The Hulk Deserves Better: Considering How Horrible the Avengers are to Bruce Banner

I’ve been deep into writing my book (yay!) so I’ve not posted a new piece for over a month.  To help fill the quiet during the book writing process, here’s a piece I wrote but never had the chance to post.  Enjoy!

As a character, that Hulk has always fascinated me.  When I was a kid he wasn’t a Spider-Man-level favorite nor was he quite at the level of Thor.  But he was a strong (heh heh, no pun intended) contender for that third favorite spot, alongside characters like Wolverine or Venom.  And if we look at the sheer number of their comics I read, Hulk totally blew Wolverine and Venom out of the water (obviously we’re excluding team comics here because why should my opening anecdote become needlessly complicated with nostalgic rankings?).  I began reading The Incredible Hulk amidst Peter David’s legendary eleven year run on the title (1987-1998).  While I’d read forwards and backwards from this point, my first Hulk comics were during the period Doc Samson had successfully merged all of Bruce Banner/the Hulk’s personalities.  Banner’s intellect was paired with the Grey Hulk’s confidence (and eyes/hairstyle) in a body carrying the Green Hulk’s size, color, and power.  It was a good time to be a Hulk fan…because this incarnation of the Hulk skirted a lot of the things about the Hulk that always made me sad. 

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The Hulk with all his personas merged…a version I find more adorable than Betty does in the moment :). / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Early in therapy I learned I was, by nature, an empath.  This ability to feel the emotions of others so deeply within myself helps me form and maintain strong, lasting relationships.  However, it also means being around people can exhaust me, because I’m always absorbing and internalizing their feelings.  So I’m an extrovert who loves and needs to be around others…but I also need time on my own to decompress and recharge.  With this self-knowledge I’ve realized why I struggled with the Hulk as a character and why his classic green incarnation often made me so sad.

The gamma bomb explosion that fractured Dr. Robert Bruce Banner’s psyche unleashed his inner anger and rage, personified in the form of the Hulk.  Stan Lee envisioned this character to be a sort of modern variation on Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde – a misunderstood monster who was hunted, hated, and persecuted by those who didn’t understand him.[1]  He was a reluctant hero.  Bruce Banner was constantly on the run, hating the creature inside him.  The Hulk, for his part, just wanted to be left alone.

But no one ever left the Hulk alone.  The army hunted him.  Supervillains hunted him.  Most every superhero fought him first, even if they ended up teaming up with him, because they saw him as a threat and/or unstable monster.  While things may be slightly different for Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s true friends were few and far between.  So when Banner’s mind was in control of the Hulk’s body, it was easier for him to maintain healthy (or at least healthyish) relationships that were able to be mutually supportive.  When the Grey Hulk was running things, he was mean.  There was a devious edge to his nature that served as a shield between himself and the world that so mistreated him.  But the Green Hulk, so often more impulsive and childlike, was always most vulnerable to the pain of the world’s rejections.  And it broke my heart.  In fact, as a kid when I started liking the Hulk enough to begin looking for back issues of his title, I mostly avoided any Hulk stories before he became the Grey Hulk (who then gave way to the Banner-minded Green Hulk) because my heart hurt too much reading them.

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The Grey and Green Hulk war for dominance inside Banner’s mind. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

There was an episode of the 1996 cartoon The Incredible Hulk that seriously scarred me as a kid.  The Hulk had been tranquilized (or something like that) and he was turning back into Bruce Banner.  The army was on the way and with the drugs in his system, if he reverted to Banner, he’d die.  To save him, Rick Jones (the Hulk’s best friend) and Betty Ross (Bruce’s friend and lover) tried to make him mad.  After all, that would stave off the transformation and the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets.  So they emotionally abused the poor guy!  They told Hulk they hated him and they wanted him to leave and they never wanted to see him again.  They were obviously sad as they said these things but the words struck all the same.  Confused and hurt, the Hulk leapt away more sad and more alone than ever before.  And sad isn’t even angry!!!  What were they doing?!?

I HATED this episode.  I don’t think I openly cried when I watched it (I was thirteen or fourteen so I’m sure those sorts of emotions were kept under a tighter lock then than now) but I hated it.  When I think of it I can still feel an aching sadness in my heart.  It hurts!  I was legitimately scared of the episode, too.  I didn’t want to feel those feelings again!  I’d be walking through my life or lying in bed trying to fall asleep and I’d think of that scene, of the Hulk’s face and his hurt tone, and I’d want to cry.  I remember not wanting to watch the next week because I didn’t want to see the Hulk so sad, hurt, and alone again.  I also remember watching the show with hesitation after that.  I loved the Hulk and in the ‘90s – in the days before the MCU – you had to take superhero entertainment wherever you could find it.  But every time I turned the TV on for The Incredible Hulk after that episode I did so with a pit in my stomach.  I eventually came to trust they wouldn’t make another episode that was so fucking sad BUT I was always worried I’d turn it on to find a rerun of that episode playing.  When I did, I always turned it off immediately.  I never watched it again.  Even now, I won’t google a summary to be exact in my summary or look it up on YouTube to include the scene with this piece because even thinking of it makes me want to cry.  I don’t want a sharper memory of this again.[2]

I just wanted to hug him!  I think that’s a good way to sum up my relationship with the Hulk as a character through my youth.  He was interesting and exciting and he could hit harder than anyone and withstand just about anything out there…but I also always kinda wanted to just give him a hug.  The Hulk needs more hugs.

Greg Pak’s iconic “Planet Hulk” and “World War Hulk” stories were one of the things that happened in between the two great comic reading periods of my life.  So I’d heard of it, but never read it.  I knew Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarök was loosely (and I mean VERY loosely) based on it.  I knew Jeff had watched the Planet Hulk animated movie and raved about it.  And I knew the whole story was kicked off by the Avengers pulling THE BIGGEST DICK MOVE IN THE HISTORY OF DICK MOVES on the Hulk.  They decided the Hulk was too big a threat so they put him on a shuttle and blasted him into outer space, picking a planet where they felt he couldn’t hurt anyone ever again.

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Earth’s Mightiest “Heroes” vote on whether or not to fire the Hulk into space. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

FUCK THEM.  Seriously!  Fuck.  Them.  The Hulk deserves better.  The Hulk has always deserved better.

Anyway, I figured the time had finally come to read these comics for myself.  Was all my angsty rage misplaced?  As opposed to starting with “Planet Hulk” proper, I began with “The Prelude to Planet Hulk,” Daniel Way’s final story arc on the title.  He setup the epic that was to come and passed the comic over to Greg Pak.  Do you know what I learned from finally reading this story for myself?  It was an even BIGGER dick move than I thought.

First, I realized it wasn’t the Avengers but the Illuminati who made the decision to launch the Hulk into space.  The Illuminati is a secret group of Marvel’s “big brains” (Tony Stark/Iron Man, Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic, Professor Charles Xavier, Namor/King of Atlantis, Black Bolt/King of the Inhumans, and Dr. Stephen Strange (T’Challa, the Black Panther and King of Wakanda, was invited to join and he told them this was a dangerous, damned idea and would only bring destruction born from the narrow vision of ego and arrogance)) who formed after the Kree/Skrull War to try and “guide” the fate of planet Earth.  And they are just THE WORST.  As an example, they elected to single-handedly destroy dozens and dozens of universes across the multiverse in a vain attempt to protect their own.  They committed genocide on a universal scale…literally.[3]  The fact that this group was exclusively male and exclusively white, I think, has to be part of the commentary here.  But that’s the story for another post.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Second though, in reading the story, I realized how much worse their action was then I originally thought.  I knew they shot the Hulk into space and I knew his rocket would land on Sakaar, where the “Planet Hulk” escapades would unfold.  But I never knew how they got him on the rocket in the first place.

The story opens with Bruce Banner living in complete isolation in a cabin in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.  Only a few people know of his location, those who come to sell him the handful of things he needs that he can’t hunt, grow, or build on his own.  One of the men eventually encourages Bruce to come into town with him for a night at the bar.  There’s drinking and pool and jukebox music in the air.  Bruce refuses to drink and stays on the outskirts of activity.  But he accepts the invitation!  He embraces, if somewhat reluctantly, the call to community.

At one point, he sees a very inebriated woman being escorted to the bathroom by two guys.  Bruce follows them outside and sees, once she leaves the restroom, they take her behind a hill and force her to the ground in an attempt to rape her.  Moments later the Hulk appears, physically ripping the men off the woman they are trying to assault.  The message here is so important.  In this story which will end with the Illuminati launching the Hulk into space because he’s “too dangerous” to allow to stay on Earth, the Hulk makes his first appearance to protect a woman from being raped.  One of my religious studies professors in undergrad once said rape was the most violent, dehumanizing of crimes because it takes the most intimate act we can share as human beings and robs us of our choice and personhood within it, turning it into the deepest of violations.  That’s always stuck with me.  This is what the Hulk is preventing.  The Hulk comes out not to terrorize the town or to smash up the bar.  He comes to prevent the monstrous crime of rape.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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How do you not cheer for the Hulk? This is the image of a hero. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

It turns out the man who had been delivering Bruce those supplies, who encouraged Bruce to come into town for a night was actually a deep cover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent put there by Nick Fury to keep an eye on Bruce Banner…and the Hulk.  But now Nick Fury needs help.  He tells Bruce the Soviets launched a deadly spy satellite during the Cold War, something capable of destroying the entire planet.  Even though the Cold War has ended, the satellite remains.  Run by an advanced A.I., it has thwarted every attempt they’ve tried to destroy it, incorporating all the technology they use against it into itself.  So they need a weapon capable of destroying it, an organic weapon it won’t see coming or be able to make a part of itself.  They need the Hulk and they need him now because the satellite is priming to fire.

The Hulk goes into space to find the A.I. and the satellite every bit as dangerous and complex as Fury told him it would be…except the God’s Eye isn’t a Soviet satellite.  It’s S.H.I.E.L.D.’s.  The Hulk destroys it and saves the Earth.  He cleans up Fury’s mess.  And as he is pulled aboard the shuttle he believes will take him home, it redirects and blasts him into deep space.  The Hulk receives a video transmission from Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man, and Dr. Strange where Reed says, “Bruce, we’re so sorry.  But you’ve left us with little choice.  Time and time again, your anger and power have threatened the entire planet.  So when we learned Fury sent you into space, we had to seize the opportunity.  I have always thought of us as friends, Bruce.  So I am truly, genuinely sorry.  But for your sake and ours, we’re sending you away.  It’s the only way we can be sure.”

The narration that lays over the scene gives the reader the Hulk’s thoughts.  “They sent him up to save their world.  And now it’s time to come home.  But his ship is sailing the wrong way.  His friends talk and talk.  So calm.  So reasonable.  Explaining their trick.  Soon he can’t hear their words.  Only the annoying buzzing of their puny human voices.  Drowned out by the blood surging through his body.  Drowned out by his rage.  The monster saved them all.  And in their fear, they betrayed him.  As they always have.  As they always will.”

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My heart breaks for the Hulk. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

The monster saved them all.  And in their fear, they betrayed him.  As they always have.  As they always will.  Look at the wording.  The Hulk recognizes Reed, Tony, and Stephen as his friends.  No matter how they treat him, he still sees them as friends.  The Hulk also sees himself as the monster.  It makes sense, given his experiences, but it still makes me sad.  And the Hulk recognizes both their motivations – their fear – as well as the nature of their act – they’ve betrayed him.  As they always haveAs they always will

The Hulk literally saved the entire world in destroying the God’s Eye Satellite.  This was far from the only time the Hulk has saved everyone, too.  He destroyed an entire alien armada to defend the White House.  He sacrificed his balanced personality by asking Jean Grey to lock up Banner and release the Savage Hulk so he’d have the strength to break open Onslaught’s armor allowing the gathered Marvel heroes to destroy him.  He protected all the Marvel heroes during the original Secret War by holding up an entire mountain on his back.  Time and again he has saved them.  The Hulk has only ever wanted to be left alone.  The Hulk has only ever asked to be left alone.  Despite his desire for isolation, they always come for him.  And he always steps up when they need him.  He’s always there to save them.  But they betrayed him.  As they always have.  As they always will.        

As a kid, I could never understand why all the other heroes in the Marvel Universe treated the Hulk they way they did.  Wasn’t he a superhero just like the rest of them?  Didn’t he fight villains and protect everyone and save the day, too?  Sure, he looked a little different (but not that different given the nature of characters in the Marvel Universe) and he talked a little different…but wasn’t he a superhero, too?  I have these memories of being wracked with confusion over why the other heroes didn’t see Hulk as their friend.  It made me sad.

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The Hulk realizes what they’ve done to him. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Now, as an adult, I see a fuller picture.  The Hulk represents – not just represents but literally incarnates – so many of the parts of ourselves we try to ignore.  He is a living, breathing nexus of trauma wounds born of the terrible physical and emotional abuse Bruce Banner suffered as a child at the hands of his father.[4]  Traditionally speaking, the Green Hulk represents Banner’s anger and rage unleashed whereas the Grey Hulk embodies Banner’s primal ego unchecked, his greedy and lustful desires for sex, food, and domination.  The many other incarnations of the Hulk who have come after Peter David’s iconic run can then be seen as various attempts to balance and combine those same drives.  You could make the case the Hulk represents our needs – community, belonging, food, sex, recognition, being heard and valued, being cared for and held in our pains etc. – and what happens inside us when those needs go ignored and repressed for so long. 

So I can see why the heroes of the Marvel Universe, indeed the majority of the people in the Marvel Universe, treat the Hulk the way they do.  Who wants to be reminded of all that within ourselves which we wish to ignore?  And who wants to be reminded of all that we ignore in the others who need us?  They blame the Hulk for all they hate inside themselves – for reminding them of all they wish they weren’t and try to forget.  So they ignore, fight, and reject him…and in this more adult knowledge, it still makes me sad.

The Hulk deserves better.  The Hulk’s always deserves better.  But, in the horrible way the Marvel heroes have always treated the Hulk we find something of great worth and importance.  If, like me, you feel for the Hulk, if your heart hurts at the way the Hulk is always treated, if you think the Hulk deserves better and you just want to hold, hug, and help the big guy…then the Hulk serves as a reminder.  More than that, the Hulk serves as a call to action.  The Hulk personifies all we seek to repress and ignore within ourselves.  The Hulk incarnates the raw reality of trauma and the need for mental health care.  The Hulk embodies all those who, for a litany of reasons, we feel more comfortable placing a healthy distance between us and them.  And the Hulk provides a mirror in which we can see all the parts of ourselves we hate, fear, or are ashamed of.  So if you feel sad for the Hulk, as I do, then the Hulk reminds us we need to go to the intersection of all those uncomfortable feelings and offer the love we wish the Hulk would find – both to those who are so often excluded and to ourselves as well, in all that we judge ourselves too harshly for.  If we are gentle, loving, and accepting with others as well as with ourselves, we will see what lies hidden inside us is not a monster to fear but a source of unimaginable strength. 

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The Hulk and Betty share a tender moment, something that happens far too little in their lives. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

As with my piece on Jane Foster: Valkyrie, the majority of this piece was written at Grandma’s in the summer of 2020, as the family spent our days and nights with Grandma once she was released home to hospice care.  So a special thank you goes out to my cousin Jaelyn for her help as a research assistant (re: Googling the years Peter David wrote The Incredible Hulk and things like that for me (as Grandma doesn’t have WiFi) when I was too lazy to pull my phone out and Google it myself) and my cousin Jordan and brother David for offering editorial help (re: reading over my shoulder as I typed and questioning certain word choices).

[1] Stan Lee and Peter David and Colleen Doran, Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir, (New York: Touchstone, 2015), 68-71.

[2] Given I’m posting this over a year after writing it, I’m actually now interested in going back to watch this.  I’ve been doing IFS work (Internal Family Systems) in therapy for over a year now and I’m learning to meet, love, and understand all my parts.  My reaction to this was, obviously, because it’s triggering something and I’d bet it’s triggering an exile (a part born of deep wounding/trauma that is surrounded by protector parts as soon as it’s born to keep it hidden, so “I” never have to feel it again as the protector parts worry “I” can’t handle it.  So going back to revisit this episode may bring some important self-knowledge and, if it is an exile, I can meet it, get to know it, and begin to love it and, in this process, begin to heal it).  I can see this coming up in a future session with Katherine.

[3] This happens in Jonathan Hickman’s 2013 “Infinity” storyline running through Avengers and New Avengers books.

[4] John R. Parker, “Hulk Smash Preconceptions: Peter David’s Epic Run On ‘The Incredible Hulk,’ Comics Alliance.  Published August 12, 2011.  Accessed August 1, 2020.


5 thoughts on “The Hulk Deserves Better: Considering How Horrible the Avengers are to Bruce Banner

  1. Hulk stories have always made me feel uncomfortable, for some of the reasons you mention. There was a Hulk story in the Marvel issue of the 2021 Free Comic Book Day, and I said, “The second half is a Hulk story who is battling the very weird big-headed M.O.D.O.K. The Hulk seems to be tired of the same old shit and decides to strike out his own into space, obviously setting him up for brand new adventures.” Maybe Hulk was tired of being treated less than by the other heroes (but I never read the series, so I only have that FCBD issue to base my assumption off).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve not read any recent Hulk stories but I would LOVE for your presumption to be right! One of the things I found with “Planet Hulk” was he found just that – a world where he was accepted and appreciated. It would make me very happy if the Hulk chose to leave and go somewhere where he was appreciated for who he is and all he does. My heart feels warm and fuzzy thinking about that :). Your assumption is now my head canon, Nancy! Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

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