Hulk does not get miffed.
Hulk does not get teed off, perturbed or a little bit hot under the collar. Hulk does not get difficult, dyspeptic or obstreperous. Hulk does not get a bee in his bonnet. Hulk does not wake up on the wrong side of the bed.
Hulk gets mad.
And when Hulk gets mad . . . HULK SMASH!!!
There is a certain emotional and behavioral purity to the man-monster who refers to himself simply as "Hulk" (as in, "Long after man in red underwear runs out of fancy words, Hulk will still be smashing him!" -- The Incredible Hulk #155, September 1972), and who is known to society more formally as the Hulk, two words that serve as a proper name, a physiological description and a job title (e.g., the pope, the president, the Hulk).
The Hulk's emotional range goes from mad to madder. Is there a maddest? No, because he can always dig a little deeper. The Hulk's attitude is, "I have not yet begun to smash."
In Ang Lee's new movie, which opens Friday, the Hulk communicates with his fists, and there's poetry to his pounding. He's the Bard of Bash. The movie wisely sticks to the formula of the original comic book: Bruce Banner, mild-mannered scientist, has this nasty habit whenever he gets mad of turning into a 1,500-pound colossus. He clearly has big-time anger management issues. He just wants to look at thin sections through his microscope and find ways to keep his biotech frogs from exploding, but bad guys keep hassling him and by the end of the day he's tossing tanks around like Frisbees.
We've seen this character before in different guises. He doesn't really want to smash things, but he's forced to do so by a cruel and unforgiving world. Alan Ladd in "Shane" didn't really want to blow away Jack Palance, but he had no choice. The Charles Bronson of the "Death Wish" era, and Rambo, and Dirty Harry, and all the incarnations of Ah-nuld, were peace-loving simple fellows who were somehow wronged and had no choice but to unleash a massive amount of firepower in an orgiastic eruption of ultra-violence.
The Hulk is the same, only a lot bigger and perhaps even murkier of brain than Sylvester Stallone. As in the comic book, the movie Hulk's mayhem is of the peculiar variety in which entire buildings can be demolished and yet no innocent bystanders perish. (Among the more skeptical Hulk aficionados, this is known as the "body-bag problem.") The movie Hulk is so tough he can fall from outer space into San Francisco Bay with no more worries than the guy in that old Nestea "Take the plunge" commercial. The movies are filled with fables of boys who need to make sound decisions and behave better if they want to become a real man -- the Pinocchio syndrome -- but the Hulk is the antidote to all that. He's the poster boy for male desocialization. Modern civilization is built around the legal and cultural codes that limit natural urges and punish social transgressions. We impose order on hormonal chaos. Even Superman is, fundamentally, a highly repressed individual, forced to adhere to a relentless save-the-world code that leaves no room for personal pleasures or even raw, naked aggression. But not the Hulk. The Hulk's code is simple: Time to smash things up!
The movie puts a clever spin on the importance of Hulkitude. Eric Bana, as Banner, is emotionally repressed, a nerd with a goofy bike helmet, so focused on science that he barely notices that right next to him is the interesting biological phenomenon known to the world as Jennifer Connelly.
It is only by tapping into his inner Hulk that Banner can uncover the secrets of his past and come out of his emotional shell. The journey to humanity requires a detour through beastliness.
The Hulk has proved durable for 41 years, ever since Stan Lee and the late Jack Kirby concocted him in their frenzied Marvel Comics laboratory. He was never the most popular Marvel superhero -- the first Hulk magazine lasted only six issues, and for many years in the 1960s the Hulk had to share a monthly magazine with the imperious, fishy Sub-Mariner. He's had upticks in popularity, but never reached the lofty level of Spider-Man and the X-Men.
But the Hulk stuck around. He filled an environmental niche.
"He's not a traditional hero," says Ian Sattler, manager of Big Planet Comics in Vienna. "He's not in a bright costume running around saving the day. He's kind of a monster who's hunted and reflects anger issues in all of us."
That's the official book on the Hulk: That there's a little Hulk in all of us. Says so on the movie Web site, along with lots of scientific background on gamma rays and nanotechnology. (Hollywood doesn't care about making money, it wants this Hulk thing to be an educational experience.)
What do the academics say? M. Thomas Inge, humanities professor at Randolph-Macon College and commentator on the cultural significance of comic book superheroes, says the Hulk is an attractive antihero in a society that forces us to conform.
"The Hulk, he gets angry, his body grows, he gets strong, he's able to take out his rage on other people, which I think is what secretly we'd like to do. When someone does us wrong, we'd like to be able to turn into a monster and pummel the hell out of them," Inge says.
Let's face it, there's not one of us who hasn't had the thought, The reason I am so messed up is that my father is a mad scientist who turned me into a freak with starfish and jellyfish DNA and then I got accidentally blasted with gamma rays and nanomeds and now whenever my adrenaline increases I grow 10 times larger and turn green and start wrecking everything. This is practically the universal human condition.
The key element to Hulkness is the rage-to-strength feedback loop. The madder he gets, the stronger he gets -- ad infinitum. The Hulk's strength has no theoretical limit, because he can always get madder. This is why he probably could beat up Thor even though Thor has the advantage of being immortal.
"If I could say the more the Hulk fights and the madder he gets, the stronger he gets, then no one can beat him, because even when they're defeating him he's getting stronger and stronger and madder and madder," explains Stan Lee.
Lee is listed as an executive producer for the movie and even has a cameo role, playing a security guard walking out of a building next to Lou Ferrigno, who played the Hulk in the popular late-'70s/early-'80s TV series (starring Bill Bixby). Lee talks about the Hulk with so much enthusiasm you'd think he'd dreamed up the character just a few hours ago. He's a brilliant publicist for his creations, and doesn't reveal the slightest impatience when asked the same questions he's been asked for four decades.
"I said to Jack Kirby, 'Jack, I want you to draw me a pretty good-looking monster,' " Lee says. (We will decline to wade into the long-running debate over whether Kirby got too little credit and Lee too much for the creation of the Marvel heroes.) Lee says he was thinking of something along the lines of Frankenstein's monster, a creature constantly pursued, wanting only to be left alone. The monster would obviously need an alter ego.
"Rather than having him run around aimlessly smashing things, I thought I'd give him two identities, influenced by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. . . . I thought that at some point he might even enjoy being the Hulk."
The Hulk actually likes himself. He's the last uncomplicated man. Leave it to Banner to be moody and wistful and self-absorbed and all those things that the modern cringing male has become. The Hulk knows who and what he is. As far as the Hulk is concerned, his only anger management problem is that sometimes he forgets to write up a Things to Smash list.
In the end, what makes the Hulk interesting is our own fascination with power, who has it, and how much they have. Could the Hulk withstand the direct impact of a tank shell? Could he pick up an entire building? Can anything kill him?
Could he really beat Thor?
Do you mind, Mr. Stan Lee, answering that question for the 40 billionth time?
"It's hard to say," says Lee. "Thor was a god. He was the God of Thunder. I don't know how you could be any stronger than a god. But the Hulk, let me say he could put up a damn good fight."