So Saturday I caught The Incredible Hulk (not to be confused with Ang Lee’s 2003 merely credible Hulk ). I also happened to be working my way through Volume 1 of The Philokalia , a collection of fourth- to fifteenth-century texts that exemplify Eastern Orthodox spiritual wisdom. A strange dynamic formed, and about fifteen minutes into the Hulk , the words of Evagrios the Solitary came to mind:
The demon of anger employs tactics resembling those of the demon of unchastity. For he suggests images of our parents, friends or kinsmen being gratuitously insulted; and in his way he excites our incensive power, making us say or do something vicious to those who appear in our minds. We must be on our guard against these fantasies and expel them quickly from our mind, for if we dally with them, they will prove a blazing firebrand to us.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Hulk myth, Bruce Banner, as originally conceived by Marvel marvel Stan Lee, is accidentally exposed to an immoderate level of “gamma” rays, which literally makes his blood boil. Now every time the otherwise mild-mannered Banner gets angry, he “hulks out,” metamorphosing into a monstrous example of uncontrolled rage and Cold War-era anxiety gone goofy.
As retold in this film iteration, Banner (played by the usually winsome Edward Norton) is a scientist working with the U.S. military on a project intended to create a “super-soldier.” This experiment, being a government experiment, goes awry, and the Hulk is the result. The military is (litotes alert) not displeased with the prospect of a 20-foot-tall killing machine as a foot soldier in the war on everything. Banner refuses to be used as a means to world-dominating ends, however, and escapes to Brazil, where he hopes to control his rages by resorting to the lotus position. Yet Banner comes to discover that this radioactive “thing” in his DNA cannot be harnessed but must be extinguished (“We must,” says St. John Cassian, “with God’s help, eradicate [anger’s] deadly poison from our souls”), and so works via email with a scientist in the States to find a cure.
Norton, not exactly synonymous with the action genre, agreed to this do-over of the Hulk if he could rewrite the screenplay . From what I’ve been able to cobble together from various film blogs, Norton wanted a film that concentrated on the loneliness, introspection, and acquired wisdom of Banner: a comic book hero that spoke truth to power about the nature of power.
Long story short, the military, led by a perpetually scowling William Hurt, finds Banner and tries to take him captive. And so begins the contest between the man who knows that the “Promethean fire” burning in his veins belongs to the gods alone and a military machine that sees Banner/Hulk as government property and potentially the ultimate weapon.
So there we are: Banner’s ungodly alter-ego cannot be merely studied or constrainedor even put to good uses. While the U.S. Army is Enemy No. 1 (there’s a stunner), Serious Science doesn’t come off much better. Its representative, the mysterious university researcher whom Banner had been communicating with in Brazil, wants what’s in Banner, too. Yes, his motives are ostensibly more beneficent, as he hopes to findstrangely enougha cure for all diseases (not to mention a Nobel Prize). But he, too, is on a quest for power and fails to understand the lesson of the Hulk: Ultimate power is for a god (or God) alone. It cannot be man-handledonly relinquished. The way to wisdom is the path of powerlessness.
Herein is the contradiction of the film that finally kills it, in my view: Banner wants to atone for his own role in the creation of the Hulk monstrosity by destroying itand most probably himself with it. Yet the film’s actual ending has Banner resorting to his old meditation techniques, which had failed him before andso it is hintedwill fail him again. The way of renunciation, of isolation from the provocations of the material world and all its temptations, as advocated by the Buddhism Banner employs, is a decided dead end. Again, St. John Cassian:
When we try to escape the struggle for long-suffering by retreating into solitude, those unhealed passions we take there with us are merely hidden, not erased; for unless our passions are first purged, solitude and withdrawal from the world not only foster them but also keep them concealed, no longer allowing us to perceive what passion it is that enslaves us. On the contrary, they have achieved long-suffering and humility, because there is no one present to provoke and test us.
Edward Norton probably had come to this conclusion himself. Rumor has it that the original ending to his version of the script had Banner committing suicide as the only sure way to end the threat that is the Hulk. This could have been read as nihilistic despair or the ultimate personal sacrifice, but in any case would have meant the end of endless Hulk sequels. And so we are given an appearance by Robert Downey Jr. as Tony “Iron Man” Starkand the promise of a future film that unites Marvel franchises.
If only Banner had forsaken one kind of wisdom from the East and taken up another:
See to what a height of glory the Lord’s human nature was raised up by God’s justice through [His] sufferings and humiliations. If, therefore, you continually recall this with all your heart, the passion of bitterness, anger and wrath will not master you. For when the foundations constructed of the passion of pride are sapped through this recalling of Christ’s humiliation, the whole perverse edifice of anger, wrath and resentment automatically collapses. St. Mark the Ascetic
It is not isolation or renunciation but a recalling of what “the Divinity of the only-begotten Son accepted for our sake” that is the true cure for pride that steals Promethan fire and the passions that light it, to the detriment of the world.
Oh, man . . . I know, I know, it’s only a stupid cartoon, and this effort at “profundity” is strained and painful, pretentious and ludicrous . . .
Look, you think it’s easy importing some theological significance into these summer blockbusters? Hah? Cut me some slack, will ya?
I could have walked through the wide gate, taken the broad way, and gone the conspiracy-theory route: The final showdown between the Hulk and the aging military psycho (Tim Roth) who voluntarily undergoes Hulk therapy takes place in the streets of Harlem. Think about it: This is story of a man suffering from an incurable blood disorder, one that alienates him from general society and prevents his consummating his love relationship (his passions must be curtailed in any and all circumstances). This deadly blood-borne condition is the result of secret government hijinksand ends up decimating 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. Did they really have to give the Reverend Jeremiah Wright more ammunition? Yes, I know that Columbia University is the backdrop for the final experiments on both Banner and Roth, but couldn’t the battle have wound its way south and west, and torn up Riverside Drive? Or simply used LaGuardia Community College and wreaked havoc through Long Island City?
In any event, stay tuned for next week’s post: ” Get Smart and Wisdom Literature of the Intertestamental Period.” Oy vey . . .
Actually, I’ll spare you the suspense. Remember that spy thriller Michael Scott was working on in episode 7, season 2, of The Office , where he played “Agent Michael Scarn”? That’s the script they filmed for Get Smart . Take it for what it’s worth.