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Liv Tyler in Hulk (Universal)

The Hulk's Betty Ross deserved better

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Jun 14, 2019, 3:35 AM EDT (Updated)

Although the Hulk is without question the main antagonist of his book, Storytelling 101 generally recommends that any fictional hero have a cast of supporting characters around them that are as compelling as the central character. The Hulk, a somewhat heavy-handed commentary on the negative effects of anger on a human body, has Rick Jones, a hipster who wanders onto a test site and causes scientist Bruce Banner's transformation into the Hulk when he leaps in to save Rick from being bombarded by gamma radiation. While we all know that is not how test sites, hipsters, or gamma radiation works, the essence of the Hulk's story is more or less that good intentions don't account for much, and anger is an emotion to toy with at your own risk.

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Incredible Hulk #1, written by Stan Lee, art by Jack Kirby and Paul Reinman, lettering by Artie Simek

Something About Betty

Besides Rick, Bruce's supporting cast is somewhat sparse. The other most important person in his life, from Hulk #1 to the present day, is Elizabeth Ross. Betty first appeared in the same issue as the Hulk, The Incredible Hulk #1 in 1962. The daughter of a military man and famed Hulk antagonist Thunderbolt Ross, Betty is silenced by her father in mid-conversation when he's berating the soft-spoken Bruce Banner. Almost immediately thereafter, Bruce is irradiated and becomes the Hulk. In this way, Betty and Bruce are permanently tied together in one of the most traumatic moments of his life. Despite the fact that he manages to keep his identity a secret from her for some time, this moment is one that would come to define their relationship up to the present day. When Bruce and Betty were eventually to be married, even that was ruined by a Hulk villain. Showing up just out of sheer spite, The Leader attacked Bruce and caused him to transform into berserker Hulk mode. Hulk accidentally caused Thunderbolt to be severely injured and hospitalized, and renowned Betty stan Glenn Talbot took up his grudge against the Hulk, promising a bewildered Betty that the Hulk would pay for what he had done to her. Betty, for her part, was deeply traumatized by this turn of events, and ended up also being hospitalized, where even more Hulk villains terrorized her. She was ultimately kidnapped by famed jerk MODOK, who experimented on her and caused her to become the villain Harpy. Honestly, I kind of like Harpy, and at least Betty finally got to vent some of her frustrations on the Hulk via a physical fight to the death. She was quickly cured of the affliction, and, despite being married to Talbot, she and Bruce reunited once more.

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Incredible Hulk #168, written by Steve Englehart, art by Herb Trimpe, Jack Abel, and Stan Goldberg, lettering by Art Simek

Marriage Troubles

After this, Betty leaves Bruce occasionally when she decides she'd prefer not to deal with the Hulk anymore, but she doesn't have the opportunity not to deal with the Hulk. He's always present in her life. It's been proven that he'll keep popping up no matter what, that even her wedding day will be ruined by Hulk's rogues gallery, and that living a life without him is more or less impossible. Bruce isn't abusive, but he doesn't always seem to understand the profound impact his actions have had on Betty, or that she has almost zero say in their relationship. He leaves when he feels like he's endangering her, but that surely only endangers her further, leaving her completely without protection from his considerable cast of irradiated villains. If she leaves him, it's only a matter of time before one of his villains kidnaps her and he has to save her. Betty has a miscarriage because of Hulk stuff, she dies of cancer because of Hulk stuff, she's resurrected because of Hulk stuff. That she continues to function on any level is beyond amazing. That she forgives Bruce for repeatedly ruining her life, even though that might not be what he intended to do, shows an incredible amount of inner peace.

Eventually, Betty underwent a transformation to become the Red She-Hulk. Despite the clunky title, and the full embrace of violence which she had previously shied away from, it was nice to see her take on a starring role, however briefly. She also teamed up with other female heroes and has an enchanted Asgardian sword, and it's all pretty amazing. Despite using her power to pretty much repeat Bruce and her father's mistakes ad nauseam, at least we get to know the real Betty Ross sans Bruce Banner or the Hulk.

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Red She-Hulk #60, written by Jeff Parker, art by Carlo Pagulayan, Wellintin Alves, and Val Staples, lettering by Clayton Cowles

What's Next For Betty?

The worst Betty stories are when we only see her as a secondary character to Bruce or her father, because there is more to Betty than that. The Hulk has always been that it's a story about a man who loses control if his heart rate increases, so we're constantly watching a guy repress himself. They found ways around that in the comic and now the films quite often, for instance, giving us the smarmy, intelligent Hulk for a time, otherwise known as Mr. Fix-It, or occasionally granting the Hulk Bruce-like characteristics, such as empathy. Still, most of the many hundreds of issues of The Incredible Hulk rotate primarily around a guy struggling with his anger problems while on the run from another guy who seems to be made entirely of anger, Thunderbolt Ross. It's a fairly standard modernized Jekyll and Hyde, leaning on soft commentary on the dangers of a military gone awry.

Hulk is a better story when it centers Betty. She's a person adversely affected by situations that have really nothing to do with her. In the film versions, Hulk is the protagonist, Ross is the antagonist, Betty is just there because both men mean something to her. Her personality and her position in the story allows for a more nuanced take than either of the other central characters, and it seldom gets explored in film. More recently in the Immortal Hulk series, Betty has taken more of a center focus, and the story is all the more interesting for it.

Despite her long tenure as the suffering girlfriend of a giant green rage monster, Betty herself has anger issues, buried secrets, and a lot of pain hiding just below a generally benign surface. She's also a scientist, though it's easy to forget that. The only possible next phase for her character is to take on the spotlight and to take charge of her relationships with the men in her life. When we see Betty doing this, we see her at her most interesting.

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