Illustration: Adeline Pericart
Bam! Pow! Thwack! From masked avengers to caped crusaders, what would we do without spandex-wearing superheroes fighting crime and righting wrongs? While we mere mortals go about our daily business and sleep soundly in our beds at night, an army of superheroes are working tirelessly around the globe – but mostly in America – fighting to bring peace, justice and outside-underpants to the world.
And so, in honour of their efforts, our own band of Film Ireland superheroes assemble to dish out their own critical form of justice and wreak havok on those villians who long for a world without heroes.
Eat dust evil! Superheroes are here to stay.
‘… there is something cathartic, even joyous in those releases of anger, those vents of everyday frustration…’
Long before Batman became all broody and Tony Stark became an out-and-out dipso, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a superhero, or rather super-anti-hero, with an exceptionally relatable gift/curse balance.
Dr. Bruce Banner, typically mild-mannered scientist, first appeared in printed colour boxes back in 1962, when an atomic blast mutated him into a near-indestructible muscle-riddled green giant, the Incredible Hulk. Sure the super-strength and super-leaping and super-rage are what makes the Hulk so appealing, but what makes him interesting is his relationship to Banner. Banner does not control the Hulk, but the Hulk becomes unleashed when Banner is angered – by personal/emotional stress or impending danger.
Banner’s rage becomes the Hulk’s rage – human anger turned all the way up to 11. The Hulk is a colossal adolescent tantrum, a beast fuelled by hyper-masculine lack of control. Banner’s great intellect and genuine decency do not make him immune to human failings and weaknesses – fears, regrets, sexual frustrations and so forth combine to create this terrifying monster. But the Hulk is not a villain, and there is something cathartic, even joyous in those releases of anger, those vents of everyday frustration. Where the average person in a fit of anger might throw a book to the floor, the Hulk can throw a tank – and throw his green-eyed rage can tell right from wrong, so more often than not that tank will get thrown at a villain, if a villain wasn’t already driving the tank…
The Hulk’s relationship with the big and little screens has been more hit than miss. A beloved TV series ran for five years from 1977-82, starring Bill Bixby as the straighter-named David Banner and body-building champ Lou Ferrigno as his alter-ego. Ferrigno’s stagey rage was so convincing that it was all too easy to forgive the rather silly makeup, wig and green bodypaint he had to wear for the role.
TV movies followed, pitting Bixby and Ferrigno against other famous Marvel heroes such as Thor and Daredevil, but Bixby’s premature death in 1993 put an end to the run. Animated series of the character ran in the ’80s and ’90s, pitting the Hulk against his more sci-fi-based (and less live-action-freindly) villains, such as The Leader and evil Soviet hulk the Abomination.
In the ongoing superhero movie boom that followed the digital effects revolution and the success of X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002), a Hulk movie was inevitable, and the result was the oft-and-unfairly-maligned Hulk (2003). Genre-juggler Ang Lee was a curious director to take on such a project, and while he played around with the effects as much he could, he was far more interested in the underlying psychology of Bruce Banner’s rage and the formal constructs of a film literally based on a comic book movie, with editing flowing between on-screen panels – everything short of speech bubbles. Eric Bana, doomed to never become the star he deserved to be (see also his performance in the similarly under-rated Troy) had a superb intensity as Banner, while Sam Elliott stole the show as the well-meaning but empathy-less General Thaddeus Ross, who leads the hunt for the Hulk. The effects were troublesome, and audiences bemoaned the lack of action, but there was a lot to enjoy here, including a superb battle between the Hulk and the United States Army across the American Southwest. The decision to go all-out-Freud on the Hulk’s origin was a mistake however, and as Banner’s father and primary villain Absorbing Man, Nick Nolte didn’t so much absorb the scenery as chew it up.
A semi-sequel reboot followed in 2008, and was the polar opposite to Ang Lee’s effort, drained of drama and intellect but full of Hulk smashing and monster fights. Louis Letterier’s The Incredible Hulk, indisputably the worst film yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, brought very little to the table, but just about managed to outgross its predecessor at the box office. As Banner, Edward Norton didn’t so much need to vent his rage as need a firm smack in the mouth. William Hurt played General Ross as a villain of the week. Tim Roth played a Russian/British soldier on loan to the American military, who morphs into the Ken doll-genitalled Abomination. Not even a stunt cameo by Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark could win this one a sequel.
After four years the Hulk made his reappearance in The Avengers, this time in the human guise of Mark Ruffalo, after Marvel fell out with Norton over him being a bit of a jerk. While only a supporting character in that superhero ensemble, The Avengers featured , in one speech about an attempted suicide by Banner, more pathos and character depth than The Incredible Hulk had managed in two hours. The film refused to dwell on the psychological implications of Banner’s powers, but in its final moments delved into the idea that Banner had come to terms with his demons, and was able to not-so-much control the brute, as control himself, and when the beast should be unleashed. “That’s the secret… I’m always angry,” he confessed, as he instantly morphed into the monster and KO’d a colossal alien nasty with one punch. It was the most audience-pleasing moment the Hulk had ever performed on the big screen, and for the first time since Lou Ferrigno last washed that green paint off his body, the Hulk’s live-action self was truly incredible once more.
Stay tuned. Next time on ‘We Love… Superheroes’ – James Phelan on Blade