PsycCRITIQUES - Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books

October 8, 2008, Vol. 53, 41,


Who, Me, Angry?


A review of the film

(cover image)

The Incredible Hulk
Louis Leterrier (Director)

Reviewed by

Thomas Scheff

The Incredible Hulk is yet another of a long line of “action” stories. The basic plot seems endlessly intriguing to a large public, especially young males. The hero, not surprisingly, is most often also a male. In the standard action plot, he does not have superhuman powers but is a fantastically strong fighter against evil. Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, Charles Bronson, and their ilk play action heroes exclusively. Actors capable of expressing more emotions than just one (anger), such as Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson, also occasionally star in action films.

The film reviewed here involves a variant from the basic action plot in that the hero, just an ordinary guy, obtains extraordinary powers. The Hulk, in this film and in its earlier comic book, TV, and film versions, obtains size and strength to the point of virtual indestructibility. The lengthy backstory, concerning scientific razzle-dazzle that leads to each transformation, is of little interest. Suffice it to say that in this film the Hulk is tall (perhaps 15 feet) and green to the point that he can be portrayed only by animation.

Of more interest are the occasions for the transformation from human to Hulk. The hero tries to control his level of emotional arousal, especially his anger, because he knows that if it exceeds a certain limit, he will change into the Hulk. I noticed only one touch of humor in the film, and it can be easily missed. The hero is played by Edward Norton, who is somewhat smaller than the average male. When bad guys are picking on him, they show little concern for his declarations that they should not get him angry.

Although there is a love interest (Liv Tyler), most of the film involves violent and extremely noisy combat. The longest scene is near the end, a fight between two hulks, the hero and his antithesis, an equally large monster created from a bad guy. Nonstop war between these monsters destroys vehicles (including large tanks and planes), innocent strollers, and the street and nearby buildings. It is bearbaiting or cockfighting writ large. But, what the hell, it’s all just good clean fun.

Or is it? What is the attraction that this witless wonder holds for its vast public? Perhaps it hinges upon the displays of anger and aggression. Not all action films mention anger the way this one does, but they all seem to have it as a subtext. Evil is portrayed as so immoral that the hero is entitled not only to destroy it, but also to become angry.

Perhaps the attraction has to do with the particular way in which our society is confused about anger. On the one hand, we are enjoined not only not to hate our neighbors but to love them. Thou shalt not kill human beings, especially in anger. Angry aggression is a sin and a shame.

On the other hand, there is also another kind of instruction, especially for males. They should be tough and masculine, which means holding back all emotion except anger. Men are taught that expressing fear, grief, and shame are signs of weakness. Even expressions of love are often seen this way, especially by male children. In the film Big (Marshall, 1988), Tom Hanks portrays a man magically transformed from a 10-year-old into an adult body. In one scene he expresses his affection for the female costar, Elizabeth Perkins, by giving her a shove. Masculine males are not touchy-feely sissies.

The emotion of anger, however, is accepted, since it is taken to be a sign of manliness, of readiness to fight. This practice provides a loophole for anger aggression. Instead of being ashamed of anger, one can be proud of it, provided that the anger is used toward a good end. Action films provide a fantasy that allows temporary escape from a basic contradiction.

Are these fantasy escapes good for the viewer and for our society? I think not. Social psychological experiments have shown many times that the viewing of angry aggression does not provide a catharsis for anger. If anything, it increases it. Is there a better recourse for dealing with this contradiction?

One direction would be to bring humor into play, perhaps by making the hero funnier or less heroic. A current example of the former is the wittiness of the hero of the film Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) and of the latter, the film Hancock (Berg, 2008), in which the superhero is a careless drunk.

A bigger change of direction would be heroic stories, as in the examples below, of those who have skills that are more socially useful than are strength and agility. These attributes have had survival value for most of human history, but the value has begun to fall away in recent years.

Until recently, threats to survival at the level of large groups and societies were highly visible, since they came only from other large groups or societies. But because of modern technology, threats can now come from groups so small as to be virtually invisible. Nukes and even tiny amounts of highly toxic substances can destroy a large city. The time may come in which a small group might be able to kill most living things on earth.

There is another problem with valorizing strength. Unfortunately for the side that wins by force, the loss is usually at least irritating to the other side and sometimes humiliating. Although irritation can be forgotten, it is not easy to forget a humiliation. It often gives rise to thoughts, feelings, and ultimately, actions of revenge. In this way, humiliation leads to revenge, which leads to humiliation of the victim, and around and around. Conflict, even warfare, can be passed on in this way from generation to generation (Scheff, 1995).

The brevity of this review precludes further discussion of various paths toward decreasing the risk of humiliating others (Fuller, 2006). Here I will refer to two film examples, one earlier, the other, recent. In the earlier film, Erin Brockovich (Soderbergh, 2000), the heroine uses her intelligence and courage to expose corporate crime. In the recent film, The Great Debaters (Washington, 2007), the college heroes are not athletes but students on a debating team. Perhaps if intelligence and debating skill came to be valued as much as boxing and football, modern societies might have a better chance of survival.


·         Berg, P. (2008). Hancock [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.

·         Favreau, J. (2008). Iron man [Motion picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures.

·         Fuller, R. W. (2006). All rise: The politics of dignity. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

·         Marshall, P. (1988). Big [Motion picture]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

·         Scheff, T. (1995). Bloody revenge: Emotions, nationalism, and war. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

·         Soderbergh, S. (2000). Erin Brockovich [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

·         Washington, D. (2007). The great debaters [Motion picture]. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

© 2008, American Psychological Association