Something's been bothering me for a while. The Incredible Hulk is one of the more inventive and popular figures of superhero comics. An unassuming scientist gets caught in an accident indicative of the rapid progress (and naïveté) of the Atomic Age, and now whenever he gets agitated, he changes into an enormous, muscular green creature, similar to a human in manner and appearance, but far exceeding humanity in every aspect. He can lift mountains, leap extraordinary distances, and withstand assault from almost every weapon imaginable. He's an uncontrollable, unstoppable beast, roaring through the world leaving destruction and chaos wherever he goes. And when the monster retreats, the scientist is caught in the middle of it all. This creates a stark contrast with the character: just beneath the skin of this small, intelligent man is a force of such unfathomable strength and chaos. Contested by many, controllable by none, the scientist (and the monster, often) can never be left alone.
Over the character's 60-year history, several details have arisen about him. The Hulk is apparently a split personality of Dr. Bruce Banner, the unassuming scientist, resulting from childhood trauma about his father killing his mother. This personality has been allowed to attain physical form through the gamma exposure, and is muscular and invulnerable because of a desire to stop people like his father. As such, the Hulk acts as a separate personality, often regarding Banner as a nuisance, and one of the few things that actively stand in his way. Various experiments, mishaps and traumas have resulted in different manifestations of the Hulk that all behave differently, and now he seems to also exist as a form of self-preservation. Despairing of ever getting rid of it, Banner instead would rather kill himself, but he tends to become the Hulk during his attempts, and as such becomes immune to it. I could think of several creative and highly effective ways to off myself without giving the Hulk a chance to screw it up, but whatever, maybe Banner just isn't really into it.
Anyway, with all this in mind, a couple details about the Hulk's origin bugs me. The "accident" I'm referring to is that Banner becomes exposed to gamma radiation as a result of a nuclear bomb test. Somehow, this results in him becoming the Incredible Hulk. Various details have been shuffled around relating to how and why he transforms (he used to transform at sunset, but now does it whenever he's angry, and for a handful of other reasons), but it's largely assumed the gamma radiation caused the Hulk's existence.
Now, I don't know much about gamma rays, other than they're a high frequency wave on the light spectrum, just above the more familiar X-rays. They're caused by sudden large-scale nuclear reactions, like atomic bombs, the behaviour of distant stars and black holes, and even lightning storms. There's nothing especially extraordinary about them, but for some reason, they've been able to take an ordinary person, allow his entire cellular structure to become inhumanly large and durable, and extract a separate personality to control this new body.
So, if we break it down: Gamma radiation + Scientist + Split personality = Giant, invincible green monster. I get the feeling we're missing a step here. This would be like if you turned into a monster if you went into the hospital for X-rays and the machine was set to an overly high power level.
Some have argued that it's a feature of gamma radiation to plumb your deepest desires and manifest them physically (when they don't go for that old chestnut "Shut up, it's a comic"), but there's still a few other gaps. One of the Hulk's frequent conflicts is that the military is attempting to capture him, apparently because they've been unable to repeat this reaction with another subject, one that they could potentially control, and want to extract the Hulk's genetic material to develop new, Hulk-like soldiers. This was a frequent plot in several of the earlier comics and the movies, but this fell apart pretty quickly.
For instance, there are other "Hulk" characters, like She-Hulk and Doc Samson. She-Hulk was Jennifer Walters, an unassuming lawyer, who got a blood transfusion from Bruce Banner and thus turned into the She-Hulk. She was Bruce's biological cousin, so maybe they just had similar DNA, but She-Hulk doesn't have any of the drawbacks the Hulk does. She doesn't have a split personality that makes her fly into a rage, she can change back whenever she wants (though she never does that anymore because, really, why bother?), and she doesn't even have a hulking, muscular body (because what comic fan wants to see that?). She has the svelte, curvy figure of a supermodel, and can still use cars as punching gloves.
And Doc Samson isn't even related to the Hulk, he's just Banner's psychiatrist. Back when he was scrawny and nebbish, much like Banner was, he extracted some of his gamma radiation, figured "what the hell" and exposed himself to it. Now he's ripped, prefers to go around in a bright red muscle shirt, and doesn't even need to transform into another shape, and he still got to retain his superior intellect. Hell, it dramatically improved his job prospects, since now he's considered the "superhero psychiatrist".
Considering that gamma radiation was known, even back then, to cause immense health problems and often fatalities, I'm more inclined to think the bomb gave off a large burst of "wish fulfillment radiation" instead, but you can't really say that in a comic.
And even so, with all these normal, cooperative people that got to benefit from the Hulk's initial unpleasantness, the military never thinks to ask any of them for a blood sample or anything else, so that they'll stop chasing Bruce around (since he's often made to Hulk out by the military chasing him, thus creating their own problem). You could say that maybe they want the original, purest sample because they'll never be able to repeat that result that again, but other creatures very similar to the Hulk have been made. The Abomination was a similar creature made by the Soviets, and they didn't even create him by accident, and even the U.S. military made their own versions of the Hulk, in the form of the Red Hulk and the Red She-Hulk. I guess at that point it's more out of a grudge than actually protecting civilians, since General Ross is a very crappy general.
Maybe it was just the wide-eyed view of atomic power people had in the '50s, maybe it was that the origin story didn't especially matter once they got going, but it still takes me out of it a bit. At least with Spider-Man, there was also spider DNA involved, and at least his motives are consistent.
Someone else must have been bothered by this, too, because in the (in my opinion) highly underrated 2003 Hulk film, they expand on the Hulk's origin in a different way. Bruce Banner's dad was working as a military scientist, intent on making biological agents to increase soldier's strength and durability. When he was denied human subjects, he tested it on himself, and then found out his wife had become pregnant shortly after the testing began. As such, the agents were passed onto his son on the genetic level. He wasn't sure what that would mean, but he assumed it would be dangerous.
Some years pass, and now Bruce is a medical scientist working in the field on nanomedicine: microscopic machines designed to heal people by accelerating cell growth. The nanomeds are activated by a burst of gamma radiation. This is currently theoretical, but it's in active development in the real world, so it's plausible.
Unfortunately, their tests of the nanomeds have failed, due to them becoming unstable shortly after being administered. Later in the film, there's an accident where Banner ingests some nanomeds and then is exposed to a gamma burst, which activates the nanomeds. They go to work quickly, and since Banner has more durable cells, they heal him and make him stronger than ever.
But, again, the nanomeds are unstable, and would fatally overstimulate the cells. However, because Banner's cells are capable of rapid growth, they can control this instability, and stretch along with it. They become agitated when Banner does, due to rising adrenaline stimulating his heart rate. And that results in him growing into an enormous, muscular green creature (the tests even explain why the Hulk is green)! It also explains why the results aren't repeatable, because only Banner and his father (who also exposes himself to nanomeds later on) are the ones with the genetic modifications. Hulk's split personality is also still present, and is explored in a compelling way in the movie, and isn't just a blanket reason for why gamma radiation on its own caused this.
So, according to the 2003 movie: Inherited genetic tampering + Nanomedicine to stimulate cell growth + Gamma radiation to activate the nanomeds + Adrenaline to overcharge the nanomeds = Giant, invincible green monster. The movie was actually interested in what made him this way, and isn't just saying "Gamma radiation, now shut up and let him punch things."
But, of course, since the 2003 movie was so unpopular, the 2008 movie sought to do the opposite of everything it did, so it made Hulk's origin even more absurd. Edward Norton just sits in a chair and gets zapped with a gamma laser (harkening back to the 1970s TV series, because that was so great), Hulks out, and runs off. They don't touch on his split personality, Edward Norton just explains that he experiences sensory overload, like "his brain is dipped in acid" (teenage audience: "so it's like he's high ALL THE TIME??! SWEET!!"). He tries to cure it with some kind of plant or something, they don't really explain it, even when a motormouth scientist character is put in to attempt to do so (Samuel Sterns, who in the comics was a janitor). His transformation also isn't repeatable for no particular reason, and his blood is used to create other Hulk-like creatures, like The Abomination (even though in the comics that was a totally separate Soviet project) and The Leader (Samuel Sterns, though we never see the result of this, or how it even happened). Doc Samson also has a brief appearance, but is simply Betty Ross' fiancée (what the hell) instead of Banner's psychiatrist. It's unknown if he'll be in a theoretical sequel.
So, following the same formula, Gamma radiation + Edward Norton + Nothing = Giant, invincible green monster. No wonder they replaced him with a pudgy Italian.
What I'm getting at is that it's frustrating when something is compelling and, at a fundamental level, there's some weakness to it. It's frustrating when comics are only interested in producing escapist spectacle when they tease me with an interesting and thought-provoking element inspired by the world we might someday live in, and then acts inconsistently based on things I already know. It becomes even sillier later when the Hulk temporarily suppresses his yelling idiot personality and lets Banner drive the Hulk body, Banner and the Hulk become two separate creatures, the Hulk is again separated into several different Hulks, and he eventually gets the Power Cosmic and tries to punch the world to pieces. Many of the more compelling instances of the Hulk seem to regard Banner as an important aspect of his character, and many of the more annoying ones seem to just want to get Banner out of the picture. Because, really, comic readers are already scrawny and pale, they'd rather read about a giant green dude that can punch tanks. It's frustrating to be an intellectual comics enthusiast.