Spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War ahead!
There’s been some talk about how the Hulk was thrashed by Thanos and why it’s such a weak take on the Hulk. After all, fear and anger are intertwined snakes in the psyche, so after Thanos’s butt-handing of the Hulk, it’s reasonable for viewers of the movie to feel like the Hulk should have risen up and handled business.
We didn’t get that. We got a beaten and deeply afraid Hulk who was sent to Earth as Bruce Banner in order to give warning to the Dr. Strange and the rest of the Avengers – taking the place of the Silver Surfer from the original comic story.
So what happened to the big guy? It’s all got to do with Bruce’s backstory, which we’ve never before explored with Ruffalo’s Hulk.
The reason the Hulk was too scared to reveal himself after being savagely beaten by Thanos is rooted in abuse. In the comics, when applied to people of specific genetic structures, gamma radiation creates gamma radiation-based powers. These powers, weirdly enough, respond to the psychic needs of the recipient. Not everyone becomes a massive powerhouse like the Hulk! For instance, The Leader was an average janitor before being exposed to gamma rays. His greatest desire was to attain great intelligence, which he assumed would parlay into great success. (He only got one half of that right…)
(Images from Incredible Hulk vol. 2, #312; Mantlo & Mignola)
The Hulk is, of course, massively strong, gigantic in body, reduced in intelligence, and nigh-invulnerable with an advanced healing factor. But why?
Both in the comics and Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk movie, we come to understand that Bruce was exposed to tremendous physical and emotional abuse. In Ang’s movie, it’s revealed that Bruce’s father murdered his mother in front of him. Stemming from this trauma, the Hulk represents Bruce’s greatest need: to be safe from harm.
As his anger increases, his ability to resist harm and become strong is, effectively, unmeasurable. An angry Hulk really is the strongest one there is. So when Thanos (every bit the dark patriarch figure – see Gamora’s arc of the movie) hurt him? The Hulk responded predictably. Traumatized and in terror, Hulk chose to hide.
This fearful Hulk was clearly exhibiting trauma because the body and strength that was his protection wasn’t enough anymore. He let Bruce-the-Adult take control because although Bruce too was afraid, he had adult coping mechanisms.
At heart, the Hulk is an abused child, whose ability to lash out has been curtailed by a primal fear. That is the root of why the Hulk refused to let Banner summon him.
Now Bruce, being a genius, probably knows all of this and when he says, “Hulk buddy, we need to talk,” in the movies, he was alluding to something. My prediction? Heavy duty counseling. In the comics, we had Doc Samson as his mental health counselor, able to help Bruce/Hulk through a lot of trauma.
Wouldn’t it be something to have a healed monster? We’ve seen classic Hulk and Gladiator Hulk from Planet Hulk, so maybe it’s time for a 90s classic to emerge – a Genius Hulk who has the mental and emotional maturity of Banner coupled with the power of the brute. That’s my (tentative) prediction, let’s wait and see.
Addendum from ACC co-host Legally Nick Fury:
I grew up as the smallest kid in my town in the 1980’s. I can’t count the instances I was held down, choked, burned, threatened, and hit – I grew up with a constant awareness of my own frailty, and the danger that placed me in implicitly from others. As a result, I learned to get angry. It made me feel powerful, like I had some measure of control over my situation. I lived my life in a constant state of thinly simmering anger that filled my body with a feeling of energy…almost like I had a superpower.
I don’t know if Tim’s speculation about the psychology of the Hulk and Banner in the MCU is spot on, but I DO know that the path is there, and it connects from A to B pretty much the way he illustrated.