When comic fans and writers talk about a character’s “status quo” they don’t just mean the existing state of affairs in that character’s book. The Status Quo is sort of like the Platonic Ideal of a comic character, the version of the character that everyone thinks of when they hear the character’s name. For example, Spider-man’s status quo is:
- Spider-man is mild-mannered Peter Parker, who gained incredible spider powers when he was bitten by a radioactive spider during a science presentation.
- He wears a red and blue spider-suit.
- He lives in Queens with his elderly Aunt May.
- His love interest is Mary Jane Watson.
- He works as a freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle, where his boss is J. Jonah Jameson.
- His life is a never ending parade of misery.
Now, you could pick up any comic featuring Spider-man since 1962 and the odds are good that at least one of those bullet points is not true for the book you’re currently reading (except the last one. That never changes). Spider-man might be dating Gwen Stacy. He might be working as a science teacher. He might not be Peter Parker at all, but instead Ben Reilly or Miles Morales or Otto Octavius or Miguel O’Hara. Aunt May might be dead again. But still, that’s the default version of the character. Whenever the comic goes off the rails, chances are they’ll return Spider-man to his roots and have him back at the Daily Bugle, back with Mary Jane, living with Aunt May. Sooner or later, he will return to status quo like he’s attached to it with a bungee cord.
The Hulk, who debuted a few months prior to Spider-man in 1962 also has a default version; When he gets angry, scientist Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk, a massive rampaging green giant with the mental capacity of a three year old who destroys everything in his path. He is a man of few words, and those words are “Hulk” and “Smash”.
This is the version of the character that everyone is familiar with, and to comic fans he’s known as “Savage Hulk”. What’s interesting about the Hulk is that I can think of very few superheroes who spend less time “at status quo” than the Hulk. And the reason for that is, there’s not really that much you can do with Savage Hulk. Savage Hulk is less a character than an event that other characters react to. He’s like Godzilla. What kind of story can you do with Godzilla? What journey can he go on? Is he going to adopt an orphaned child and raise him as his ward? No. He’s going to stomp on buildings and go “SKRONK!”. Is he going to discover a shocking secret about his past that throws everything he though he knew about himself into doubt? No. He’s going to stomp on buildings and go “SKRONK!”. Is he going to serve as an allegory for the horrors of nuclear war? Yes. While he stomps on buildings and goes “SKRONK!”
That’s basically Hulk’s problem (just swap out “SKRONK” for “HULK SMASH”) and probably why the character often had trouble maintaining a series of his own while still being a very popular guest character in the books of other superheroes. Writers have gotten around this by staying as far away from the Savage Hulk status quo as they can. Often the Hulk will be made more intelligent, or a different side of Banner’s personality will emerge as a new Hulk. Or Banner and the Hulk will merge personalities. Or they’ll swap personalities. Or the writers will huff paint and do something really stupid.
Despite that, Savage Hulk retains a near total grip on the general public’s perception of the character, especially since all the non-comic depictions of the (the seventies TV Show, the two cartoon series and both movies) have been pure Savage Hulk. And the reason for that is that Savage Hulk, despite the limitations he brings from a story-telling point of view, is a fanastic concept because he is so universal. Everyone can relate to the Hulk. When we see Bruce Banner finally lose his temper and transform into a huge, rampaging monster it’s cathartic as all hell because on some level we all wish we could do that.
Following the success of Iron Man it was time for the difficult second album and Hulk seemed an obvious candidate for the studio’s sophomore effort. He was, without question, the highest profile character in Marvel’s stable that they owned the movie rights to, thanks to the success of the Bill Bixby series. But there was a problem, looming over the production like a big hulking…hulk.
In a way, it would have been easier if Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk: A Mediation on Moss has been an out and out flop. That way Marvel could have simply said “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it! The grownups are in charge now!” and completely ignore it other than to work a few sarcastic swipes at it into to the script. But here’s the thing, Lee’s Hulk might not have been popular with comic fans but it actually did fairly decently at the box office and got not a little critical love. Personally, I appreciate what Lee was going for and think that there are some beautiful moments and really good performances but yeah, the movie is kind of a snooze fest. It has its fans though, putting Marvel in a bit of a tricky position. Should they embrace Lee’s Hulk and make their version a straight up sequel, or start again with a new origin story that firmly established their Hulk as a new, separate beast? In the end, they did neither.