The Incredible Hulk
Although Edward Norton began Bruce Banner/Hulk’s journey in The Incredible Hulk (2008), it’s Mark Ruffalo who has taken the character far. Most of the Norton-led solo outing has been discarded or retconned and Avengers: Endgame, which opens April 26th is being described as the conclusion to the Hulk’s storyline as established in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). We know very little about Bruce/Hulk’s role, although there has been a great deal of speculation, but Ragnarok is a Phase Three film, which ignores his previous appearances, despite what Ruffalo has done with the role.
Very little is taken from The Incredible Hulk. It’s only been referenced as when the Hulk “broke Harlem” and with the characterization of Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, who is played by William Hurt consistently in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie has a number of key elements and characters integral to the Hulk canon, including Betty Ross, Samuel Sterns, and Leonard Samson. Remembering the long ago success of the TV show, which ran for five seasons from 1977-1982, this film, much more than Iron Man (2008), was preparing to spawn a series of sequels. It did well, but in light of Iron Man, perhaps not well enough, especially as it doesn’t have the benefit of Iron Man‘s influence, which came out only months prior and serves as the foundation for the MCU and Marvel films at large.
As a result, Incredible Hulk‘s secondary characters are abandoned for the most part (save for Ross). The Hulk becomes a supporting player until Ragnarok, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a storyline. In Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), Bruce is brought in by Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow for his scientific work, although the presence of the Hulk proves crucial later on. This movie is used to establish what kind of control Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce has over the Hulk and how he maintains that control. He is used primarily as a plot device, but as “the strongest Avenger” he has his big hero moments.
Although there is no real hint of it in Avengers (2012), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) establishes a romance between Bruce and Natasha. Despite their significant interactions in Avengers, I argue that this wasn’t necessarily the intention until Ultron began production. I feel like it would’ve been more heavy handed, were that the case. This romance becomes a lifeline for both Bruce and Natasha, and Infinity War makes it clear there are still feelings there.
The storyline in Ragnarok gives Bruce’s character more weight. While Thor is figuring himself out, Bruce has been the Hulk for two years and the line between the two personalities has blurred. When Bruce comes back to himself, he’s shocked to learn how much time has passed and that he is now on another planet. Thor develops a new appreciation for Bruce, who proves himself to be an asset even without the Hulk. He seemingly gives himself up for the Hulk at the film’s end, which leads directly into Infinity War.
In Infinity War, Hulk returns to being Bruce and is able to warn Earth about Thanos. Despite being “the strongest Avenger”, the Hulk refuses to fight Thanos again. It’s a huge change for the character, where previously, it’s seemed like neither of them had control over the switch, or, if anyone did, it was the Hulk. His last appearance in Infinity War has him trying to negotiate or reason with the Hulk, and there is speculation as to what this means for the character in Endgame.
Rumor has it that ‘Professor Hulk’ will be making an appearance, which has been explained to me as combining Hulk’s body with Bruce’s mind. I’m also curious to see if/how the tension between Bruce and Natasha will be resolved, especially since Bruce’s characterization consistently includes references to his feelings for her. While we know certain contracts are up after this movie, the plans for the Hulk have not been announced. At this point, I’m mainly hoping for a satisfying conclusion, one that makes sense with the character’s arc and doesn’t feel forced. The Hulk has proved a successful franchise in the past, but it seems the focus has thoroughly shifted to something new.