This article about the Incredible Hulk is the third in a series of posts exploring theological themes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You can find the first post in the series here. I recommend using VidAngel to filter the content of this film for your family.
Spider-Man teaches us that, with great power, comes great responsibility. Iron Man reminds us that great power requires great accountability. Captain America contends that great power can also provide a safeguard for liberty. The Incredible Hulk teaches us a less welcome truth: With great power comes great danger.
When Bruce Banner’s pulse reaches a particular point—conveniently, in this second contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a well-rounded 200 beats per minute—the scientist erupts into a gargantuan green rage machine. A supply of stretchy pants maintains the Hulk’s modesty, but it will require more than expandable fabric to contain his volcanic strength and temper.
The Quest for Forbidden Fruit: The Fall in The Incredible Hulk
Much like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner never asked for his superpower. Unlike Spider-Man’s capacity to secrete webs and adhere to walls, the Hulk’s powers seem too explosive for anyone to control.
Before his fall, Bruce Banner was a mild-mannered scientist testing an antidote for gamma radiation poisoning—or so he thought. Banner offered himself as a test subject, but the chemical cocktail that he received was no antidote. It was a botched attempt to synthesize the same serum that once turned a scrawny volunteer named Steve Rogers into a super-soldier clad in stars and stripes. The result of Banner’s inadvertent fall is that he becomes a seething bundle of wrath that no one can subdue. The corruption of the serum extends to every corpuscle and chromosome of his body. And so, Banner’s well-intended work to create an antidote to heal people collapses into a horrific invention with the capacity, if replicated, to destroy the world.
Bruce Banner sees the greenness that resides within his flesh as a problem to be healed—but there are others who see his situation through very different eyes. An aging Royal Marine named Emil Blonsky yearns to possess Banner’s power as his own. And there is a scientist named Samuel Sterns—known at first only as “Mr. Blue”—whose motives in seeking a cure for the Hulk are not quite clear.
“You’ve seen what he becomes?” Blonsky asks Sterns.
“Yes,” comes the reverent reply, “and it’s beautiful, godlike.”
“I want it,” Blonsky gasps. “I have to have it”
—and what he seizes destroys him.
“You shall be as gods,” the ancient serpent promised Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:5), and she too trusted that forbidden fruit could provide the power she craved. For primeval humanity, the result was not power but pain—an awareness of good and evil that degraded into darkness and death. So it is for Emil Blonsky, who metamorphoses not into an omnipotent deity but into a tortured abomination.
The Corruption No One Can Control: Redemption and New Creation in The Incredible Hulk
The redemption that Bruce Banner seeks is a return to what he was before his fall. He longs for some antidote that will restore him to his former life. The initial hints of redemption in Hulk’s narrative emerge, however, not through serums or science but through love. The daughter of General Thaddeus Ross loved Bruce Banner before the Hulk consumed him and, after his fall, she loves him still. Bruce Banner is King Saul tormented by a spirit that will not go away, and Betty becomes the Davidic harp that frees him momentarily from his darkness (1 Samuel 16:14-23).
In the end, Bruce Banner cannot, of course, remain a mere mortal. The Hulk, not Banner, is needed to stop the abomination that brings desolation to New York City. Banner hurls himself from a helicopter in an act of sacrifice that will either end his life or induce the return of the Hulk. The Hulk erupts from the earth and, thus, the villain that Bruce Banner had hoped to destroy becomes the hero. Our last glimpse of Bruce Banner locates him in rural British Columbia. Through solitude and meditation, Banner has learned to control the monster within. The telltale emerald glow begins to radiate from his eyes but stops short of erupting through his flesh.
The Question of Canon: The Incredible Hulk as the Maccabees of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
For a few years, I had hoped that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would declare the 2008 film The Incredible Hulk to be deuterocanonical—the Maccabees of the Marvel Bible, so to speak, useful for understanding the background of canonical films but not an authoritative contribution to the metanarrative.
Edward Norton, playing the part of Bruce Banner, never managed to convince me that uncontrollable rage strained against every cell of his body, and the script is riddled with unanswered questions and plot holes. What keeps the Abomination under control once the Hulk heads to Canada? What happens to Betty Ross? Why does Banner never mention his former flame in later Marvel Cinematic Universe films? If Bruce Banner finds his peace in British Columbia, why does Natasha Romanoff find him in Calcutta in The Avengers? There is no plot twist in the Hulk’s defeat of Abomination at the end of the film, only a brute battle that Hulk wins. As a fan of Marvel comic books as well as the films, I am fully aware that there are creative answers to most of these questions—but the movie never seems to acknowledge them and, in the process, fails miserably as a setup for future films. The movie’s only clear connection to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a disjointed scene that places Tony Stark in a bar with General Ross. The return of Ross in Captain America: Civil War suggests, however, that Marvel has doubled down and decided not to excise this film from the canon.
Even with these many short-fallings, The Incredible Hulk is not a total failure, and the film does offer some substance for theological reflection. In a twisted riff on the doctrine of vicarious atonement, Bruce Banner takes on himself the torment for iniquities he did not commit; his torment turns him into a creature despised and grotesque, a man of sorrows from whom humanity hides its face (Isaiah 53:2-5). He suffers for the wrongdoings of General Ross and Samuel Sterns, but he is trapped in a vicious cycle in which his sufferings can never cleanse his dark secret. There is power in the blood of Bruce Banner, but it is a corrupting power, not a saving power.
Emil Blonsky’s lust for godlike power echoes the choice of Adam and Eve in the shadow of Eden’s forbidden tree (Genesis 3:1-5). Both Hulk and Abomination live with an uncontrollable corruption that is pervasive, touching every part of their bodies and souls—a fitting parable for the radical corruption of every human being that makes us “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1-3). None of the serums and antidotes that we seek through works of the law are able to produce lasting transformation within us; apart from God’s overcoming grace, the monster always erupts within us again.
In the end, solitude and calmness enable Bruce Banner to control the greenness within—a stark contrast to the way that healing comes to followers of Christ. When it comes to humanity’s depravity, healing happens in the context of community—not solitude—and it comes by means of sacrifice and love. Deep within, this is a truth that every human being knows. The love of Betty Ross for Bruce Banner seems at times to nudge the movie in such a direction, but then the film veers into a mismatched mishmash of mayhem and meditation. In the process, The Incredible Hulk misses any opportunity to connect deeply with the audience.
Suppose that the mayhem of Hulk’s battle with Abomination had resulted in the death of Betty Ross and that his deepened passion to control the “green guy” grew out of that loss. Or what if the Hulk himself had given his life to save Betty Ross and her father, and then been brought back from death in a post-credits sequence in a later film? Or suppose that some twist in the story had turned Betty into a hulkish monstrosity, resulting in her relegation to Ryker’s Island or the Raft. Instead, what this movie delivers is a loud and violent victory with much mayhem but little soul.
Discuss in the Comments:
What theological themes do you see in The Incredible Hulk that I may have missed? How does the vision of the Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe differ from the comic books? How have the later films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe changed your perspective on this film?