The Incredible Hulk: A Perfect Proactive Protagonist
If you've perused my site or listened to my podcast, you might be aware that I like superheroes and superhero movies. And for almost 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated the superhero genre in film. Since these movies are easily the most successful comic book adaptations to come out of Hollywood, every other week I am going to examine one of the films in the series (in order, naturally) and figure out what we as writers can learn from each movie.
This week, we're talking about the movie nobody talks about but that I definitely think you should revisit: The Incredible Hulk.
In hindsight, this film feels like a very strange entry in the MCU. It's got funny parts, but it's generally the most serious movie in the canon (the next film with a tone even slightly similar is Black Panther). It's got a compelling main character, but he's not someone who feels as distinct as Tony Stark, Captain America or Thor (as proven when they recast him with Mark Ruffalo). It's got some cool action, but the final fight is hardly the most compelling sequence in the film.
But as writers, I think we must pay special attention to the character of Bruce Banner, because he is a proactive protagonist for almost the entire film.
In most films, especially action films (and super-especially superhero films), the main character is reactive for much of the story. John McClain spends a lot of time trying to figure out what to do. Spider-Man usually doesn't get involved with the plot until a villain enters the story. Simba spends the whole movie following instructions from older figures, rarely making his own choices. It's not a bad thing inherently, but the truth is, the perfect protagonist would be more proactive than reactive, keeping the story moving themselves. The Incredible Hulk does this better than most movies, especially in the superhero or monster movie genres.
When the story begins, Bruce is living in Brazil, trying to lie low. He's teaching himself Portuguese, training in anger management, and working an under-the-table job at a factory. We get a really lovely look at his life, and how he's managing. And, thanks to the fact that everyone speaks Portuguese and Bruce is a generally introspective character, there's a lot of strong visual storytelling at play.
But then he gets a delivery, and we see a totally different side of him - a driven man trying to find a cure for his condition. He has a homemade centrifuge, he's talking to a mysterious contact ("Mr. Blue") who gives him advice, and he longs for some way to return to a normal life. But the test doesn't work, and Bruce is dejected. Mr. Blue has an idea of how he can help, but he would need data that Bruce doesn't have.
And for just a moment, Bruce has no goal. He can't get the data, because he can't go home.
And in the very next scene, the army raids his home, he flees, we get an action scene in the bottle factory, and he wakes up in Guatamala the next day. A kind stranger picks him up on the side of the road, and Bruce says he's going home. So now he has returned to his earlier goal, to cure himself of being the Hulk... but now he is committed to doing something that he has been afraid to do. We are roughly 30 minutes into the film, and Bruce has taken up the mission that launches him into the rest of the film.
Bruce get to Virginia and finds out that his former lover has a new boyfriend. It sucks, but he knows he has to make his peace with it. (Again, all of this is done with absolutely incredible visual storytelling - this movie is way better than most people remember.) He sneaks into the lab where he had his accident, but discovers that the data is missing. His plan was a bust.
And for just a moment, Bruce has no goal. He came home for the data, and it's gone, so he tells Mr. Blue "I have to move on."
And in the very next scene, Betty finds out he is back, reunites with him, and gives him the data. His mission can resume. He still plans to leave town, but at least now he has what he came home for.
And then the army finds him and attacks him (in probably the best action scene in the film), and he's forced to flee with Betty. Right before the fight, he swallows the data, which is just such a wonderful moment. I show this movie to a lot of people, and whenever they watch that moment, they are surprised, impressed, and a bit revolted - Bruce shows that he's willing to do things normal people might not do in order to pursue his goal. If this movie had been better received (and maybe been a slightly better film), this could've been the equivalent of Steve jumping on the grenade - it's a perfect example of what matters to Bruce, and how willing he is to pursue his goals no matter what.
Bruce and Betty go on the run, and as they talk, she proposes that maybe the Hulk isn't that different from Bruce - they both tried to protect her, they both recognize her. But at this point, Bruce states the conflict driving his character: "I don't want to control it. I want to get rid of it."
Bruce and Betty they send the data to Mr. Blue, and agree to meet him. They go to New York, and we meet Tim Blake Nelson, who immediately steals the movie as Dr. Samuel Sterns. Seriously, it's a crime for someone to show up this late into a movie and make it so much better so quickly.
They test a cure on Bruce, and it seems to work - it's possible it only had an affect on that transformation, or it's a lasting cure, but they won't know until his next incident.
But for the moment, it seems Bruce has achieved his goal. He has a way to undo the Hulk.
And then the army comes for him. Because every time it seems Bruce has given up on his mission or achieved his mission, the villains close in on him to keep him moving forward. Bruce doesn't Hulk out, and it seems to all parties that he may have been cured.
Of course, Blonsky the Evil Soldier turns into a giant monster, and Bruce realizes that everything he was trying to do - stopping other people from harnessing the power of the Hulk - has failed. It's out of the bottle, and a monster of his own creation is on the loose. And Bruce reconciles his want with his need, and makes a sacrifice.
He agrees to fight Blonsky, because while he may not be able to control the Hulk, he can try to aim him at Blonsky. And he goes to the back of the helicopter and prepares to drop. Betty says he doesn't know if he'll change, and he simply says, "Betty, I've gotta try." And he sacrifices his life by dropping out of the helicopter. If he cured the Hulk, he will die in this moment. If he lives, it's because the cure failed and he can't have a normal life. Either way, he's giving up on the love of his life to do the right thing.
Also, he doesn't transform right away, and it's a great joke and I think the same version of this joke in Thor Ragnarok is less funny/impactful, but that's beside the point.
The Hulk fights Blonsky for a while, but doesn't kill him thanks to Betty's intervention. He's forced to run, and the next thing we see, Bruce is living in a cabin in Canada. And he's trying to trigger his own changes, to get a handle on his ability to control the Hulk.
(This is why the Hulk is treated two different ways in the Avengers, by the way. When he transforms on the Helicarrier, it wasn't a willing change, and the Hulk lashed out at everyone Bruce was angry at. When he transforms at the end of the film, Bruce is doing it on purpose, and Hulk is able to focus on the alien enemies. That's why it's not a plot hole.)
The Incredible Hulk isn't a perfect film, but Bruce is a fantastically proactive protagonist. He pushes the story forward with his mission, and every time he gets too comfortable, the army intervenes and pushes him further into action - because the army is the manifestation of all of his fears, the consequences of his failure, and a constant reminder of what he could stand to lose if he gets caught.
If you're a writer, give this movie another watch, and see how well-executed Bruce's arc is. It's really well done.