Revisiting the Hulk Hands Craze of 2003
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is the tale of the two Incredible Hulks—the 2003 Ang Lee film (Hulk) starring Eric Bana that attempted to philosophize Bruce Banner’s monstrous alter ego, and the 2008 film (The Incredible Hulk) starring Edward Norton that’s more closely embedded in the MCU of today. (Current Hulk Mark Ruffalo has yet to appear in his own solo film.)
Viewers often express strong opinions for one Hulk over another, but there’s no question that the Bana version gave fans one of the most popular pieces of licensed merchandise ever spit out of a foam factory: Hulk Hands.
Fists of Fury
These giant fists were part of the marketing push for Hulk, and at first glance, they appear to be little more than the kind of role-play costumes fans of He-Man or Spider-Man had grown accustomed to. But unlike plastic swords or webbing, Hulk Hands allowed kids—and more than a few adults—to live out their power fantasies by actually punching the hell out of their intended target.
The hands, which were cushioned and painted a radioactive green, made a number of sounds through some tinny speakers in the foam. (“Rargh!” “Hulk smash!”) They were released by Toy Biz well in advance of Hulk’s June 2003 theatrical debut and were the brainchild of product development staffers Jesse Falcon and Damon Nee, who took note of how successful the company’s Spider-Man web shooters had been surrounding the 2002 release of Spider-Man. If it worked for Spidey, why not for Marvel’s next big movie?
The problem was that, unlike most superheroes, the Hulk doesn’t need to accessorize. “The thing about the Hulk is that you don't give him something,” Nee told Marvel.com in 2020. “You don't put something on the Hulk. He didn't carry anything. He doesn't have a Web-Shooter. He doesn't have a shield. He doesn't have a hammer. The Hulk is the Hulk. You know? ... His power is who he is. And I was thinking, like, what if he had great, big hands that made you feel that you're powerful like the Hulk.”
Nee originally considered using giant inflatable hands that could serve the dual purpose of being large enough to embody the Hulk’s towering presence while being soft enough not to damage the cartilage of the nearest person’s nose. Then Nee realized foam would work just as well while better representing the Hulk’s brute force.
After drafting a few sketches to get the scale—the hands ultimately wound up being 11.5 inches in width—Nee and Falcon recorded some of the smashing noises that would be triggered upon impact. With Bana unavailable to growl for the toy company, Falcon did the sound effects himself, distorting his voice to giant green Goliath proportions with GarageBand software.
Everyone at Toy Biz was optimistic about the finished product, which could deliver generally harmless blows while an angry Hulk screamed in anger. The only question was how the public would react.
When the $19.99 Hulk Hands hit store shelves, they barely touched down before being snapped up by eager kids. A Toys "R" Us in West Hartford, Connecticut, was selling an average of 30 to 40 pairs a week, well before the movie was even being heavily advertised. By March, they were selling out and being offered on eBay for $29.99. By the time the film hit that summer, Hulk Hands had tightened their grip on popular culture, outselling the Spider-Man Web Shooter. Some parents even sent in photos to Toy Biz of themselves posing with the hands. A pair of Thing hands modeled after the Fantastic Four muscleman was released shortly thereafter.
Despite the admonishment on the packaging—users were expected to “not strike any person, animal, or object”—it was clear that the appeal was in pretending to be a rampaging maniac. Writing for The New Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, Laura Ungar reported that her 4-year-old son, Aaron, turned positively feral in their presence:
“He punched walls. He punched furniture. He punched me. And when his 4-year-old friend, Lydia Cole, arrived, he punched her.”
Lydia asked for a pair of Hulk Hands for herself, then proceeded to wail on Aaron.
Parents may have been iffy about the potential for encouraging violence, but Hulk Hands had a purpose beyond backyard brawling. One of Jesse Falcon’s friends was Scott Armstrong, a film producer who worked closely with Will Ferrell. Hulk Hands turned up in 2008’s Step Brothers, which was part of a wave of references to the toy in popular culture. They popped up on The Simpsons and even became a frequent sight at sports stadiums, where attendees could grab people's attention by swinging customized Hulk Hands in support of their team. One YouTuber built a pair out of lead, which could actually smash through concrete.
Hulk Hands are still available today, now courtesy of Hasbro, which made a smaller, greener, plush version to coincide with the 2008 Marvel movie. They've continued to release new versions of the toy as part of their Avengers line, including hard foam Gamma Smash Fists and Gamma Grip Fists, which allow the user to loosely grip an object.
Part of why Hulk Hands resonated may have been how immersive they were. You can’t use a toy lightsaber to slash through Stormtroopers, but you can hit something and listen to the crashing glass with giant foam hands. Hulk Hands also took a cue from the Underoos craze of the 1970s and 1980s, when kids wore familiar superhero insignias under their clothing to feel like they had a secret identity. Wearing the giant foam mitts, you can easily imagine punching through walls as well as denying any commitment to civility. For adults and kid alike, it was a form of anger management—one Bruce Banner probably could have used.