Stay Angry: Or, How Marvel Must Want Me Behaving When Reading "Incredible Hulk"

(Warning: This review contains SPOILERS through this week's Incredible Hulk #8. Re-edited after 1st posting for clarifications.) 

Marvel Comics hates me.

It's been a few months since I've really discussed Jason Aaron's Incredible Hulk. I've had a few reasons for that, not the least of which being my forthcoming book all about the Green Goliath, which will include some commentary on the last several months' worth of stories. That may be the biggest reason, but the fact is, when I'm not discussing the Hulk on this blog, ever since I started posting more regularly about two years ago, it probably means the book just plain sucks.

It happened once before, as Bruce Jones wrote the series into a ditch around the time of the 2003 Ang Lee film. There were some good bits among the bad, but really, the era of decompressed storytelling kicked in with a vengeance, and the Hulk appeared maybe a few times a year in his own series while Banner became an everyman to whom we somehow still couldn't relate, involved in an overly labyrinthine conspiracy story.

It's happening again today, courtesy Jason Aaron and a bevy of artists who can't seem to stay on the book for any length of time. Marc Silvestri managed three issues (more or less); Whilce Portacio managed four; and now we're on our second of what will be, minimum, six artists who aren't sticking around longer than a single issue. We're told that each issue has a different artist to give each story a flavor of its own, and that "Stay Angry" is a five-part storyline that is made of individual tales with an overarching theme. I'm convinced that the book is really so far behind schedule--or that Marvel is pushing an accelerated publishing schedule upon the series--that they have no choice but to use artists in swift rotation.

The ending of "Hulk Vs. Banner"--the four-part storyline that Portacio drew--was no surprise to readers of this blog or anybody who was really following the storyline for any length of time. Since there was a Gamma Bomb on Banner's island, and since Amanda Von Doom and her henchmen were not in the practice of leaving mad scientists alive, you knew Banner would bite the big one. You also knew that, since Dr. Doom cloned him to "separate" him from the Hulk in the first place, it wouldn't be permanent. Furthermore, Doom obviously had plans inside of plans, because that's just how devious a M.F. he is!

I told everyone about the storyline that would proceed forth from the end of "Hulk Vs. Banner," and that eventually--maybe in a month, maybe in a year, Banner would be alive again and be re-merged with the Hulk. I believed that because the Banner that Doom created was a clone, the Hulk was only avoiding changing back and forth to Banner because he believed Banner to no longer be inside him. A flick of Doom's fingers, and the puny scientist would return, with full awareness of what the Hulk did to a being he believed was him. Cue new, dramatic status quo about how these two really feel about one another, albeit without Raving Loon Banner™.

Incredible Hulk #7.1 shipped a few weeks ago, and initially, I thought I was right. Certainly the issue, still written by Aaron with artwork by Jefte Palo, seemed to go in the right direction, with the Hulk doing everything he wanted to do now that he was finally sans Banner, only to find out on the final page that--surprise, surprise!--Banner had never really gone anywhere. The story had some funky sexual overtones, with a scene between Hulk and Red She-Hulk right in the middle of a city (while the Orb, an old Ghost Rider villain that Aaron somehow perversely enjoys, looks on). And Aaron had to reveal that the Hulk was thinking about his creation Amanda Von Doom the entire time, natch. But hey! Banner's back, and the dynamic of the book's going to shift somewhere interesting, because this isn't evil Banner, right?

Wrong. In "Stay Angry" Aaron reveals that the Gamma Bomb inexplicably fused Raving Loon Banner™ back together with the Hulk, which appears to have been Doom's dastardly evil plan all along. Further, the Hulk no longer has any memory of what happens when Banner is in control. And to top it all off, Banner appears to be going around from unusual situation to unusual situation, doing mad scientist-y things that leave the Hulk questioning just what the hell he's up to whenever he changes. Suffice to say, Banner might even be planning just where and when he changes, in order to keep the Hulk stymied.

The one good thing that Aaron appears to be doing is re-establishing anger as the trigger for the Banner-to-Hulk metamorphosis; or, at the very least, anger keeps the Hulk from transforming. His idea is a little like the Neveldine/Taylor Crank series of movies, in that to stay in control, the Hulk needs to stay angry. But inevitably he must be subdued, either by gas, or something else, and then Banner re-emerges. We never see Banner, but know that he must be up to no good, because we see his handiwork--a detached doggy-finger--and next thing we know, the Hulk awakens in a strange locale with a stitched-up hole in his chest.

Aaron's story gives echoes of Peter David's earliest stories, wherein Banner and the Gray Hulk jockeyed for control. Unfortunately, the similarities end there: According to both the series' recap pages and some in-story dialogue, it's made clear that this is "insane" Banner from the first seven stories. Gone is the sympathetic, even heroic Banner from as recently as last year, and Lord only knows if he'll return anytime soon. Even the Hulk--at least a little sympathetic in the first two arcs to counterbalance Banner--is brutal and ruthless in this story, teaming up with the Punisher--another of Aaron's pet projects--to track down some dog-faced drug-runners. He drags one of them from the back of a truck for several miles. I'd expect this out of the Punisher, but the Hulk?

There's a way of making Banner seem like the "bad guy" in the Hulk's eyes without actually doing it, but Aaron's stories have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Put this bluntness together with these personalities, and you have two unappealing main characters without any vaguely heroic traits, only selfish ones. Without any relatability for Banner or the Hulk, the series loses the same qualities as recent movie efforts lost without a Bill Bixby-esque actor in the lead. (More on the need for a heroic protagonist in that book o' essays, promise!)

The artwork in this storyline isn't any better. Steve Dillon may be a great artist on gritty crime dramas like Punisher or Preacher, but big green monsters aren't his forte and this issue proves it in spades. Say what you will about Marc, Whilce, and Jefte, but at least they knew how to show the Hulk to scale. Dillon's Hulk is a lean character that owes more to Lou Ferrigno than to any Hulk artist of the last few decades. And hey, with a healing factor that can recover from virtually any wound, why is the Hulk still bald after three whole issues?

Aaron's abhorrent treatment of Banner to create a new and edgy dynamic for this series is a big reason why the book has lost virtually all its charm in my eyes, and the rotating string of extremely mediocre or ill-fitting artists just makes this book tumble further on down the list. Now that I see what Aaron's game is in "Stay Angry" and what it likely means for the remainder of his run, it can't be over soon enough. About the only way I could imagine this series improving would be if the Hulk, impossible as it currently sounds, decides there's something wrong with Banner, and wants to genuinely help him because he was never like this before and Doom made him this way.

Who knows? Maybe Doom will point the Hulk in the direction of the Marvel offices. And maybe this infernal storyline will be over, so I won't have to "Stay Angry."

Ahem. Your thoughts?



Puny God ("Marvel's The Avengers," Reviewed)

Yes, I've been away writing that book you've heard so much about. Let's remedy that, shall we?

Like many of you, last weekend I went to my local movie theatre to see what's being considered one of this summer's premier events: Marvel's The Avengers, a two-and-a-half hour roller coaster ride of a film starring the headliners from the comic company's five recent in-house productions. In addition to the invincible Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, taking over for Ed Norton), the mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans), several other characters seized the spotlight, including SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).

There was an indefinable energy filling the theatre when my friend Harold and I entered. Of course, I didn't go for just any screening of the film: We bought tickets to the all-day "Ultimate Marvel Marathon" put on by AMC Theatres, wherein all of the previous films were screened back-to-back from 11:30 in the morning all the way through the grand midnight Avengers premiere. The theatre was jam-packed with comics fans in their various T-shirts and other regalia recalling the heroes who were to appear on the screen all day long. (My choice of attire: You need to ask?) Each fan who attended received a special lanyard granting them access in and out of the building, a special release Avengers comic book, and one of four styles of Real D 3D glasses (available in Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man and Thor designs...again, guess which?).

The excitement level started out high, and only elevated throughout the day. Unfortunately, this theatre didn't receive the special introductions by Clark Gregg in his role of Agent Coulson that other AMC Theatres screened. I understand they were quite fun, and I'd like nothing more than to actually see them. Alas, the movies were draw enough. Up front were 2008's Iron Man and  The Incredible Hulk, followed by 2010's Iron Man 2 and 2011's tag-team of Thor and Captain America. In between some of the screenings, theatre employees gave away goodie bags and other special odds and ends to fans who answered depressingly easy trivia questions.

And then, the curtain rose on the final film at midnight. The moment of truth had arrived: Would writer/director Joss Whedon rise to the challenge of directing an action-packed feature filled with the heart and soul we knew was at the core of the mighty Marvel Universe?

You're damned right he would!

From the very first frames--a markedly slow beginning which served to introduce the Cosmic Cube Tesseract, the "MacGuffin" of the piece, locked away in the SHIELD and NASA-sponsored Project: PEGASUS (which any reader of seventies series Marvel Two-in-One will recognize)--I knew something special was happening. And when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrived, absconding with the Tesseract and narrowly escaping the Project's destruction, the stage was set. Fury began to assemble his team, and it was a sight to behold, having the stars assembled from the previous films begin to interact and their personalities begin to grate on each other.

Joss Whedon admitted he modeled much of the movie after The Dirty Dozen and Black Hawk Down, war movies which centered not on an overly labyrinthine plotline but on the characters that made up their respective groups. In many ways, Avengers is as much an origin story as Iron Man or Captain America, but instead of showing how the characters got their powers, it's a tale of how they learned to all tolerate each other's annoyances and shortcomings in order to beat the big bad. Yes, Loki is a scenery-chewing antagonist, and yes, he has a rather generic plan to enslave Earth's populace. He has an army which is generally ill-defined but who attack in such terrific numbers that any single super-hero would feel overwhelmed. The characterization of the villains really isn't as important as the scope of their operation. Whedon knows the best way to attack the narrative is in bringing out all the heroes' unique and sometimes grating personalities, and watching the fireworks.

Robert Downey Jr. has the majority of the film's best lines as "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist" Tony Stark, once eliminated from consideration in Fury's Avenger Initiative but now recruited just the same. He's got a bone to pick with just about every member of the team, but learns to work with them just the same. (Especially brilliant is his line to Ruffalo's Banner about just how he's able to control his inner monster. I cackled for a good few minutes afterward.) As any fan of Whedon's television programs (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, et al.) will tell you, the writer/director is an expert at intelligent, snappy dialogue, and here it's no different. The movie is intensely quotable, from Stark's commentary on Thor's cape, to Thor's admission that Loki is his adopted brother, to Loki's quite misogynistic insult toward the Widow. (Yes, let's do look up "mewling quim" and gasp at what we find.) The bottom line is that the snappy dialogue works not just because it's smartly written by Whedon, but because in virtually every case, it all rings true with the characters involved, which is no mean feat in a super-hero film.

Such character moments don't often occur in an action extravaganza like Avengers, and let's make no mistake: This is an action-packed film. And while Downey's Stark may be the master of the witticism, he's physically upstaged in virtually every way by the ever-incredible Hulk. As motion-captured by Ruffalo himself, he steals literally every scene in which he appears, without exception. He may not talk much--and in fact, the theatre was so loud during one of his biggest moments that one could scarcely hear his clearest and perhaps only line of dialogue--but he more than makes up for that economy with the sheer, visceral thrill of seeing him match up against Thor and all manner of alien creatures, cutting loose as only the Hulk from the comics previously could. If you've been upset by the Hulk's seemingly lower strength levels in previous films, you'll find that issue remedied here. This is the Hulk you've been waiting years to see, and I'm hoping against hope that Mark Ruffalo gets to star in his own Incredible Hulk film sooner than later, penned by Whedon or one of his many traditional accomplices. Between actor and writer/director, they have given the character such a synergy that it'd be criminal to not have this character burst free into his own film once more. The formula is just right.

I don't want to go on too long about the movie because I really feel it's important that you see it, and so I'm really holding back on the spoilers. Suffice to say that by the time the ending credits roll, most diehard Marvel Zombies will feel like they've seen the be-all, end-all of super-hero movies. By sharp contrast with Christopher Nolan's Batman cycle, Whedon's Avengers is an unabashed celebration of the super-hero genre rather than a deconstructionist, "real-life" take. Since everyone knows I'm one of the biggest Hulk fans there is, I relish the larger-than-life qualities of that character and the remainder of the characters in Avengers. There are precious few issues with the story--I still don't like Hawkeye's status throughout the first half of the film--but they're outnumbered so greatly by "stand-up-and-cheer" moments that it's hard to remain upset.

And that ending? Stay all the way to the end, folks! You'll see not only the setup for another Marvel film (likely Avengers 2, the threat so great), but also a humorous payoff to what you'd likely believed was a throwaway line in the final battle.

I don't mean to gush, but this is one staggering sci-fi super-hero epic. It really doesn't get any better than this. The Avengers have assembled, and comic book films will never again be the same.