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Ang Lee’s Modern Prometheus
by Jeff Racho
3 July 2003 The Incredible Hulk

Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk stare into the abyss - and they don’t come back smiling.


He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster was already a few decades old when Nietzsche described the abyss filled with the monsters of human nature held at bay by a thin veneer of civilization.  And Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein had indeed gazed too long into the abyss, all the while cursing the entropy of the universe while filling himself with a monstrous hubris before daring to steal the power over life and death.  Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Shelley, provided a strong influence on his wife’s characters with his interpretation of Milton’s Satan as a hero who had rebelled against the order of the universe after a perceived rejection by his Creator.  Victor Frankenstein, as “The Modern Prometheus” (the subtitle of the novel), acted both as the rejected rebel against God and as the rejecting Creator of his monster, doomed to be consequently rejected by his creation.  It is unfortunate that these themes of the Frankenstein story are lost in curt summaries describing the novel as a warning against scientific advancement.
 
Two comic book artists, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, built their own monster in 1962 when they penned a story of a young physicist named Bruce Banner and his attempt to harness the energies of the universe in his quest to build a gamma-bomb for the military.  Banner, while attempting to rescue a trespasser from an impending bomb test, paid for his hubris when he was accidentally bathed in gamma radiation during the test.  The radiation altered Banner’s biochemistry; when he would fill with the base emotions of rage, panic, or fear, his body and psyche would transform into the Incredible Hulk, a gigantic, green-skinned being of immeasurable strength and the mental capacity of a small child. Whereas J. Robert Oppenheimer opined that he had become Shiva, the gamma-bomb literally turned Bruce Banner into a half-ton destroyer of worlds that obliterated an entire mechanized planet in issue #191 of the Incredible Hulk comic book.  
 
The comic book generally painted the Hulk as a pitiable creature.  His childish worldview and his modus operandi of seeking solitude from his human antagonists instead of seeking trouble earned him a place among the favorites of the Marvel Comics universe of characters.  But with the schism between the Banner and Hulk psyches, the low emotions needed to trigger Banner’s transformation, and the seemingly liberating effects of rage and anger, one could believe that the Hulk stood for little more than a celebration of chaos, nihilism, and pure destruction of the civilization that spawned him.  A cursory look at the character could indicate him to be nothing but a musclebound Freudian Id held in check by the Banner Superego.  For all his trappings as a “superhero,” those outside Stan Lee’s cohort of true believers could argue that there was nothing heroic about a creature so base.
 
Filmmaker Ang Lee, in his movie interpretation of the character, offers nothing of the sort.  The film’s Hulk has an obvious moral sense, and his transformation is triggered not purely by rage or anger, but by wrath – the excessive desire to punish evildoers, or the manifestation of divine retribution for sin.  Ang Lee’s film is a morality tale along the lines of Shelley’s classic story and changes the birth of the Hulk to fit the anxieties of a world troubled by biotechnology.
 
In the film, we again see a Banner – David Banner – working as a scientist for the military.  Banner is charged with developing agents to help soldiers resist nuclear, chemical or biological threats; instead, Banner decides that he can seek out ways to improve the genetic structure of the soldier (thereby “improving God’s creation” as he later relates in the film).  After isolating the genes expressed by a starfish during its regeneration of a lost arm, Banner jots “regeneration is immortality” into his lab notebook before continuing his quest, an ambition akin to Doctor Frankenstein’s goal to overcome death.  It is established early in the film that David Banner is Ang Lee’s Promethean figure, out to steal fire in the form of twenty-three chromosome pairs.
 
Banner’s military supervisor, Captain Thaddeus Ross, stops the research when he learns that Banner wishes to use human subjects in his experiments.  Rejecting the protocols built up by the civilization that Ross is charged to protect, Banner experiments on himself by injecting extracted animal DNA fragments into his body.  Banner later discovers that he has impregnated his wife, Edith, and passed his altered genes on to his unborn son, Bruce.  After the boy’s birth David fears what the boy may become, and treats Bruce both as a son and as a laboratory experiment.
 
Captain Ross discovers Banner’s breach of the ethical safeguards against human experimentation when traces of Bruce’s blood samples are discovered in Banner’s lab.  Ross immediately terminates Banner’s research, sending the scientist into a fury.  Banner uses what appears to be a prototype gamma-bomb to destroy his lab and rushes to his home where he intends to destroy Bruce.  Banner’s attempt to reject his creation is stopped when Edith prevents him from killing the boy, although Edith is accidentally killed in the ensuing scuffle.  The father’s attempted disposal of the child has an Oedipal overtone, playing into the film’s theme of genetic predestination with the power of Bruce’s altered genetic makeup replacing the Oracle’s prophecy.  For the father has predestined his son with a mutated genetic endowment, a fact missed by Ross when he places the boy in an adoptive family after sending the elder Banner to an asylum.
 
Thirty years later Bruce is a geneticist troubled by repressed memories of his youth while building a gamma-sphere.  Confident that this device can instantly repair damaged tissue with gamma radiation and nanomachines, the younger Banner continues on his quest despite repeated failures of the machine.  The sphere is accidentally triggered and irradiates Banner during his altruistic rescue of a co-worker from a lab accident.  Although he appeared to have survived the radiation exposure, the gamma energy and nanomachines begin to transform his genetic structure.
 
Meanwhile the elder Banner has been released and has located his son.  Confronting him in a hospital room, the father reveals the past to Bruce, informing him of his unique genetic makeup and his desire to harness these improvements upon man.  Bruce immediately rejects his creator and again is troubled by his repressed memories.
 
While working in his lab one night, Bruce begins remembers the death of his mother at his father’s hands and feels great anger.  It is not rage, however, but wrath at the sins of his father.  Banner’s heart begins to race, and the radiation he has absorbed interacts with the nanomachines and his genetic mutations to transform him into the Hulk.  The Hulk rebels against his creator, hoisting the gamma-sphere aloft onto his shoulders (evoking an image of Atlas, who, like Prometheus, was a Titan damned by the Olympians) and destroys the sphere that helped create him.  The creature spots David Banner in the laboratory and experiences a memory of the homicide, after which he rejects his creator and smashes out of the laboratory.  The father views what he had wrought, and cries “My Bruce!” – not for his human son, but for the creature that his research has helped create.
 
Bruce’s subsequent transformations are also triggered by wrath.  After receiving a call from David Banner telling him he intends to use Bruce’s DNA in his own experiments, Bruce screams his resolve to prevent further abuses.  Again he is transformed due to the wrath against his father’s sins, including his desire to protect Betty, Ross’ daughter, from mutated dogs created by David.  And a third transformation is effected by memories of his mother’s death and the subsequent wrath against his father.
 
Bruce is finally captured by the military and held prisoner in a giant hangar filled with an electromagnet powerful enough to kill him.  His father, unbeknownst to all, was able to salvage the remains of the gamma-sphere and instill enough radiation into his own altered genes, giving him the capability to both absorb tremendous amounts of energy and change his cells to mimic surrounding materials.  The father surrenders himself to Betty Ross, explaining that he had wanted to give humanity the “power to move beyond God’s domain,” and asks to see his son one final time.
 
Upon confronting his child, David tells him that he came to see his real son – the one inside Bruce.  “You are merely a superficial shell, a husk of flimsy consciousness surrounding him, ready to be torn off at a moment’s notice,” he tells Bruce, telling him that he can be “a hero of the kind that walked the earth long before the pale religions of civilization infected humanity’s soul.”  
 
Bruce rejects his father and the genetic nature bequeathed to him, choosing instead the civilization that moderated the beast within.  The father absorbs the electrical energy of the magnets and becomes a monster; Bruce again transforms into the Hulk.  David leaps with his son from the hangar, thundering across the sky to a deserted plain.  The Hulk batters David, who seems immune from the creature’s assault while David demands his son share his power with him.  “Take it!” the Hulk screams, rejecting the legacy his father has endowed him in favor of the civilization that now seeks to destroy him.  Ross, now a full general, orders a gamma-bomb strike to the area, and Bruce and David disappear in the green flash of the same type of nuclear explosion that destroyed David Banner’s lab.
 
While on his rampages, the Hulk refrained from killing any of the puny humans that torment him.  He howls at soldiers and destroys their machines of war but does not attempt to injure them.  The creature appeared to have assumed a moral sense from Bruce Banner for the Hulk’s wrath could not exist unless the creature knew or felt that a moral wrong had been committed.  His actions cannot comport with an assertion that his destructive rampages are a result of base rage or power for its own sake.  The Hulk may have the intellect of a child, but he has the sense of right and wrong which must be imprinted on a child.  Something else – the residuals of the imprints that civilized Bruce Banner - made it into his psyche.  

The Hulk, like man, is not merely a sum of his genetic parts.  He is not a soulless machine set in motion by the predestination of his genetic makeup.  He may be the product of David’s sins, but both he and Bruce Banner reject the power their genetic nature has given them for the strictures of civilization.  David, meanwhile, considers himself an ubermensch – a Nietzschean hero beyond the limits of “God’s domain” and urges his son to be a superman from a time when uncivilized humanity celebrated might as the determinant of heroic status.  David rejects civilization and looks into the abyss as did Victor Frankenstein.  One of the final images of David shows him assuming the form of a swirling vortex of energy in the shape of an abyss; it is fitting that he assumes this shape before he is consumed by monster of his own will to power.  Like Victor Frankenstein, David tried to play God by haughtily proclaiming himself beyond the moral rules of the universe. Both pay the price for their hubris
 
Bruce and the Hulk, meanwhile, reject David after peering into the abyss and seeing the true monsters of an unchecked human nature living there.  It was said the postmodernist (and Nazi apologist) Paul de Man was the first man who looked into the abyss and came back smiling.  To de Man, the beasts of human nature were little more than stories or meaningless constructs built by an oppressive society.  To Bruce and the Hulk they are all too real.  The same forces that put dread into the heart of a being as powerful as the Hulk did not affect de Man.  The Hulk might appear as a monster, but his moral sense makes him far more human than the man who looked into the abyss and smiled.
 
Ang Lee’s Hulk is not a nihilistic celebration of untrammeled fury or rage.  The tale concerns the self-destruction inherent in the will to power and the inevitable result of the dismissal of the millennia of safeguards civilization has built up to nurture and humanize the brutish nature of man. It is a testament to Lee that he conveys such a theme with a comic book character not generally associated with the better angels of our nature.
 
At the film’s end, when all believe that Bruce Banner has been incinerated by the gamma-bomb, the viewer is allowed to see him alive and hiding as a medical relief worker in South America.  When a group of thugs appear from the jungle to steal the medical supplies Banner is using to treat the poor, the audience immediately knows what will follow.  This Hulk won’t be lashing out at all with undirected fury, but instead will use his wrath to protect the meek from those who believe that power is the sole “value” that exists.

I rather like him when he’s angry.

Jeff Racho holds dual citizenship with Latveria and was formerly employed by Stark Industries.  He owns a copy of Incredible Hulk #191 (in very poor condition).


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