The Incredible Hulk and the Villain Problem

I have disposable income now, which means that I get to spend it on whatever I want. That’s what being an adult means, right? Which means that I now, thanks to a small piece of plastic, the Internet, and a robust postal system, I am now in possession of a considerable, but not exhaustive, collection of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Which I have been watching in character-group marathons, because I’m definitely not brave enough yet to marathon ‘the entire MCU in chronological order’.

What this unfortunately means is that I miss out on seeing a lot of one of my favourite characters – that is, Bruce Banner, or the Incredible Hulk. I haven’t yet bought the 2008 movie, which I usually tend to forget exists but have actually seen in the past.

I tend to forget it exists because I didn’t like it very much.

It has not very much to do with the difference between Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo, though I think Ruffalo makes the better Hulk. I love Edward Norton with all my heart and soul, but he doesn’t play barely-contained anger very well. He shines in roles where he’s genuinely timid, or partially disconnected and a little disjointed. Ruffalo, on the other hand, nailed the Hulk’s enforced, fearful placidness perfectly.

No, I just think that The Incredible Hulk wasn’t a very interesting movie.

A little while back I wrote a post about Treasure Planet (which, by the way, is still one of my most popular posts), where I wrote quite a lot about how everyone is immensely taller than Jim Hawkins (who is tiny), and that means that pretty much everybody seems threatening to him. Disney has adored this trope for years and they show no signs of stopping.

Marvel loves it too, right back to the comic books. I don’t know those as well, so all my examples are going to come from the movies (something something fake geek). It’s a really effective way of making a villain a legitimate threat. (Full disclosure: Because I don’t know my Hulk rogues gallery from the comics, but I do know the movies, this post is picking apart the MOVIE mentality towards Hulk villains, but I recognise the Hulk’s villains in the comics were much more diverse. I just don’t know enough about them to talk about them here. Good? Good.

We see the bigger-and-meaner-villain crop up in everything from Iron Man (whose competitors often have suits of armour copied from his, which are bulkier), to Spiderman (Sandman, Curt Connors/the Lizard – to be fair, even Green Goblin is bigger than Spiderman because Spiderman is not a large person) to the entire Avengers team fighting the huge flying Chitauri beasts. Bruce Wayne has Bane. If I actually knew any Superman villains other than Lex Luthor I’m sure I could list some examples for him.

But most of these villains have something going for them other than ‘big and strong’. Most. Sandman is basically just big and impossible to kill. The Lizard is smart because of Curt Connors, even though in Lizard form, he’s just big and mean and hits hard. Bane is all brute force, but is teamed up with a smarter player (Poison Ivy in one iteration, Raz Al Gul’s daughter in The Dark Knight Rises). Green Goblin is definitely intelligent, and has toys and devices to prove it. Iron Man has to exploit glitches in his competitors’ armour to win.

But what did we get in The Incredible Hulk?

“He’s bigger now, and also he’s mentally unstable.”

Good job.

See, Hulk is actually powerful enough that he’s starting to get into the Superman Problem. He’s indestructible, he’s strong enough to mow through pretty much anything that comes his way. You don’t stop the Hulk, you get away from him long enough for him to get tired and change back. But in order to have a superhero movie, you need a villain that can threaten the hero. The easiest type of threat to portray is a physical threat – it’s also the easiest way to compound a threat to the hero’s life or family or home town. Not only does he intend to Unleash the Thingummy on the Populace of Herotown, he has the physical strength/power to stop the hero getting to it first!

And then the Hulk compounds the problem by having his Power Mode be irrational and destructive. The Hulk is an awesome thematic concept because he’s a hero whose Get The Job Done mode is essentially a villain. It also makes him a terrible character to write for because it means that he’s already the villain. Go home everybody, position filled. If you invite anyone else to the big, green party, you risk the villain looking more sympathetic and stable than the hero. Any villain whose grand plan is ‘The Hulk is dangerous and needs to be stopped’ automatically has an excellent point. Even Bruce Banner knows the Hulk is dangerous. Even Bruce Banner wants the Hulk to stop smashing.

That’s why the Hulk works so well in the Avengers. Having more than one hero around means that you can add Bruce Banner to both groups at once without destabilising anything. He can be a hero and use his considerable intelligence to help the heroes, but all the villain needs to do is press the right buttons and suddenly he’s a villain endangering the main characters.

The trick is getting that dynamic into a movie where the Hulk is flying solo. I mean, just having the character of the Hulk, half your conflict is already done for you. The Hulk has a strong core of Human Vs. Themselves already – you don’t really need to add another source of conflict. But whatever, it’s a superhero movie, you need a villain.

I honestly think that the 2008 movie thought the wrong way around about the Hulk. The best villain for The Incredible Hulk isn’t actually about the Incredible Hulk. You shouldn’t try to make your opponent the Hulk – and you certainly shouldn’t try to out-Hulk the Hulk. We have a Hulk already, we don’t need another one, thematically or narratively. Give me a villain who’s after Banner, and then we’re talking.

Bruce Banner, in  my opinion, works best with catalyst villains. The problem isn’t that the villain will kill everything, the problem is that the villain is going to make the Hulk kill everything. The best villain for Banner puts him in a position where the only way to solve the problem is to Hulk out, but the worst possible thing to do would be to Hulk out. Maybe he needs to get to a thing to Science at it within a certain amount of time, but he’s trapped somewhere only the Hulk is strong enough to break out of, which means he won’t turn back into Banner soon enough to fix the problem. I’d watch that. I’d watch that on repeat for days.

I love that we’re getting more ‘thematic’ superhero movies happening, and more thought to character nuance and interaction as well as just special effects and punching. But I think we still need to take some things one step further, and trust our audience to like Human vs. Themselves as much as Human Vs. Worse Human, or Good Mutant Vs. Evil Mutant.

And Marvel, to make the wait easier while you’re figuring out how to make a compelling Hulk movie, GIVE US A DAMN BLACK WIDOW MOVIE.

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