The Marvel Cinematic Universe marks a remarkable cinematic achievement. Despite a few missteps, the movies accomplished some amazingly in-depth storytelling, stringing together almost two dozen films to tell the stories of dozens of different characters. And for the most part, those characters got a reasonably satisfying conclusion by the end of Avengers: Endgame.
Of course, with so many different characters, the films couldn’t present everybody’s story in a satisfying manner. For example, let’s look at the Hulk. He has one of the longest characters arcs of all the Avengers and changes more than anybody…but none of the interesting stuff happens on-screen.
The Hulk’s Rocky Cinematic Journey
The comic book crash of the 1990s forced Marvel into bankruptcy. To make ends meet, the company sold film rights to its stable of characters to several studios. Disney later purchased Marvel and made moves to reacquire those franchises, but the company never managed to broker a deal to get the Hulk back from Universal.
As a possible factor in the rights struggle, Universal owns theme park rights to the Hulk, and one would presume that the roller coaster makes the studio more money than the jade giant’s movies. Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk experienced a huge box office drop after its first week, and the 2008 reboot barely did better.
Regardless of the reasoning, Universal doesn’t seem interested in cutting a deal the way Sony did with Spider-Man. So the Hulk has no solo movie and thus nowhere to highlight his character development. His arc has snuck into other characters’ films, resulting in significant changes. Unfortunately, we never see the interesting part behind those changes.
Learning to Control the Hulk
The 2003 Hulk explored the concept of rage and the dangers of repressing emotions. To highlight Bruce Banner’s journey, he willingly transformed into the Hulk at the film’s conclusion to protect innocents in South America. After spending the movie afraid of his emotions, Banner has learned how to put his anger to good use.
Released five years later, The Incredible Hulk began as a sequel of sorts (with screenwriter Zak Penn stating that it “keeps the mythology of the worlds”), but became a complete reboot. As such, Banner has a similar journey and ends the film with a willing transformation into the Hulk, just like in the previous film.
For the purpose of discussing the Marvel Cinematic Universe Hulk, the 2008 film serves as the “first” story. You can argue that the 2003 film influenced it somewhat, but Ang Lee’s effort was expunged from continuity. That’s important because we never see the 2008 version of Banner come to grips with his rage.
While the 2003 film focused largely on Banner’s psychology, the 2008 film presents Banner as a guy with a physiological condition. The Hulk is not tied specifically to rage but rather to Banner’s heart rate. He has to keep his pulse at a safe level and can’t even have sex for fear of transforming.
The Hulk as a physiological condition handles the how of Banner’s willing transformation—we see him practicing various ways to control his heart rate throughout the movie. But it’s a bit more muddled on the why.
The villain of the 2003 film is Bruce Banner’s father—a man who is unhinged where Bruce is stable, who lets his anger control him while Bruce tries to use reason. The Abomination of the 2008 film is also a dark reflection of the Hulk, but the focus is again physiological.
The Abomination is a threat to the Hulk because he sucks up more gamma juice than Banner did. This allows him to pulverize the Hulk until our hero turns a car into some boxing gloves (in a nod to one of the best video games ever) and returns the favor. You can argue that there’s a psychological element to this film, but the movie focuses very much on the physical—probably in part as a conscious move away from the highly criticized 2003 film.
With such a focus on the physical, it’s harder to see Banner’s character development. What makes him go from trying to find a cure to willingly transforming? I think the answer’s probably there if you squint, but it’s not spelled out very clearly. Banner’s character development seems to have occurred in the month he spent off-screen between his fight with the Abomination and the end of the movie.
The fact that Banner changes over the course of the film but we don’t get to see it sets the pattern for the Hulk’s development over the rest of his film appearances.
Relationship with the Black Widow
Over the course of two Avengers movies, Banner began a romantic relationship with the Black Widow. In the first movie, it makes sense that he’d find himself drawn to Natasha Romanoff—she serves as his first contact with the Avengers and she sees firsthand what happens when Banner loses control.
What Natasha finds attractive about Banner is a mystery to me, however, and the films don’t delve into their relationship. In Age of Ultron, she uses a “lullaby” to calm the Hulk down. In the final act, she chooses the mission over the relationship and forces Banner to transform so the Avengers can smash Ultron.
Neither Infinity War nor Endgame do much with the Bruce/Natasha relationship. They get a very brief awkward moment in Infinity War where Bruce returns after being gone for two years, and the Hulk has a sad moment when Natasha dies in Endgame. Neither of these shed much light on their relationship.
Whatever caused Bruce and Natasha to get together, any conflicts they had, and the creation of the “lullaby” all happened off-screen. We see the relationship as a plot device, but missed all the interesting human drama. If either the Hulk or the Black Widow has a movie of their own, it might have been different.
The Hulk in Control
No movie demonstrates the unfortunate side effects of the Hulk not getting a stand-alone movie of his own more than Thor: Ragnarok. That film takes one of the Hulk’s best comic book stories, Planet Hulk, and turns it into a Thor vehicle. The Hulk becomes a supporting character in his own epic.
Setting Ragnarok’s source material aside, this movie represents a huge step forward in the Hulk’s development—again, almost entirely off-screen. In previous films, Banner had kept the Hulk under wraps for long stretches of time—a month in The Incredible Hulk, a year in Avengers. This time, the Hulk’s been in control for two years.
During those two years, the Hulk has grown up a bit. Originally a mostly mute, animalistic monster, the Hulk shows his friendlier, more talkative side. Nobody comments much on the Hulk’s newfound chattiness, so I assume that he must have had long talks with Thor between scenes in the previous Avengers films.
Infinity War borrows the time-honored tradition of having the new evil threat whip the Hulk to show how dangerous he is. Unlike in the comics, it’s the first time audiences see the Hulk thrashed in a fair fight. (Mitigating circumstances interfered with his fight against Iron Man in Age of Ultron and Thor in Ragnarok.)
The Hulk all but disappears from the film after that. Is he frightened of Thanos? Angry that Banner tries to pull him out on command? We don’t really know. But his absence does give Banner a chance to stand on his own without his gamma-irradiated alter ego, so that’s a plus.
Jumping forward to Endgame, we discover that Banner and the Hulk got over their problems and merged into one being with the Hulk’s strength and Banner’s brains. This marks another major plot from the comics that got wrapped up off-screen.
Supposedly, Banner and the Hulk were meant to form their alliance near the climax of Infinity War, but that movie had so much going on that something had to get cut somewhere. And if you have to cut somebody’s time, you might as well cut the guy whose major storyline has already been chopped out of multiple movies.
The Hulk’s Road
If the opportunity for another solo Hulk film ever does come up, revisiting the space between films could serve as fertile ground. Off-screen, Banner learned to control the Hulk, fell in love with the Black Widow, lost control of the Hulk, wound up as a space gladiator for two years, had to become a hero himself, and finally merged with his alter ego.
In Endgame, the Hulk got crippled while resurrecting the people Thanos killed. That could also serve as fuel moving forward, since the most powerful being on Earth now needs to live with a major disability. But, given previous trends, I bet we next see the Hulk either miraculously healed or with a cybernetic arm that he picked up during some amazing off-screen adventure.
Images: Marvel Studios