Post #36: Heroes of Anger
ROGERS: Dr. Banner? Now might be a really good time for you to get angry.
BANNER: That’s my secret, Cap; I’m always angry.
--The Avengers (Whedon 2012)
Dr. Bruce Banner always has some anxiety about the behavior of his alter ego, a muscled, green, rage machine called Hulk. He’s the strongest member of the Avengers team when he Hulks out, but Banner often has little control over Hulk, and Hulk’s behavior is often destructive. In The Avengers (Whedon 2012), for instance, Hulk assists his teammates in the battle for New York, bringing down a Chitari Leviathan single-handedly, grinning savagely when Captain America orders him, “Hulk, smash." As he and Thor are victorious over downed opponent, Hulk punches his ally out of the fame (see figure 1). This is one of the funniest moments in the film, but it also reminds us that Hulk is dangerously unpredictable.
In the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, Banner has struggled to control not only when he will let Hulk appear. The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier 2008) establishes that stress leads to Banner transforming (often unwillingly) into Hulk. In an interview on an MTV blog, the director stated that he intended the final scene of that film to suggest that Banner had mastered his Hulk personality through controlling his stress (see figure 2). This situation holds when SHIELD sends Natasha Romanoff to India to find Banner, who has been working in that country as a doctor and has apparently not had an incident since The Incredible Hulk.
Cap’s exchange with Banner, quoted at the top of this post, suggests that the good doctor is in total control of Hulk, as he transforms, seemingly at will, to help his fellow Avengers fend off an enemy. When we next see Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron(Whedon 2015), Banner has developed a “lullaby” that Natasha uses to make Hulk transform back into Banner when his services are no longer needed (see figure 3). Despite the success of the lullaby, Hulk’s importance to the continued success of the Avengers, and the ending of The Incredible Hulk, Banner continues to be afraid of what his green alter ego can do. Spurred perhaps by Hulk’s rampage in Johannesburg at the instigation of the Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Hulk (and not, curiously enough, Banner) decides, without explanation, to pilot a Quinjet to an unknown location, abandoning the other Avengers.
In Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi 2017), the god of thunder finds Hulk in the employ/thrall of the Grandmaster, fighting opponents in an arena on the planet of Sakaar. Hulk is the most popular fighter, the Grandmaster introducing him as his personal champion, with the audience chanting “Hulk!” and waving assorted Hulk paraphernalia as green smoke bombs go off around them. Thor addresses Hulk as Banner, relieved that he’s found a friend on Sakaar, only to hear Hulk reply, “No Banner. Only Hulk” (see figure 4). It turns out that Banner has been Hulked out for most of the two years that he’s been gone from Earth, perhaps keep that way by constant anger fueled by fighting in the arena (“Hulk always angry,” he tells Thor). Natasha’s video message on the Quinjet (which we saw at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron), allows the Banner personality to take over, though Thor irritates him enough that the big green guy almost comes back (see figure 5).
Ancient Greece’s hero of anger was Achilles, a warrior who fought in the front ranks in the Trojan War. Achilles’ rage was the centerpiece of Homer’s epic the Iliad, as the first few lines of the poem, the proem, demonstrate:
Goddess, sing me the anger of Achilles, Peleus’ son, that fatal anger that brought countless sorrows on the Greeks, and sent many valiant souls of warriors down to Hades, leaving their bodies as spoil for dogs and carrion birds (trans. A. S. Kline; https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Greek/Ilhome.php)
Note that the poet points out that Achilles’ anger has terrible consequences for his own side, the Greeks. In the first book, Achilles withdraws his support from battle because one of the kings takes a female war captive from him. This results in countless deaths on the Greek side without their preeminent warrior to defend them. In this, the sulking Achilles is quite like Hulk when he doesn’t discriminate between friend and foe.
The first word in Greek is mênin, which Kine has translated as “anger.” That word is reserved for the anger of the gods and their demigod offspring like Achilles. Achilles is the son of a mortal man, Peleus, but his mother is the sea goddess Thetis. This demigodness enables Achilles to magnify the effects of his anger. He can hold out against the uber-commander of the Greek army, despite the fact that Achilles’ rank is inferior. He can ask his mother to call in a favor to Zeus, king of the gods, to crush the Greek forces temporarily. He can even maltreat a corpse--he drags the body of his archenemy Hector behind his chariot after he’s killed him (see figure 7)--until the gods tell him to stop. Achilles’ anger, in other words, is problematic because he’s almost a god himself.
There is another side to Achilles’ anger in the Iliad. It destroys the Greeks, but it also saves them from being completely overrun by Trojans when Achilles finally decides to come back into the fight. Anger is Achilles’ greatest weakness and his greatest asset, and we tend to think of Achilles as a hero, despite or because of his anger. But is this what ancient audiences thought as well? In her 2002 book Listening to HomerClassics scholar Ruth Scodel notes that “[the Iliad] consistently implies that Achilles was an unusually generous and noble hero before his anger. He is the only hero who is explicitly said to have taken prisoners, and he buried the fallen [warrior] Eetion himself (Il. 6.417-20)” (p. 14). For Classics scholar Joel Christensen, the Iliad’s central character “confounds audiences by inviting them to understand or even identify with a man whose choices destroy his own people” (Classical Traditions in Science Fiction, p. 165). This paradox has resulted in the interpretation that in the end Achilles lets go of his anger and embraces his humanity. This happens in the final book, when Achilles gives the Trojan king Priam the body of his dead son, Hector. But far from releasing his wrath, Achilles angrily tells the king off: “So don’t try to move my heart further, lest I defy Zeus’ command and choose, suppliant though you are, not to spare even you” (trans. A. S. Kine) (see figure 8).
Like Achilles, Banner’s anger is an inescapable part of his heroic character. “A man with breath-taking anger management issues” is how Stark describes him in The Avengers, a phrasing that encapsulates our culture’s attitude towards anger. It’s a negative emotion that needs to be managed, but it also is often a valuable component of heroism. We see this in Banner’s ongoing struggle to control Hulk, as well as in modern interpretations of Achilles. This conflicted view of anger is perhaps why in Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo 2018) Hulk will not manifest at Banner’s wish. Banner has become so successful at managing his anger that Hulk resents being called upon only to do the heavy lifting (see figure 8). It remains to be seen whether in the next film Banner learns to balance his anger and restore Hulk to the team.
Header image: photo collage of Achilles in a 1732 painting by Coypel, “The Fury of Achilles” and Hulk in The Incredible Hulk (Disney/Paramount 2012).
Figure 1: The Avengers (Disney/Paramount 2012).
Figure 2: The Incredible Hulk (Universal Pictures/Marvel 2008).
Figure 3: Avengers: Age of Ultron(Disney/Paramount 2015).
Figure 4: Thor: Ragnarok (Disney/Marvel 2017).
Figure 5: Thor: Ragnarok (Disney/Marvel 2017).
Figure 6: Ancient Greek vase from the late sixth century BCE.
Figure 7: Ancient Greek vase from the late sixth century BCE.
Figure 8: Avengers: Infinity War (Disney 2018).