Monday, January 12, 2009

The Incredible Hulk -- being god-like

The Incredible Hulk Artwork

Director: Louis Leterrier, 2008.

Last year (2008) was a great year for superhero movies. Arguably the best film of the year reprised Christian Bale's Batman as The Dark Knight and had a career-defining performance by the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. We also saw Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man, a role perfect for his deeply flawed yet sardonically wise-cracking character. Where Dark Knight was dark and moodily philosophical, Iron Man was light and fun. Also from Marvel comics comes The Incredible Hulk. This is no Iron Man. It's all action but nothing deeper than that.

The plot is familiar to readers of the comic book or the old TV series. (And Lou Ferrigno, the Hulk in the TV series, has a cameo as a security guard and also provides the voice for the Hulk here, an enormous total of 6 words.) Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) has been contaminated in a freak laboratory experiment. His blood has been changed by the gamma radiation and whenever he gets excited and his pulse rate increases too much, he transforms into the Hulk, the big green monster. General Ross (William Hurt) is looking for him, since this discovery has tremendous military potential. But Banner has gone into hiding, leaving his girlfriend Dr. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), Gen. Ross' daughter, behind to find a new life.

The Incredible Hulk Movie StillAt the start of the film, Banner is working in Brazil. When Gen. Ross finds evidence of him there, he sends a team of soldiers to capture him led by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). Of course, things go awry in the carefully planned take-down. The night-time chase sequence across the roof-tops and into the deserted bottling plant is a action-packed opening. But when Banner is trapped his pulse rises and the Hulk comes alive.

In an interchange with Blonsky, Gen. Ross tells him, "Banner's work was very early-phase. It wasn't even weapons application, he thought he was working on radiation resistance. I would never have told him what it was really for, but he was so sure about what he was doing he tested it on himself. And something went very wrong . . . or it went very right." This raises the ethical issue of informed consent. Banner was deceived in the work he was doing and so was ignorant of the risk and potential consequences. This was not even unplanned. Ross knew exactly what was going on. He was exploiting Banner for his own purposes. Even within government or military research, misinforming a civilian is improper, unethical and possibly illegal.

The Incredible Hulk Movie StillWhen Banner returns to the US to seek out a cure he returns to the university where Betty works. Of course, he is reunited to her, his one true love. But this sets the scene for the second Hulk sequence, when Gen. Ross once again sends in Blonsky and men to capture him. This time, Blonsky has had some modifications of his own to become stronger. But he is still not strong enough. Again, the Hulk escapes, this time with Betty who sees Banner's alter ego up close and personal.

The Incredible Hulk Movie StillThe scenes of Banner changing into the Hulk are clever, particularly showing the painful inner metamorphosis. Norton communicates the pain, both physical and emotional, in this transformation, but the resultant character is disappointing. He just looks too fake.

Banner finally meets up with a scientist helping him find a cure, Dr Stearns (Tim Blake Nelson) in New York. When Banner is captured, Blonsky tells Stearns: "I want more. You've seen what he becomes, right?" Stearns replies, "I have. And it's beautiful. Godlike." The aggressive Blonsky comes back, "Well, I want that. I need that. Make me that." And Stearns does. But what he creates is not another Hulk, but The Abomination, a larger, meaner, more aggressive creature. The finale sets up an extended fight sequence between The Abomination and The Hulk. the climax to Iron Man, we see two larger than life characters duking it out while a frightened populace runs and hides. However, in Iron Man Stark is fighting Stane in a conscious battle of good versus evil. Here, the Hulk has very limited mental ability. Banner's thoughts and memories are clouded by the anger and fury. So in this final fight, it is more one of might vs more might than good vs evil.

Moreover, another comparison with Iron Man is worth mentioning. The supporting characters surrounding Downey Jr, with the exception of Rhoades, are first-rate, making full use of the strength of that cast. They have depth and feel real. Here, the characters mostly feel one-dimensional. Gen. Ross and Blonsky are caricatures that could have been played by most actors in Hollywood. Norton does well as a convincingly conflicted Banner, but he seems to be working alone.

The key theological theme here is the desire to be godlike. Blonsky sees beauty in the raw power and aggression that Banner displays when he becomes Hulk. To him, godlike equates to power and strength. Certainly, God is almighty, all powerful (Jer. 32:7). But there is so much more to God than simply brute strength. He is multi-faceted, more than we can know. But we do know, from biblical self-revelation, than God is all-love (1 Jn 4:8), all-holy (Isa. 6:3), pure and perfect beyond comprehension (Matt. 5:48). He is all-knowing (1 Jn. 3:2), all-wise (Rom. 16:27). Like Hulk, he is wild and dangerous, untame. But where Hulk, or even the Abomination, could destroy cars and choppers, city buildings, God can destroy whole planets. These are the planets and galaxies that he has created (Gen. 1:1). God is not safe, but he is good.

Further, like Blonksy, mankind wants to be like God. Satan's first interaction with humanity in the Garden of Eve was to offer a tempting but deceptive promise to Adam and Eve: "For God knows that when you eat of it [the forbidden fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5). This initial temptation led to original sin, and it continues today. We might want to be like God, but we are not God and we will never be God. Only in following Jesus can we become like God as we become Christ-like. And this is not a one-time event, via some form of injection. Rather, it is a life-long process as the indwelling Holy Spirit changes us into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18. Rom. 8:29).

We can become a "holy Hulk," morphing from the old person into the new creation, if we let the Holy Spirit have his way in our lives.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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