Compare and contrast (loads of casual spoilers for various Hulk things)

Finally got around to watching the Edward Norton Hulk movie. And it is definitely that way around. It is not a Hulk film starring Edward Norton; it is an Ed Norton movie guest-starring the Hulk. I admit up front to not being a fan of his at all. His favorite themes in storytelling are pretty much the opposite of anything I find even remotely fun to watch or enlightening to ponder. They're generally good films for what they are, but what they are is not to my taste. Still, the compare and contrast between the character of Bruce Banner as written and played by Edward Norton and Bruce Banner as written by Joss Whedon and played by Mark Ruffalo is an interesting example of how far apart you can get with interpretations of comic book characters and still technically all be canon.

The 2008 film doesn't give a lot of background directly, but it seems to be branching generally off the premise of the TV show. (I know this because they stole iconography from it like a mad thing: Camera angles, the configuration of the machinery in the lab, flashing to ANGER then pulling back to show it was the DANGER sign on the piece of equipment he was using, etc.) Banner was doing some kind of medical experiments, decided to test on himself, cranked his mad-science gamma-ray box up to 11 without checking the calibration first, and got a dose a couple of orders of magnitude higher than he intended. Rather than killing him, it interacted with some aspect of the plot his body chemistry, and an ensuing explosion in the lab upset/enraged him to the point where he hulked out for the first time. In the TV show, there was a female researcher with him in the lab who set up the Hulk's canonical tendency to trust and/or protect girls by being nice to him and then croaking in the explosion. The show didn't include Betty Ross; in the beginning of the movie, it's implied that she was in the lab with him, and that she was injured in the disaster, but survived, and that he left while she was recovering in the hospital.

Norton's Banner, like most of the characters I've seen Norton play, is nihilistic. They show him trying to control the Hulk through pure detachment. He's not particularly succeeding at the beginning of the film -- nor at any other point in it -- but as far as I can tell, he's trying to eliminate the possibility that the Other Guy will come out to play (read: smash shit) by training himself to absorb as much abuse as the world can throw at him without blinking. He wants desperately to simply not care enough about anything to get angry. He wants to not care that his cure doesn't work, or that he's a menial day laborer down in South America instead of a medical researcher, or that some fuckwad is bugging one of the nice people where he works, or that Betty is dating someone else when he gets back. He wants to not care that he faces being alone and very lonely for the rest of his life. Eventually I think he'd get around to wanting to not care if General Ross captures him and makes him into a living weapon, but the movie doesn't run that long. The point is, he wants to annihilate anything inside of him that gives a damn.

Ironically, the fact that he can't do this pisses him off no end.

The film ends where frankly I thought Avengers was going to end with Banner, which is that there is something much bigger than he is trying to flatten New York City, and the only option anyone has left is to bring out the Hulk. Banner has some vague babble about being able to aim the big guy, but when he jumps out of that helicopter, he fully expects that Bruce Banner as everyone knows him will be gone for good: Either the attempt at a cure worked and he'll die on impact, or it didn't and the fear/rage/pain will bring out the Hulk, after which he will have to remove himself from human civilization forever in order to avoid hurting anyone else. Which, in fact, he does. After about twenty minutes of poorly-rendered fight, the Hulk takes one last look at Liv Tyler, who is trying desperately to pretend she has an emotion and doesn't really care which one she gets, and then bolts off in a random direction, presumably intending never to return.

A brief epilogue scene shows Banner sitting down to meditate in a tiny cabin as far removed from humanity as he can manage. He opens his eyes briefly to show a flash of bright pre-transformation Hulk green, leaving the ending ambiguous as to whether he's finally learned to master this new power, or if it's still eating him alive.

(Then there is RDJ as Tony Stark in a really snazzy suit, which I thought was by far the best part of the film. YMMV, however.)

This interpretation is fine within the film; Norton knew what point he wanted to make, and he made it. I do think, however, that this interpretation of Banner would have worked out very, very poorly in the superhero-team film. There is just no way for things to end well. If he can't figure out how to stop caring about things, he dooms himself to isolation. He will never find a way to control himself perfectly enough to feel safe around other people, and he spends the rest of his life loathing himself. If he can figure out hot now to care, he becomes a sociopath -- not a Sherlock-mouthing-off sociopath, a real one, who lacks even rudimentary empathy for others. The conversation with Tony Stark in the SHIELD lab might well still end in an epiphany for him, but the epiphany would come at the end, when Stark opines that if he lets go, he might discover he likes it. An empathy-free Banner would probably realize that the thing holding him back is that he still gives a damn whether other people think it's right or wrong to enjoy flattening large edifices and anything in them. I don't think I have to point out what a terrible idea it would be for someone who controls the Hulk to let go of the notion of consequences or compassion. The Hulk will stay hidden if it's not useful, and come out to play if it is, and a sociopath won't actually care what anyone else thinks about this.

The Whedon/Ruffalo Banner is different from the second he appears on screen. He's obviously not learned to empty himself, as Norton's was trying to do; he's working in a desperate-looking slum, providing medical care for some very desperate-looking people. Whatever he's doing is apparently keeping the Hulk in check well enough that he feels safe living in a populated area -- otherwise Natasha would have had to go retrieve him from rural Siberia or wherever the hell he was. People keep asking him what the he's doing in India and spitballing stuff like yoga (or, in Tony's case, drugs) as the reason, and he ignores or denies it. It becomes apparent, when he finally gets involved in the group argument, that while yes he was sort of hiding there, he was hiding there because it was a place where he felt he was helping people. This one isn't frustrated because he can't quit caring; this one is frustrated because he cares quite a lot, but doesn't dare do anything about it. Even if it's a thing he feels he'd be morally justified in opposing with violence, he's afraid that if he goes to smash anything, he'll end up smashing everything within reach.

(Personally, I rather like the second one. A Banner who is still interested in connecting with humanity is a much better fit in a team movie, among other things. And I still think it's hilarious that he ended up connecting with Tony Stark. As much of an ass as Stark is normally, he's also the only person on that carrier who treats Banner like a person rather than a poorly-stored box of dynamite, and probably the only person there who is anywhere near smart enough for Banner to find worth talking to. In the comics, at least, they shared a lot of weird early-life experiences; they were both the children of other horrendously smart people, treated like prodigies, and were pretty emotionally neglected in a lot of ways. Stark is much more extroverted and yanks other people around as a hobby, but in the Avengers movie you get the sense that he thinks Banner is His People and treats him accordingly. Not many people do; kids that smart are often Nobody's People, and the Hulk thing makes it much, much worse.)

Dr. Banner's characterization in the comics varies wildly. Whether he's a giant bucket of post-abuse angst or the tortured sufferer of Disassociative Identity Disorder or both depends entirely on the writer, the artist, the tie-ins, the crossovers, the price of tea in China, the phase of the moon, etc. Two things that are pretty well constant are that he's a bona fide genius, and almost painfully introverted. The first is blatant; he's introduced as a nuclear physicist, but pretty much he just does whatever SCIENCE! the plot calls for at any given moment. The second is not always obvious. He's got a great deal of confidence in his intellectual abilities, which gives him a certain air of authority when dealing with the aforementioned SCIENCE!, and at times he can have a surprisingly big mouth. Unlike, say, Peter Parker -- who's actually pretty personable and might have been a popular kid if not for also being blindingly nerdy -- Banner's sarcasm doesn't pop out so much because he thinks it's funny and he has no filter, as it does because he would like to express the desire to be basically anywhere other than where he is at the moment, and he can do most of it sotto voce. (The Whedon/Ruffalo version does it all through the movie -- e.g., "Oh, that's a much better idea," when he realized that someone involved had proposed penning him up in a pressurized metal fuselage 30,000 feet above the ground with a bunch of potentially very stupid people as if it were a good plan. It was not much evident in the Norton film, although this was partly because that one had a psychological-thriller tone that would have been ruined by too many dashes of humor.)

Banner is not socially unaware, but he's really terrible with emotions. Even before the big green complication entered his life, he would go way the hell out of his way to avoid ever having to deal with them. If there was no way to get out of a confrontation, he would simply shut down and refuse to discuss it. He has also always been the exact polar opposite of good at dealing with stupidity, which is a bit of a problem, as compared to him almost everyone on Earth is kind of an idiot. He can have a certain soft-spoken, nervous kind of charm, when he's with someone he genuinely likes, but mostly, unless he's holding forth on something scientific, he just doesn't say a whole lot. IIRC, his internal monologue is usually kind of pointy and jesus-how-has-my-species-survived-this-long.

The level of intelligence and awareness the Hulk displays swings back and forth about as often as Banner's personality changes. Fanwank has it that it depends roughly on how mad the Hulk gets and how voluntary the transformation was. The sheer frustration of failure when he tries to hold it off and can't apparently makes everything that follows a lot worse. Whether he remembers much of anything while acting as the Hulk is also inconsistent; recent stories seem to have settled on the idea that no matter what Banner thinks, the transformation trigger is much more psychological than physiological, and the various incarnations of the Hulk are pretty much alternate personalities of his. Likely the memories are in there, but normally inaccessible to Banner. Banner has never been especially fond of the indiscriminate smashy-smashy part, but once in a blue moon he admits that there is a kind of satisfaction in barreling at something incontrovertibly evil and breaking the fuck out of it with his bare hands.

Being rather dedicatedly introverted and avoidant, however, Banner is emphatically not happy about the idea that his enormous green rage is on display for all to see. It's rather embarrassing. He also tends to cringe when he surveys the damage, although generally, it could be worse. Canonically, even the stupid childlike Hulk distinguishes friend from foe, and consistently intercedes to protect people who are important to Banner. (They do follow this in the movies; the Norton Hulk is very gentle with Betty and gets very agitated when she's threatened, and in the Avengers movie he jumps to action when everyone realizes Iron Man isn't awake to break his own fall. This last is significant, I think, as Thor was actually winding up to go catch him when SUDDEN HULK OUT OF NOWHERE made the point moot. Banner has decided to tolerate the others, but Stark so far is his only real friend on the team, and Hulk has now made that kind of awkwardly obvious.) The audience has a much better grasp on this than Banner does. Since he typically doesn't recall what the Hulk did, all of the actions that demonstrate to us that he's not a completely mindless monster are invisible to him when he's Bruce Banner, lying awake at night and contemplating all the very large things he's knocked down over the years.

One interesting point is something that nobody ever seems to bring up with Banner, which is that the Hulk generally doesn't pick fights. The smashy-smashy is usually a reaction to things going haywire around him. The Hulk can and will demolish anything between him and an exit, but ultimately what he wants is to get away from the proverbial villagers with torches and pitchforks and get to someplace quiet, so he can calm down, whereupon Banner wakes back up and goes on the usual quest for another goddamn shirt. There have been exceptions, but pretty much the way you get the Hulk to throw the first punch is to convince Banner that it's absolutely necessary, and let him get himself all worked up over it.