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Shrink wrapped

Gamma rays got you down? The doctor will see you now.    
By DR. ROBIN S. ROSENBERG  |  July 9, 2008

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Our superheroes, ourselves: What the current crop of comic-book action movies tells us about America's identity crisis. By James Parker.

Strangely allured by the methods of Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg, we invited her to wave her diagnostic wand over two of our surlier superheroes. Here she reviews Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) and Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy (2004).

The Hulk: making a diagnosis
Bruce Banner/the Hulk clearly has a medical problem — the effects that massive gamma radiation had on his DNA (according to the Ang Lee film version). And he, as the Hulk, has an anger-management problem. But does he have a diagnosable psychological problem? The first step in answering this question is posing another question: which individual — Banner or the Hulk — is the “he”? Do the Hulk and Banner represent two distinct personality states? Could Banner have dissociative-identity disorder (DID, which was previously called multiple-personality disorder)?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition — the diagnostic Bible of mental-health professionals — DID involves two distinct identities or personality states. Each identity or state has its own ways of thinking about things and relating to others and oneself. Does this apply to Banner/the Hulk? Yes: the Hulk has a really different way of being in the world than does Banner. Another necessary criterion for DID is that the identities alternate taking control of the person’s behavior. True of Banner/Hulk? Yes, again! The Hulk only emerges when Banner gets very angry; once the anger dissipates, the Hulk disappears.

The third criterion is gaps in memory for important personal information. True of Banner/Hulk? Yes — at least some of the time, Banner didn’t remember what happened when he was the Hulk.

There’s a final criterion: the symptoms aren’t caused by substance abuse or a medical condition. This is the crux of the diagnostic question. In the Ang Lee story, in addition to the irradiation from gamma rays, Banner has experienced a traumatic childhood event — he witnesses his father accidentally killing his mother when she tries to prevent him from killing their boy. If the Hulk came into existence from that incident, and not gamma radiation, then DID would be an appropriate diagnosis.

Hellboy: on being a freak
Hellboy is a freak: he’s a red demon, and he’s got horns and a tail. People who don’t know him are, understandably, frightened both by his appearance and what it represents. That’s how human beings are: we categorize each individual as an “us” or a “them.” Hellboy — because of his appearance — would definitely be considered a “them.” He’s clearly aware that he’s a “them,” but sometimes seems to want to be an “us.” On the one hand, he files down his horns so they’re less obvious. On the other hand, he hasn’t had cosmetic surgery to remove his tail.

Hellboy grew up and lives in the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, as does Abe Sapien, a fish-like being with psychic powers. A pyrotechnically inclined human, Liz, also lives there some of the time — when she’s not in a mental hospital. These three folks are considered to be “them,” even by the head of the Bureau, who says to a regular human on staff, “These freaks, they give me the creeps.” These three also know that they’re not fully accepted by society or most other people. As Sapien comments, “If there’s trouble, all us freaks have is each other.” The three freaks have become their own “us.”

Hellboy himself recognizes that he’s conditionally accepted by society as long as he works to protect its citizens. This switch in categorization happens to the viewer over the course of the Hellboy movie. In the beginning, you notice his outward differentness — he’s a “them.” But halfway through the movie, you realize that he’s just a decent guy trying to save the planet from evil — suddenly he becomes an “us”!

As told to James Parker

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  Topics: Features , Bruce Banner , Ang Lee , Robin Rosenberg ,  More more >
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