With the Infinity War storyline wrapping up, it might be useful to take a fresh look at a pre-MCU Marvel Film, the 2003 Hulk. 2003 saw the release of both Eric Bana’s Hulk and Disney / Pixar’s Finding Nemo, which was the children’s movie of the summer that year. What’s the difference between this Marvel film and a Pixar animation for children? A quick plot recap might be in order.
In Hulk, an ordinary, happily married couple, just beginning to rear children, meets with tragedy as the mother dies a violent death, leaving both father and son emotionally scarred. Father and son suffer further emotional wounds as they are forced apart. The bulk of the film represents this family’s emotional and physical damage caused by the loss of the mother. The son, in addition to his emotional disability, also has a unique physical abnormality which causes him to turn into a large, green, unthinking, and virtually indestructible monster. Only the restoration of the female—in this case Betty Ross, played by Jennifer Connelly—can calm the Hulk’s rage and, presumably, bring emotional healing as well.
On the other hand, in Finding Nemo an ordinary, happily married clownfish couple, just beginning to rear children, meets with tragedy as the mother dies a violent death, leaving both father and son emotionally scarred. Father and son suffer further emotional wounds as they are forced apart. The bulk of the film represents this family’s emotional and physical damage caused by the loss of the mother. The son, in addition to his emotional disability, has a physical abnormality too. In Nemo’s case, it’s a malformed fin. Only the restoration of the female—in this case Dory the bluefish—can bring father and son together and, presumably, bring emotional healing as well.
It looks like little-finned Nemo is a small orange version of the big, bad, green Hulk. Both characters’ physical abnormalities are analogs for an emotional problem. The Hulk is the projected rage, not of Bruce Banner, but of Bruce’s father David Banner. Since the father’s failure and anger is expressed through the son, Hulk expresses more than just adolescent fantasies of rage in the face of powerlessness. It expresses something more, something external and inherited. Nemo also struggles with powerlessness, but his is also the projected powerlessness of a father unable to save his wife and children from a barracuda. Nemo, like the Hulk, escapes his father’s projected identity by escaping his father.
So what’s up with these fathers? Both fathers were willing to sacrifice their children for the sake of the mother; not so much to save her, but to keep her for themselves. Nemo’s mother died fighting to protect her eggs from a barracuda, while his father was willing to sacrifice them, wanting the mother to hide with him in the shelter of their anemone. When Bruce’s father realized he wouldn’t be able to cure Bruce of his genetic anomaly, he decided to end Bruce’s life, accidentally killing his wife as she tried to protect her son.
The father / son relationships in both movies thus revolve around a cycle of loss, resentment, and rage. Both fathers’ guilt, fears, and emptiness are the driving force of these films. The father wants to preserve and protect his source of pleasure, the mother, and is willing to sacrifice his children to do so. Both mothers, on the contrary, desire to keep their children safe at any cost. Since these plots could be understood in terms of a standard Freudian family drama, these films might be a kind of analysis of the family in America, but they point toward issues bigger than just mental pathologies.
The 2003 Hulk is, ultimately, the result of a government project gone bad. His two chief nemeses are an Army general and a military contractor, the first seeking to contain him and the second to market him. Banner is intimately connected to each of them: the General is his girlfriend’s father, the contractor her ex-boyfriend. Government arm in arm with capitalism is therefore Banner’s real rival and the real threat to his happiness, the barrier between him and the healing available to him by the restoration of the woman. Nemo is similarly a victim of market exchange, stuck in an aquarium and intended to be a gift for the dentist’s niece; like the Hulk, he’s reduced to a medium of exchange.
So rather than seeing these films as just representations of the Freudian family drama, they are also commentaries on the interrelationships between American politics and capitalism as external forces bearing down upon its subjects, a representation of the effect of a capitalist empire on a populace growing ever fearful of its power. Both children are sacrificed to market forces, while both fathers serve as a trope for organized authority in America, the Hulk sacrificed to America’s military industrial complex and Nemo simply to the free market. As a political / capitalist complex grows more powerful, the governed feel more and more powerless, even to the point of imaginatively projecting their powerlessness as an abnormality or a disability. In this situation, rage and escape become our dominant emotional tenors.
The “Finding Hulko” films, then, are the revenge of disabled children on their fearful parents, their green and orange skins secondary colors to the flag’s primary colors of red, (white), and blue. Hulk offers the slimmest pretext of a resolution as David Banner finds a “happy thought” about his father. Maybe with just a little pixie dust he could fly! Finding Nemo seems to offer a more tenable solution. The father, it seems, just needs to grow a sense of humor and get a life of his own.
 This article is a revised and updated version of one originally published on Metaphilm in June 2003. The Hulk / Nemo mashup image courtesy of Metaphilm.
 For a more extensive discussion of gender in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, see James Rovira’s essay “Silly Love Songs and Gender in Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron,” by invitation for the edited anthology Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural and Geopolitical Domains, ed. Julian Chambliss, Bill Svitavsky, and Daniel Fandino. McFarland & Company, Inc., March 2018.