This short essay was inspired by my recent viewing of The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2. As such it contains some spoilers of these films
Last year I watched the 2003 Hulk film. While I reasonably enjoyed it, the film’s mixed reception upon release led, in part, to its not being seen as part of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was thus expecting 2008’s The Incredible Hulk which stars Edward Norton, Liv Tyler and William Hurt in place of Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, and Sam Elliott, to feel like a major break from the 2003 release. It wasn’t.
The film, for all intents and purposes, is a sequel. It introduces us to Bruce Banner (Norton) where he was left (in Brazil) and depicts him much as he was depicted in the original work: as a soft-spoken man, whose nature makes it near impossible to believe he can experience the burst of anger necessary to transform into the Hulk at all. Dr. Betty Ross (Tyler), meanwhile, is still portrayed as an ex-girlfriend with whom Banner has a relationship of mutual affection. Finally, Ross’s father (Hurt) also reappears in his role as no-nonsense, anti-Hulk US army General.
Yet despite these tonal similarities, does The Incredible Hulk continue The Hulk’s legacy? One could argue that it doesn’t, precisely in that it resolves the initial film’s dilemmas. But The Hulk was the story of a characters’ pain; a pain with loose ends that are perhaps not meant to be neatly knotted up.
But while I am agnostic as to whether The Incredible Hulk is a thematically consistent sequel to its predecessor, I have no doubt that it has kinship to other Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Abomination (Tim Roth), the primary villain of The Incredible Hulk, is a mercenary who is hired by the US army to stop The Hulk, but clearly loves his violent job too much. This character is thus not “evil” but “militaristic” a character trait also displayed by one of the villains of James Cameron’s Avatar.
A surprisingly similar figure is employed in Iron Man 2, the Marvel Cinematic Universe film that followed The Incredible Hulk. That film has two villains: one is an all-brains, no-brawn puppeteer, but the other, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), echoes the path of Abomination in more ways than one. Both are expert soldiers and both become super-villains that resemble their superhero nemeses. The key difference between them is that Abomination’s moral tension comes from his relationship to his militarism, whereas Ivan Vanko’s moral ambiguity is displayed through the non-militaristic parts of his identity (his love for cockatoos, and his past victimization).
By presenting zealous militarism as the leading cause of Abomination’s emergence, it would seem The Incredible Hulk offers an anti-militaristic message. Yet it squanders this possibility, by using Abomination’s rise as an excuse to rehabilitate the rest of the army, who support the Hulk in his battle against Abomination. This is another manner in which The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 resemble each other.
Iron Man 2 exposes the arrogance, danger and misguidedness of the US government and its military. But it simultaneously undermines this message by presenting the alternative to this statist brand of militarism as Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), a billionaire weapons developer. Fear not, Iron Man 2 is not a celebration of private armies either: Stark is appropriately belittled through the portrayal of his larger-than-life arrogant persona. Nonetheless, the fact that the film displays the military and private sector as the two ideological options, rather than presenting a pacifist/leftist alternative, shows the limits of its ideological imagination. This idea is further reinforced through the film’s project of pairing up Iron Man with his near-identical sidekick War Machine (Don Cheadle): a pairing that teams up the moral best the military and the arrogant private sector have to offer.
In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Slavoj Zizek highlights the character of Private Joker (a soldier whose helmet bears both the phrase “born to kill” and a peace sign) as an ideal soldier precisely because he maintains “ironic distance” from the horrors his army carries out. Zizek (as far as I can tell) is arguing that an army cannot function solely with the support of those who see it as flawless; for if the soldiers for such an army had the wool pulled from their eyes, their support would collapse. Soldiers like Private Joker, by contrast, are so valuable because they are able to carry out their duties despite seeing and empathizing with the arguments against their actions. They have become desensitized.
It would seem that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is built upon Private Jokers. The Incredible Hulk warns us of the dangers of zealous militarism, but ultimately allows the military to play a role in solving that problem. Iron Man 2 raises concerns about the weapons industry and the government officials that work with/in rivalry with it, but never entertains the idea of promoting a demilitarized world. These aren’t the only Marvel films this contradiction shows up in. Captain Marvel criticizes imperialist war, while celebrating involvement with the air force. Black Panther offers positive portrayal of the Black/African struggle against racism and colonialism, but also manages to sneak a benevolent CIA agent into the picture.
One can posit various explanations for Marvel’s pattern of reconciling the military and critiques of militarism. Perhaps this approach is innate to the superhero genre: a genre that tells of figures that while rebellious in some ways are in-all law enforcement agents. Perhaps it is a product of the ideology and/or interests of studio heads. Perhaps The Marvel Cinematic Universe mixes-and-matches its politics (sometimes leaving information gaps, much like in the latest Mission Impossible movie) as a way of appealing to multiple audience bases. All of these explanations can and may be true. What’s most important to note, however, is that the “contradiction” in Marvel’s approach may not be a contradiction at all. Sometimes it takes a well-placed critique of an institution to portray it positively.
My goal with this piece is not to show a man behind the curtains. Ideology is everywhere: I do not mean to reduce the Marvel experience to one of militarism. From a merely artistic perspective, however, I can’t help but observe how this ideology limits the development of two potentially memorable character. Both Abomination and Ivan Vanko’s stories raise questions about militarism, but their arcs ultimately allow casual fans to see them as semi-forgettable representations of evil. Again, Marvel’s goal is not to make interesting social-commentaries through its villains: but it seems to understand that making effective films requires dabbling in such commentary along the way.
Of course, its also possible that on some occasions Marvel’s filmmakers don’t even feel the need to dabble. I came across the idea that Mickey Rourke had been a big proponent of making his character “complex,” for instance, by promoting the cockatoo detail. This worries me as to how empty the character would have been had Rourke not spoken up.
When I don’t enjoy Marvel films I tend to attribute that to either my disinterest in action, or my sense that there are too many of them, and as such, some of them feel too similar to one another. As I write this, I wonder if there’s something else at play. Perhaps what makes cinematic fighting enjoyable is its distance from reality: that it is something playful and not a mere representation of the cruel violence our world faces. Marvel repeatedly portrays its violence as analogous to or consistent with the objectives of real life military institutions. Perhaps this is why I start these films enticed by the colourful glow of figures like Iron Man and the Hulk, and turn off the films left with the forgettable image of explosions emitting from dull, gray sidewalks.