I have an Army/We have a Hulk : Thinking Politics in The Avengers

Curator's Note

Disclaimer: I like the Hulk.

I think my affinity stems from viewing him as a monster rather than a hero. As an ambiguous anti-hero, the Hulk embodies a horror that disrupts one’s sense of things, and I get the sense that he never seems to be in control of his extraordinary power, which is tied to his immense rage. This double articulation is useful for thinking the conditions of possibility for politics in our historical moment, specifically as bodies subject to the machinations of Late Capitalism, which Jameson conceives of “catastrophe and progress all together.” Might the Hulk be a hero precisely because he is a monster?

In The Avengers, tensions between “Earth’s mightiest heroes” are as integral to the workings of the film as the CGI-driven fight scenes, and one of the key, if not crucial, questions of the film centers on the mutative horror of the Hulk. Will he be a member of the team or is he beyond reproach? When asked by Captain America to get angry so that he can Hulk-out, Dr. Banner confesses, "That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry." If he is always angry, what is it that brings about his mutation? Articulating the monsterous heroism necessitated in today’s world, Dr. Banner voices a politics that reframes the paradoxical logic of Late Capitalism. His mutative capacity ruptures the catastrophe/progress binary. In what ways, then, are the very conditions of possibility for politics yoked to presencing a mutative capacity? Is there an inherent horror to politics?

Reframing the political, Rancière distinguishes between politics and policing, which is to say radical redistributions of sense (i.e. politics) versus the normative dimensions of politics-proper (i.e. policing). For Rancière, politics lies in moments that call the very logic and sense of our age into question. Thus, there is a certain mutative horror to politics—one that collapses the paradoxical logic of our historical moment. This Rancièrian dynamic arises in an exchange between Iron Man and Loki, the film’s antagonist.

After Iron Man coolly outlines the sides, Loki brazenly retorts, "I have an army" to which Tony replies, "We have a Hulk!" This riposte encapsulates Rancière’s politics/policing distinction, and as it is the Hulk who eventually (and brutally) dispatches the petulant Loki, the ambiguous anti-hero embodies a radically mutative politics—one that transverses the paradoxical logic of our age through the horror of his monstrous heroism. In other words, Hulk smash! 

 

Comments

Tanine Allison's picture

American soldiers as "Hulks"?

I am compelled by your concepts of "radically mutative politics" and the simulataneously progressive and catastrophic qualities of politics today. I wonder how this plays out, though, against the background of American foreign policy and the "war on terrorism." I haven’t yet seen The Avengers, but there seem to be some obvious parallels between Iron Man, for instance, and the military-industrial-entertainment complex currently operating in our society. This can be seen negatively (depicting the Stark corporation as greedy and mercenary arms dealers), but also positively as Iron Man utilizes the state of the art of military technology to be an "Army of One." I had not thought of the Hulk in the same terms, but the way he is utilized in this clip, as equivalent to an army, with "anger management issues" seems equally relevant, though potentially less recuperable with a traditional discourse of heroism and the professional discipline of soldiers. More than anything, it reminds me of the March shooting spree of the American soldier in Afghanistan, who was described in one account as coming "under an intense and blind fury that led him to indiscriminately kill after suffering a traumatic brain injury." In The Avengers, it would seem that fury can be recouped and used for the good of the team (or at least that’s what they’re hoping—perhaps this is challenged in the film). And even this clip places emphasis on revenge ("If we can’t protect the earth, you can be damn well sure we’ll avenge it"). This not only seems like a shift from earlier military representations that try to downplay individual anger in favor of professionalism and discipline (as in WWII films, for instance), but it also seems dangerous considering some of the real-world consequences of "uncontrollable rage" on the part of American soldiers.

 

Drew Ayers's picture

Tony and Bruce

I found one of the most compelling relationships in The Avengers to be that between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. Both are brilliant scientists, and both are in possession of a powerful weapon. And, to a certain extent, both Tony and Bruce don’t have complete control over their weapon: Tony’s ego often gets in the way (his drunken destruction in Iron Man 2), and Bruce, obviously, has anger management issues. All this is to say that both characters, as Tanine indicates, embody the kind of "shock and awe" and "surge" approaches of contemporary military action. Stark and Banner are devastating, relatively precise, weapons of mass destruction. More broadly, the Avengers team embodies the kind of "state of exception" logic articulated by Giorgio Agamben. These are individuals who have been given broad authority to supercede previous restrictions of the law, and they can act with little or no fear of legal reprisal. The "Avengers Initiative" is, in a sense, a means to establish a permanent state of exception in a world that has been changed by the presence of superheroes. We simply have to trust that S.H.I.E.L.D. and its heroes/monsters have our collective best interests in mind.

john a. sweeney's picture

Exception as Emergency

Excellent comments! Thank you both for the thoughtful responses. I think you both nailed the issues I find relevant in the film and in superhero cinema in general. The framing of soliders as "heroes" is something that interests me greatly, and I think the proliferation of violent outbursts, including the massacre of civilians, speaks to the type of rage that is indicative of the Hulk (i.e. contemprary media). I do, however, think that the ambiguity of the Hulk as a monster is precisely what soldiers lack, especially as they are deployed in the service of the state. The Hulk, in Deleuzian terms, is a nomad and only seems to serve statist interests when it suits him, which in the film is in the face of global annihilation. Ironically, SHIELD comes off as an authoritarian organization that is perhaps a greater threat to global well-being, even though Nick Fury breaks protocol to save NYC. There are significant parallels between Iron Man and the Hulk, as your elucidate Drew, and if we see the Hulk as an accidental creation of the military-industrial-complex (gamma radiation is what created him), then I think we can see how they both point toward an ambivalence towards statist agendas. Agamben’s state of exception is always a state of emergency, which is to say a seemingly interminable moment of suspension of the rule of law. I take this to be a spatio-temporal extension of horror, an Orwellian state of affairs not unlike our post-9/11 world. As for the Hulk, I think it is precisely his uncontrollability that speaks to the potential for a radical politics, not unlike Occupy in many ways. The horror of people taking to the streets and mobilizing has created a sharp divide between ideologues, and in many ways, I see Captain America’s order to the Hulk to "smash" as analagous to the type of embodied politics that Occupy promotes, which is not meant as a support for violence but rather an affirmation that extreme measures, even those with seemingly chaotic outcomes, are needed for politics to occur. Hence, progress is always-already accompanied by catastrophe.

 

Michael E. Muhme's picture

Evolving Anger Issues

Fascinating discussion; especially concerning the relationship between the individual (in this case expectional individual) and the State Apparatus. I think The Hulk’s new representation in The Avengers is especially important and closely tied to recent changes in our media (24 hour news cycle / tabloid style entertainment -polarizing journalism) and political movements (both Tea Party and Occupy).

Notice the dialogue about Hulk’s anger from the TV show, 2008 film with Norton, and the Avengers (which has been mentioned).

Bruce Banner 1978: “Don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” (Famous quote)

Bruce Banner 2008: “Stop. Please. Me… angry… very bad.” (Actually said in Portuguese but subtitled)

Bruce Banner 2012: “That’s the secret, Cap. I’m angry all the time.”

The Hulk moves from being a thing that the State must be wary of (do not awaken the anger of the populace) to a thing the State recognizes as always angry and useful in the right circumstances … “tell him to suit up” Ironman says when Banner arrives on the scene and, as you point out, Cap tells Hulk to “smash” … the fear of Hulk (the once uncontrollable anger of the populace) is gone and replaced by a co-opting of The Hulk’s anger for the State’s purpose.

Feedback

No one has reviewed this post… but you need to login to submit feedback