A RECKONING

The Passion of Asian Hulk: A Generation of Keyboard Warriors Assumes Power and Responsibility

Marvel’s new Asian hulk, Amadeus Cho, is the living embodiment of nerd culture.

09.05.15 3:39 PM ET

I said that of all the demographic types in American society that best suited the alter ego of the Incredible Hulk—the emotionally repressed brainiac with a whole lot of rage ready to suddenly unleash at an unexpected moment—a young Asian-American dude would be the best choice.

Details aren’t forthcoming yet, but the man who’s long held the Hulk as his secret identity, middle-aged white dude scientist Bruce Banner, is going to somehow transfer this power to his former sidekick, Korean-American teenager Amadeus Cho.

I’m obviously stoked that one of Marvel’s most iconic superheroes and the one I most identify with personally is going to be an Asian guy—and not just any Asian guy but the kind of gifted Asian teen I grew up as—and that the book is going to be a Korean-American lead character written and drawn by Korean-Americans (Greg Pak, Amadeus Cho’s creator, as writer, and Liberty MeadowsFrank Cho as artist).

But I’ve done a lot of thinking about my analogy of “model minority rage” to the Hulk’s saga since I wrote that piece proposing an Asian Hulk last year. And my excitement is complicated. I do hope that the Amadeus Cho version of the Hulk is, as the comic’s title states, “Totally Awesome,” but I also hope that it shows how crappy being the Hulk can be.

Of course the fact that the Hulk is a burden and a curse as much as it is awesome has always been integral to the Hulk’s character, and one of the most successful of Avengers: Age of Ultron’s plot elements was reminding us of this fact.

But the impact of this is lessened when you’re dealing with a character that was introduced to us as the Hulk who has, in the audience’s eyes, always been the Hulk.

The biggest difference between Amadeus Cho and Bruce Banner is that Amadeus Cho is, unlike Bruce Banner, an adolescent child, which makes his becoming the Hulk part of his coming-of-age story and much more of an obvious puberty metaphor. The second-biggest difference is that Amadeus Cho is a pre-existing character, unlike Bruce Banner, who’s had a whole well-developed persona for Avengers fans that’s only now being complicated by throwing the Hulk transformation into the mix.

That highlights certain things about the Hulk’s character that I’d argue have always been there but now come into sharper relief, and are especially relevant not just for young Asian male nerds but for nerds and self-perceived underdogs in general.

Amadeus Cho is a beloved character partly because up till now he’s always had the luxury of being a sidekick—specifically, he’s been the intellectual backup for heroes defined by their brawn, first as the sidekick to the original Bruce Banner version of the Hulk, then to Marvel Comics’ version of Hercules after Bruce Banner was imprisoned following the “World War Hulk” arc. (I could explain the details, but we’d be here all day.)

You’re familiar with this archetype, even if you hadn’t encountered Amadeus Cho himself before: The smart guy who serves as the tough guy’s backup. Microchip to The Punisher. Kato to The Green Hornet. Q to James Bond.

It’s an appealing role for nerds to project ourselves into, especially underage nerds. The brainy sidekick gets to play a critical role in the fight without directly exposing himself to mortal danger and bloodshed. But more importantly, the brainy sidekick gets to play a critical role in the fight without taking responsibility for the fight.

Q, after all, doesn’t kill people. He gives James Bond amazing gadgets that are highly effective at killing people, but it’s Bond who pulls the trigger. Being the “voice with an Internet connection” in an action movie is a great job—it’s a kind of backseat driving, where you get to constantly observe and comment on the action but nothing is ultimately your fault because you’re not the one on the field. Pundits, critics, thinkpiece writers, a huge chunk of the millennial generation, myself included, have taken to making a living telling other people what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong while rarely doing anything ourselves.

The thing about Amadeus Cho is his heroics are deeply morally ambiguous, but he gets to stay morally clean. It’s Bruce Banner who has to deal with the fact that his “heroic” alter ego is a barely controllable rage monster who finally “goes too far” after declaring war on the entire Earth and leveling most of the Eastern Seaboard in his climactic attack on New York City. It’s left to Bruce’s fans to decide whether or not he’s still redeemable after this action (keeping in mind that such an event would, realistically, lead to millions of deaths, even if comic book logic tells us if we don’t directly see anyone die then there must’ve miraculously been no fatalities).

But Amadeus Cho remains steadfastly loyal to his friend Dr. Banner, swearing to help set him free even after SHIELD imprisons the Hulk for crimes against humanity. This is charming and endearing in Amadeus, even though he’s standing up for a war criminal and mass murderer—because he’s just a kid, and loyalty is admirable in kids. His loyalty is a virtue; the sins of the Hulk are for Bruce Banner to bear, not him.

Marvel

The same went for Cho’s stint as the sidekick for Hulk stand-in Hercules, who’s less prone to rage-fits than the Hulk or the original, mythological Hercules (who murdered his own wife and kids) but still all-too-easily emotionally manipulated by the sinister god Ares, much like his Norse counterpart Thor’s relationship with his brother Loki.

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The goddess Athena tells Amadeus that the age of strength is over and the age of wisdom is at hand, and tries to make Amadeus the new champion of the gods in Hercules’s place, saying Hercules’s time is over. Amadeus’s story arc is about him refusing to do this, fighting to save Hercules from his fated death, using all of his intelligence to figure a way out of Athena’s challenge to become the champion of the gods.

This is Amadeus being noble, yes. And loyal. And humble.

But it’s also him being scared.

In my earlier article I said it’s stifling being put in the box of “brain trust,” the nerdy expert resource other people call upon to give them advice before they go out and make the big decisions. But it’s just as comfortable as it is stifling, and it’s a place the great nerds of history have frequently retreated to in order to duck responsibility for their actions.

Dr. Bruce Banner was, after all, loosely based on Dr. Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb. Hulk’s origin story consists of Banner working tirelessly on the fictional “gamma bomb,” a horrifying weapon of mass destruction, telling himself that he’s only doing his job and that he himself is innocent of any wrongdoing as long as other men pull the trigger.

Then a teenager named Rick Jones stumbles into the gamma bomb test site and, for the first time, Banner takes personal responsibility for the life his creation might take and runs into the test site to save him. Banner gets Jones to safety just in time but is himself caught in the blast—and is transformed by the gamma rays into a living weapon of mass destruction.

Oppenheimer famously spoke the words “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” upon the first successful A-bomb test. The conceit of the Hulk was making this quotation literal, forcing the creator of the bomb to take responsibility for the destruction his creation wrought in the most intimate, personal way possible, erasing the distance between inventor and invention entirely, fusing the man and the weapon unwillingly into one being.

That, on some level, is what the Hulk is about: nerdy brainy guys living in an ivory tower being forced to take responsibility for the consequences of their thoughts and actions. Guys who like to play “devil’s advocate” and talk about things from the abstract remove of “rationality” being brought face-to-face with the bloody, visceral reality of the abstractions they discuss.

The Hulk is about the exhilaration but also the terror of discovering that the dividing line between you, the rational intellectual observer reading the newspaper and tsking at the bloodshed and warfare that happens “over there,” are not so different from those scary angry men with guns who kill people. That you and they are of the same species, that the idea that your education and civilization makes you fundamentally different from them is a lie.

That you are responsible for what the men with guns do. The Hulk asks: What if Milton Friedman woke up one day finding his pulse pounding and his muscles clenching as he shoved dissidents out of an airplane in order to achieve the economic “Miracle of Chile” he so drily and avuncularly took credit for as a result of giving advice to Pinochet from miles away? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, what if dorm room socialists who wear Che-branded apparel found themselves holding a rifle and carrying out Che’s bloody “pedagogy of the wall” on Batista’s collaborators?

What if the suit-and-tie-and-flag-pin set from the Project for the New American Century found themselves in the pandemonium of Fallujah or the hellhole of Abu Ghraib? What if Internet armchair revolutionaries calling for mass insurrection had to physically pick up a brick and fling it through a store window amid a haze of tear gas?

What if those of us who use our brains and our words and our fancy theories to call for massive social change had to be the physical vessels of that change—of the rage and the violence and the bloodshed that that change inevitably entails? What if we nerds had to own and experience the hot, bloody implications of our cold, bloodless arguments?

Keep in mind this story has a long pedigree in comics. It may be the first long-form superhero story ever—Superman’s first long-form adventure, “Revolution in San Monte” (in Action Comics #1 and #2) is about Superman kidnapping an arms dealer and forcing him to fight in the front lines of a foreign war he helped foment.

Comics and superheroes have at the core of their DNA the theme that you have more power than you think you have and you need to take responsibility for it. From Bruce Banner turning himself into the Hulk to Hank Pym (Tony Stark in the movie) creating the malevolent AI Ultron to the wise words Uncle Ben told Peter Parker just before he got bitten by that radioactive spider: “With power comes responsibility.”

But Spider-Man teaches the most palatable, watered-down version of that lesson. Peter Parker is only indirectly responsible for his uncle’s death because of inaction, not action—he chooses to use his powers selfishly to make money, he fails to stop some random robber, and that robber ends up shooting someone he loves.

The Hulk’s power is much more terrifying, much more immediate, and so is the responsibility he must take. The Hulk is a reminder that as cerebral and rational as you might think you are, you’ve got the same fear and hatred inside you as everyone else. You’re not above the rest of the human race; you’re an animal too, driven by rage, and the moments when you think you’re peak “rational” and “detached” are the moments your hidden rage may be driving you most.

I feel like we geeks are living in a time and place where we need to grow up but haven’t yet. Our idea of “With power comes responsibility” is the Spider-Man version of it; we’re afraid of being pettily selfish, of “selling out,” of not being as awesome as we might be.

We grew up in a world where the really scary people were the people who held the old-fashioned kinds of power: politicians, generals, arms dealers, people who owned heavy industry and heavy munitions. We grew up in a world where our passions—computers and software and abstract cool mathematical algorithms—were toys, and where Google’s “Don’t be evil” really meant “Don’t be lame.” Don’t sell out. Don’t slap ads all over your search engine and make it a crappy search engine that will be out-competed by someone else’s. Don’t cripple your software with DRM that makes it less useful than it could be. Don’t compromise your awesomeness for the sake of boring suits who don’t get it.

But now we live in an era where tech drives the economy and runs the world, where it’s the people in charge of the old-fashioned mechanisms of power who fear the pimply kids tapping on keyboards. We live in an era where nerds drive the culture, where they earn incredible wealth, and where they have free rein for all their hubris.

“Don’t be evil” means one thing when you’re only as powerful as Spider-Man, the wisecracking teen superhero who shoots webs. When you’re the Hulk—“the strongest there is,” capable of destroying cities with an errant punch, it’s much harder to live up to.

And the people who now are the “strongest there is” in our world frequently show they haven’t outgrown their adolescent pique, their hissy fits aimed at “taking down” people who cross them, their puerile and shortsighted appetites, their general carelessness and irresponsibility.

This past year has shown the deep-rooted faults of this “nerd culture” we’ve created, how the supposed value we place on rationality and logic does nothing to dampen our rage and entitlement and irrational tendency to lash out at those weaker than us, whether it be through individual mass shootings or distributed, crowdsourced mass harassment campaigns.

Amadeus Cho’s got a tough lesson to learn when he assumes the mantle of the Hulk, and it’s one my fellow nerds need to pay attention to. You can’t escape your rage. You can’t eliminate it—it’s what powers you, it’s what makes you who you are, it’s what gives you the strength to do what needs doing and fight the foes worth fighting.

But you can’t let it control you. It’s an amoral force that’s as capable of destroying the things you love as it is the things you hate. It’s something you must learn to control through emotional maturity, through empathy, through patience—the hardest thing in the world to learn, something that won’t be made easier by all the genius intellect in the world.

Up till now Amadeus Cho has been a nerd stand-in for the kind of nerd we’d like to be, a kid who still hasn’t grown up, a gadfly who can stand in the background and be the conscience in the ear of movers/shakers/decision-makers like Bruce Banner and Hercules, commenting on what’s wrong with the world without being part of it.

That time is over. Amadeus is becoming a man now—a big, green, hulking man, a man who has to take responsibility for his own mistakes. Our generation is the Hulk now; our generation is become Death—not just “disruptor” but destroyer of worlds.

It’s terrifying and scary and painful. And it is, at the same time, Incredible, as well as Totally Awesome. You can’t have one without the other.