Renewing his promise to take Britain out of the European Union by Oct. 31, 2019, Johnson proclaimed his ability to overcome the many legal and political obstacles in his way — telling the Mail on Sunday that “the madder the Hulk gets, the stronger he gets.”
What does Johnson’s self-identification with Marvel’s formidable green monster tell us? My research looks at how popular media, including comic books, can help shape political narratives in a wide range of contexts.
Invoking the Hulk gives clues about the persona Johnson wants to project to the British electorate. In particular, it suggests a posture of defiance toward constitutional, legal and parliamentary constraints on executive power. This is a posture likely to survive Johnson’s recent setbacks. A Hulk-channeling prime minister — with a general election looking more certain — thus offers clues to the future direction of British politics.
Johnson is invoking the Hulk because he wants to smash things up
Political leaders often cultivate associations with figures from popular culture to shape their public personae — so Johnson’s appeal to a well-known superhero is nothing new. Nevertheless, by referencing Bruce Banner’s transformation from feeble physicist into an explosive creature of action, Johnson is also outlining a shift in his leadership strategy that is likely to define British politics in the coming weeks and months.
Johnson persuaded Conservative members of Parliament that he should be party leader and prime minister by arguing that nobody else could plausibly force Brexit through without destroying the party as an electoral force. His strategy to accomplish these objectives involves embracing the hostility of the British legal and political establishment to pit those very establishments against both him and, by extension, the British people.
For these reasons, Johnson purged his party of recalcitrant MPs and suspended Parliament altogether. In addition, he has cast doubt on the impartiality of the courts and has publicly disagreed with the U.K. Supreme Court’s finding on Tuesday that his move to suspend Parliament was unlawful — despite also claiming that he would “respect the judiciary in our country.”
Earlier this summer, Johnson met with Stephen K. Bannon, the former chief executive of President Trump’s campaign. Whether coincidentally or not, since then, Johnson has shown little interest in being seen as the leader of a party, or as someone who carefully constructs coalitions and allegiances. Instead, he wishes to become someone who can break free of such petty constraints as Parliament, international allegiance and the rule of law.
As the Hulk himself says in issue #1, “I don’t want you with me! I don’t need you! I don’t need anybody! With my strength — my power — the world is mine!”
He’s a strange kind of hero
In recent days, Johnson’s bravado has appeared misplaced. He organized a news conference with the prime minister of Luxembourg but seemed spooked by the presence of a few dozen protesters and failed to show. He has faced open hostility at every public appearance, from a walkabout in Leeds to a visit to the children’s ward of a London hospital. He now faces a reconvened Parliament that will continue to try to block his Brexit plan.
Johnson’s current public image is about as far away from the Hulk’s hypermasculine supremacy as it is possible to imagine. Yet the comparison may well remain attractive to the prime minister precisely because its assertion of unstoppable strength can accommodate weakness and defeat. The Hulk is also Bruce Banner, after all.
Before the 2016 Brexit referendum, Johnson famously wrote two newspaper columns — one in favor of “remain,” one in favor of “leave” — to have something ready to go when the time came for him to back a horse. Facing an election over whose timing he has little control, and whose central issue will undoubtedly be an uncertain Brexit, Johnson has chosen to invoke a character who similarly keeps his options open.
If Johnson is able to deliver Brexit by the end of October, in the next election he’ll be the Hulk, the people’s champion, whose superhuman strength has protected the British people from depravity, and whose power must be secured from betrayal or treachery. But if members of the House of Commons defy him on the other hand, he will campaign as Bruce Banner, in need of the people’s approval to become the herculean green hero who alone can fulfill their will by freeing them — and him — from the constraints of Parliament and law.
Whatever happens on Oct. 31, it will mark the beginning of a new political cycle as well as the end of an old one. As Britain frets over its impending deadline, however, Johnson is already looking beyond it, trying to give himself room to shape what comes next.
Alister Wedderburn is a research fellow in International Relations at the Australian National University. He tweets at ali_wedderburn.