October 8, 2008, Vol. 53, 41,
A review of the film
The Incredible Hulk is yet another of a
long line of “action” stories. The basic plot seems endlessly intriguing to a
large public, especially young males. The hero, not surprisingly, is most often
also a male. In the standard action plot, he does not have superhuman powers
but is a fantastically strong fighter against evil. Sylvester Stallone, Chuck
Norris, Bruce Lee, Charles Bronson, and their ilk play action heroes
exclusively. Actors capable of expressing more emotions than just one (anger),
such as Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson, also occasionally star in
The film reviewed here involves a
variant from the basic action plot in that the hero, just an ordinary guy, obtains
extraordinary powers. The Hulk, in this film and in its earlier comic book, TV,
and film versions, obtains size and strength to the point of virtual
indestructibility. The lengthy backstory, concerning
scientific razzle-dazzle that leads to each transformation, is of little
interest. Suffice it to say that in this film the Hulk is tall (perhaps 15
feet) and green to the point that he can be portrayed only by animation.
Of more interest are the occasions
for the transformation from human to Hulk. The hero tries to control his level
of emotional arousal, especially his anger, because he knows that if it exceeds
a certain limit, he will change into the Hulk. I noticed only one touch of
humor in the film, and it can be easily missed. The hero is played by Edward
Norton, who is somewhat smaller than the average male. When bad guys are
picking on him, they show little concern for his declarations that they should
not get him angry.
Although there is a love interest (Liv Tyler), most of the film involves violent and extremely
noisy combat. The longest scene is near the end, a fight between two hulks, the
hero and his antithesis, an equally large monster created from a bad guy.
Nonstop war between these monsters destroys vehicles (including large tanks and
planes), innocent strollers, and the street and nearby buildings. It is
bearbaiting or cockfighting writ large. But, what the hell, it’s all just good
Or is it? What is the attraction that
this witless wonder holds for its vast public? Perhaps it hinges upon the
displays of anger and aggression. Not all action films mention anger the way
this one does, but they all seem to have it as a subtext. Evil is portrayed as
so immoral that the hero is entitled not only to destroy it, but also to become
Perhaps the attraction has to do with
the particular way in which our society is confused about anger. On the one
hand, we are enjoined not only not to hate our neighbors but to love them. Thou
shalt not kill human beings, especially in anger.
Angry aggression is a sin and a shame.
On the other hand, there is also
another kind of instruction, especially for males. They should be tough and
masculine, which means holding back all emotion except anger. Men are taught
that expressing fear, grief, and shame are signs of weakness. Even expressions
of love are often seen this way, especially by male children. In the film Big
1988), Tom Hanks portrays a man magically transformed from a 10-year-old into
an adult body. In one scene he expresses his affection for the female costar,
Elizabeth Perkins, by giving her a shove. Masculine males are not touchy-feely
The emotion of anger, however, is
accepted, since it is taken to be a sign of manliness, of readiness to fight.
This practice provides a loophole for anger aggression. Instead of being
ashamed of anger, one can be proud of it, provided that the anger is used
toward a good end. Action films provide a fantasy that allows temporary escape
from a basic contradiction.
Are these fantasy escapes good for
the viewer and for our society? I think not. Social psychological experiments
have shown many times that the viewing of angry aggression does not provide a
catharsis for anger. If anything, it increases it. Is there a better recourse
for dealing with this contradiction?
One direction would be to bring humor
into play, perhaps by making the hero funnier or less heroic. A current example
of the former is the wittiness of the hero of the film Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) and of the latter, the film Hancock
(Berg, 2008), in which the superhero is a careless drunk.
A bigger change of direction would be
heroic stories, as in the examples below, of those who have skills that are
more socially useful than are strength and agility. These attributes have had
survival value for most of human history, but the value has begun to fall away
in recent years.
Until recently, threats to survival
at the level of large groups and societies were highly visible, since they came
only from other large groups or societies. But because of modern technology,
threats can now come from groups so small as to be virtually invisible. Nukes
and even tiny amounts of highly toxic substances can destroy a large city. The
time may come in which a small group might be able to kill most living things
There is another problem with
valorizing strength. Unfortunately for the side that wins by force, the loss is
usually at least irritating to the other side and sometimes humiliating.
Although irritation can be forgotten, it is not easy to forget a humiliation.
It often gives rise to thoughts, feelings, and ultimately, actions of revenge.
In this way, humiliation leads to revenge, which leads to humiliation of the
victim, and around and around. Conflict, even warfare, can be passed on in this
way from generation to generation (Scheff, 1995).
The brevity of this review precludes
further discussion of various paths toward decreasing the risk of humiliating
others (Fuller, 2006). Here I will refer to two film examples, one earlier, the
other, recent. In the earlier film, Erin Brockovich
(Soderbergh, 2000), the heroine uses her intelligence
and courage to expose corporate crime. In the recent film, The Great
2007), the college heroes are not athletes but students on a debating team.
Perhaps if intelligence and debating skill came to be valued as much as boxing
and football, modern societies might have a better chance of survival.
Berg, P. (2008). Hancock [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.
J. (2008). Iron man [Motion
picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures.
Fuller, R. W. (2006). All rise: The politics of dignity.
San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Marshall, P. (1988). Big [Motion picture]. United States:
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Scheff, T. (1995). Bloody revenge: Emotions, nationalism,
and war. Boulder, CO: Westview
S. (2000). Erin Brockovich
[Motion picture]. United
States: Universal Pictures.
Washington, D. (2007). The great debaters [Motion
picture]. United States:
© 2008, American Psychological