark side.
As for the latter perspective, you can almost look at The Hulk as a parable of America’s military future. All of the major male characters in The Hulk are angry men. There’s General “Thunderbolt” Ross, a holdover from the comic book and an old-school brush-cut-and-dried warrior who has dominated his daughter Betty’s life and given her, as she says in the movie, an “inexplicable obsession with emotionally distant men.” General Ross cannot see the Hulk in complex terms, even though he’s saved his daughter’s life. As far as he’s concerned, the creature-who is bestowed with the military code name “Angry Man” (as in “Angry Man is unsecure”)-is a threat and must be neutralized.
General Ross is good at unleashing his fury, but not at harnessing it to any effective use. And at one point he can be seen yowling in frustration because he’s losing power to Talbot, the Rumsfeldian military-industrial-complex genius from the Atheon company who literally wants a piece of the Hulk so that he can produce, patent and sell to the military the technology to create an army of indestructible soldiers.
And then, of course, there’s the Hulk’s dad, who wants to go even further: “Think of it-all those men out there in their uniforms, barking and swallowing orders, inflicting their petty rule over the globe. Think of all the harm they’ve done to you, to me-and know we can make them and their flags and their anthems and governments disappear in a flash,” Pa Banner tells his son, urging him to be “reborn a hero of the kind that walked the earth long before the pale religions of civilization infected humanity’s soul.”
Next to these guys, the Hulk seems like a green Gandhi. Sure, as his anger grows, so does his bodily mass and his capacity to destroy-but Mr. Lee’s Hulk is no murderous beast. He defends himself when attacked, but he dumps soldiers out of a tank before destroying it and, in one of the trippiest scenes in the movie, prevents a jet from crashing into the Golden Gate Bridge by jumping onto its tail and riding it into the thin air of earth’s outer atmosphere.
The film’s female protagonist, Betty Ross-who never looked so good in the comic as she does played by Jennifer Connelly in the movie-has a relationship with each of these men. And if you choose to notice that “Betty Ross” sounds awfully close to the creator of the American flag, Betsy Ross-well, go ahead.
All in all, the movie Hulk is a beautiful thing, and his articulation of our duality is as right for the moment (as opposed to Superman’s with Clark Kent, which is more right for psychoanalysis) as the unspeakable rage that his transformation bodies forth. Superman becomes more beautiful when he shows his true self. The Hulk becomes greener. He becomes hideous for our sins in parenting, warmongering, governing, scientific experimenting. His physical transformation dares us to evolve … like human beings.
Taken in that context, the film’s tag line-”You won’t like me when I’m angry”-becomes a neat little irony. Mr. Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney probably wouldn’t like the modern Hulk because he makes us look like puny humans in more ways than one. Like Private O’Dell, he might tell them to send his sorry ass home. He might also invite them to come and spend a night in his green housing.L