The Hulk Is a 9: An Enneagram Adventure | Part Five: "The Brains and the Brawn Together"

For previous posts in this running series of posts on the enneagram (including the rationale for the series), click here.

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The Avengers: Infinity War begins where Thor: Ragnarok ends. The Hulk has never been beaten before, but we’re not long into the film before Hulk suffers defeat at the hands of Thanos (who may also be a nine, but that’s another story). With nowhere left to hide in the universe, Hulk hides inside Bruce, refusing to emerge even when he is desperately needed. Bruce will have to find another way to be a hero.

Ironically, he puts on the armor of the Hulkbuster first introduced in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. We see Bruce elated — great power with no corresponding loss of control. He gets a taste of a different kind of life, foreshadowing the fulfillment of his arc to come. (Shown here with the film's audio over some random animation.)

The endgame for Bruce is further foreshadowed in his appeal to the Vision — the second, more evolved monster he helped Tony create (after Ultron; see part three of this series) — to lay down something that seems central to his identity but is only the most obvious thing about him: “Your mind is made up of a complex construct of overlays...all of them learning from each other.” We may contain monsters, but we also contain multitudes. Bruce is coming to recognize that a persona is something distinct from a person. In a way, the Vision, like the Hulk, has been imprisoned by what the people around him have understood him to be. As Thomas Merton wrote, "The person must be rescued from the individual" - who we really are must be distinguished from and privileged above what we've made ourselves up to be.

Consider this thought experiment: Thanos’s intent is to eliminate half of all life. The climactic moment in the film is when he snaps his fingers to achieve his vision. Is it possible that only Bruce or the Hulk — not both — will survive? We don’t find out in Infinity War; we have to wait for the endgame.

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The reveal of “Smart Hulk” in The Avengers: Endgame is thrilling to the superfan — this iteration of the Hulk was wildly popular in the comic books — but as much is concealed as revealed. There’s nothing more basic to superhero films than the origin story, and yet we meet Smart Hulk without the benefit of watching him come to be. Set five years after Thanos’s snap, Smart Hulk is firmly established in society: he poses for pictures with adoring children, eats in restaurants, wears cardigans, and is thoroughly comfortable in his own skin. It’s a happy ending — one of the few eucatastrophes we observe in the wake of the Infinity War — and the film is nowhere near over. How did this happen?

“For years,” Smart Hulk explains, ”I’d been treating the Hulk like he’s some kind of disease, something to get rid of.” Again we see the disassociation that enneagram nines resort to in privileging peace over emotional expression. ”I put the brains and the brawn together, now look at me — I’m the best of both worlds.” There is no longer Bruce and “the other guy,” no longer the Hulk and “puny Banner.” He is an integrated self, a person with no persona. He has no secret identity, no mask. He is a fully realized self.

This transformation happens offscreen, as many transformations do. Spiritual growth is soul work, and much of it happens in secret. But even such secret transformations can be epically impactful. It’s the Hulk who speaks kindly to Thor and helps coax him back into action after Thor has effectively checked out of life. While other Avengers treat Ant-Man like a second-class citizen, Hulk happily gives him his food after Ant-Man’s tacos are blown away by an approaching space craft. (Remember, it’s a superhero movie. Just go with it.) Hulk is ebullient, light of heart, compassionate, kind. When he is confronted with his past behavior, he is embarrassed by it, but he isn’t paralyzed by it. It’s Smart Hulk who is sent to persuade the Sorcerer Supreme to part with a stone she is sworn to protect—and he succeeds. She prophesies over him as she hands over the stone: “I’m counting on you, Bruce—we all are.”

Much has been made of Iron Man’s ultimate sacrifice at the end of Endgame, but it’s worth noting that Tony Stark's death was an act of violence: He died in the process of killing Thanos and his entire army. His final act was punctuated with an ego-soaked assertion of his persona: "I am Iron Man." Contrast this act of mass destruction with the Hulk, who like Iron Man put on the glove with the expectation that using it would kill him, but rather than using it to destroy, he brought half of creation back to life.

Thor, notably, wanted to be the one to wear the glove and make the sacrifice play - the latest example of him desperately trying to prove himself as “the strongest Avenger.” But Hulk was the one to do it, and he made the case calmly and soberly, not seeking to make a name for himself but seeking the greater good. “It’s like I was made for this,” he says not with a flourish of ego but a sigh of acceptance.

Hulk doesn’t die, but he is left permanently scarred, a good reminder that the truth will set you free, but it will send you off with a limp.

Flourishing nines reflect the best characteristics of the enneagram three — “the achiever.” Undaunted and ambitious, threes can accomplish great things, and the Hulk certainly does that. He no longer seeks a peace that looks suspiciously like quiet. He seems, actually, to seek the opposite: the confounding complexity of a universe twice as crowded as it once was. A flourishing nine seeks not to make peace but to make shalom — an environment of flourishing — and Smart Hulk’s ambition is met with success.

We all learn a lesson from Endgame, articulated succinctly by Thor’s mother Frigga, with echoes of Thomas Merton:

“Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be. ... the measure of a person — of a hero — is how well they succeed at being who they are.”

Thor ends Endgame at the beginning of that heroic journey; the Hulk has already arrived, and the universe is blessed for it.

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In previous posts I've commended several books on the enneagram: Alice Fryling's Mirror for the Soul, Chris Heuertz's The Sacred Enneagram, and The Road Back to You by Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile. In this post I'll commend to you a book about the Hulk. Hulk: Gray is an origin story, written decades after the Hulk's origin. A thoughtful, poignant consideration of how hard it must be to crave peace and love but be plagued with loneliness and violence. The Hulk, it seems, could be any one of us.

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