His name is Bruce and he’s a Hulkaholic.
If we were going to label any of the characters in the movie The Avengers as candidates for addiction, most people would pick Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Iron Man's alter ego Tony Stark is the Marvel super-hero most associated with alcoholism from the comic book story 'Demon in a Bottle.' But Marc Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk that is the closest thing to a man battling with addictions we see on screen .
And in The Avengers—unlike most film and TV versions of the Hulk--Banner is winning.
Most TV and film versions of the Hulk story show Banner white-knuckling his way through life. He fears the Hulk. He is ashamed of being the Hulk. Like Johnny Blaze does with the Ghost Rider, Banner is constantly struggling to control, repress, or eliminate his alter-ego.
Banner's solution? Since the Hulk emerges in response to anger, he’ll simply stop becoming angry.
Most times, it doesn’t work so well.
One of the characteristics of an addict is the inability or unwillingness to face certain feelings. It’s not anger that brings out the Hulk. It’s the attempt to suppress that anger.
Banner is ashamed of his anger. He feels guilty for the destruction it causes. He wants it to never happen again.
“You won’t like me when I’m angry,” is the classic line from the original show. But a more accurate version would be Banner saying, “I don’t like me when I’m angry.”
The Hulk is Banner’s way of avoiding the consequences of his own rage: I didn’t do it. The Hulk did it.
Bruce Banner will do anything to avoid his own anger. He runs. He hides. At one point in the Avengers, he alludes to a suicide attempt. He is afraid of the Hulk’s potential for destruction and he feels guilt and shame for the Hulk’s uncontrollability.
All of these are normal feelings for addicts. Unfortunately, they are often also the feelings an addict is most trying to avoid. The result is a cycle of self-destruction as the thing the addict uses to cope with unwanted feelings are the very things causing those unwanted feelings in the first place.
The alcoholic is ashamed of being an alcoholic. He drinks to get away from the shame. The more he drinks, the more shame he feels. The more shame he feels, the more he drinks.
To paraphrase Homer Simpson, alcohol becomes the cause and the solution to the alcoholic’s problems.
Alcohol is not the only addiction out there, though. There are drugs. Gambling. Shopping. Sex. The internet…any process or substance can turn into an addiction. Because the addiction is never about the addictive substance or behaviour.
It’s about the addict. Or more specifically, the addict’s relationship with the addiction. An addiction can be anything from crystal meth to ultrarunning. Any process, any substance, any behaviour over which we have no control can be an addiction.
Banner has no control over the Hulk. The Hulk is unmanageable. And so is Bruce Banner’s life.
At least it was.
Yet somewhere along the way, he starts to understand. At some point between the events of the Incredible Hulk and the Avengers, Banner has changed. Not only does he no longer look like Edward Norton (or even Eric Bana), he has made an uneasy peace with his resentment.
Like many recovering addicts, Banner is still a work in progress. He still hasn’t completely come to terms with the Hulk as a part of himself, referring to his Hulk-self as ‘The Other Guy.’
He is also prone to slips. Midway through the movie, a stressed out Banner transforms into the Hulk, chases a Russian spy around a flying battleship and gets into a fistfight with a Norse God. That sort of misadventure is all well and good in college, but for a respectable grown-up scientist who is one of the greatest scientific minds of his time in the fields of biology, chemistry, engineering, physiology, and nuclear physics…a little immature. He’s supposed to be setting an example.A slip is a dangerous time for a recovering addict. During the beginnings of recovery an addict might feel invincible, like he’s got this thing licked. Being reawakened by a slip can bring all those thoughts back again. The feelings come back.
The fear returns. The shame comes a-knockin’.
This is where the recovering addict needs to make a choice.
One way to get rid of that shame and fear is to go back to the old addictive behavior. The slip is proof that they can’t do it. They are worthless, powerless to beat this thing so they might as well give in to it and go back to their old ways. The pain will come back no matter what they do, so perhaps its best to just numb it the best way they know how.There is also another way.
That way is to go through the pain, to experience the feelings completely and come out the other side. To do that the addict must trust. He needs to trust that he can handle this setback and survive, that he has become stronger, that this is a slip, not a fall.What’s the difference between a slip and a full-blown withdrawal?
In the case of Bruce Banner, the realization comes when a security guard played by Harry Dean Stanton remarks on the way Hulk made sure not to kill or injure anyone when he fell from the HeliCarrier. Banner realizes that things could have been a lot worse.More than that, he is starting to learn that Hulk is part of his him and may even share his values. Instead of being a mindless slave to his anger, it might be possible to direct it and use it effectively.
“I’m angry all the time,” Banner says later, and in that moment, he has made peace with his resentment. Acknowledging his anger does not make him more out of control. Instead, it gives him the ability to accept and remain calm. It allows him to channel the Hulk into the pursuit of something bigger than himself.
He doesn’t need to be afraid of the Hulk anymore. The Hulk is part of who he is. He always has been.In twelve step programs, the addict’s first job is to admit that he or she is an addict. It seems strange to ask someone to admit to being the thing they want to be free of, but maybe that’s the strange paradox. Only by embracing what we are can we ever hope to let go of it.