What’s big, green, and forgotten all over? Amid the frenzy over the myriad of Marvel Phase 4 announcements at San Diego Comic-Con, it appears that the Hulk has been left behind by the superhero studio. In the Jade Giant’s place, a dizzying array of Eternals, What Ifs, and Mighty Thors are on the horizon, with no clear and obvious space for Mark Ruffalo’s character to fit in. That’s an incredible shame – and it’s a situation that doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon.
For his part, Kevin Feige’s mantra is clear: this is a fresh start. The head of Marvel Studios told IGN: “Phase 4 is about beginnings, and Phase 4 is about learning new things about characters you already think you know.” That includes almost everyone except, of course, for the hulking elephant in the room. So, where does our beloved Hulk fit into the MCU now? Is it on the scrapheap with Iron Man, or does he deserve a colourful Thor-style second act?
Narratively speaking, Hulk is at a fascinating crossroads come the end of Avengers: Endgame – and it’s a story that’s dying to be revisited. Banner (now morphed into Professor Hulk) is broken, literally (having been badly burnt after his use of the Gauntlet) and mentally (having lost Black Widow, the love of his life). He’s lost his strength, the rock at his side, and now he’s bowing out of the MCU? That doesn’t make much sense.
If this was a traditional story, it would be an end-of-issue stinger or a season finale cliffhanger. As it stands, Marvel is consigning the Hulk to the shelf. The fact that Feige and company are going all-in on completely new faces is detrimental to one of the most important members of the old guard. The likes of Shang-Chi and the Eternals present undoubtedly unique and interesting viewpoints, but it comes at the cost of aborted stories and haphazardly-cut plot threads.
Sizing Hulk up against the rest of earth’s original mightiest heroes paints an even bleaker picture. Iron Man and Black Widow are gone (although there’s still a Black Widow movie incoming), Captain America has returned to his own time, Thor and Hawkeye are getting latter-day Phase 4 renaissances (Thor has Thor: Love and Thunder coming; Hawkeye has a Disney+ show on the way). The only other big Marvel hero with an aimless future is Ant-Man, and Scott Lang will likely be much easier to shoehorn into an upcoming project as a goofy sidekick to a straighter lead.
That Hulk has been forgotten speaks volumes of Marvel’s previous use of the green giant and their refusal to adapt his role. Perhaps understandably burned by the departure of Edward Norton following 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, Marvel has barely developed Bruce Banner’s character in any meaningful way. Instead, Ruffalo is reduced to either being the quippy Science Guy (especially if Robert Downey Jr. isn’t available) who uses heavy sci-fi jargon, or, worse still, used merely as an easy action shot to show off the CGI monster mowing down faceless aliens.
It’s Norton’s movie, though, that acts like a millstone around Ruffalo’s neck. The Incredible Hulk does not have the same sheen as later MCU origin stories and, were you to remove Banner’s core nemeses and supporting cast, he becomes just an angry man without his own space to grow and foster relationships.
With just the one Hulk movie – there was never going to be a realistic chance of a sequel after Norton’s acrimonious end, plus Universal Studios distributing all solo Hulk movies – and, so, the lack of a franchise has always hindered the character. Ruffalo, the man in somebody else’s body, is instead relentlessly shifted around as a plot function rather than an actual hero. In short, he’s easy to discard and it’s a little wonder that he’s now the forgotten man, despite being a 10-foot beast.
It could have been so different. Marvel had the perfect chance to commit to a meatier Hulk arc – it just chose not to. Hulk’s appearance in Thor: Ragnarok could have been the start of a Planet Hulk run, a whirlwind cosmic tale that fuses the bombastic space-heavy sensibilities of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise with an introspective Hulk who feels wronged by the heroes that sent him into exile.
Age of Ultron also flirted with the idea of a more personable Hulk but chose to curtail it in favour of a short and sweet Hulkbuster fight. What did we get instead in Ragnarok? Hulk as a gladiator which, while giving us the best one-on-one scrap in the MCU, amounted to nothing more than a cool trailer clip. Therein lies the crux of Hulk’s treatment in the MCU: all brawn, very little brain.
So, can Hulk regain his spot among the key Marvel characters and build upon the franchise’s previous failings? Looking ahead, there are bountiful options for a Ruffalo revival, though not as the leading man that he potentially yearns to be. Eternals and Shang-Chi will no doubt be their own, Hulk-less beasts. Meanwhile, a turn in Thor: Love and Thunder or Guardians of the Galaxy 3 would likely see the character come down with another bad case of quip-itis.
But, thankfully, the MCU isn’t all big-budget movies anymore. The Disney+ streaming service has ample room for a chance to explore Hulk’s post-Endgame life, or even something in the space between Infinity War and Endgame (similar to the Black Widow movie).
After all, ‘Hulk Smash’ was only ever half the story when it comes to the Hulk; at its heart, he’s a man who continually struggles with inner turmoil – a true Jekyll and Hyde. He may now be Professor Hulk, and thus having beaten back much of that conflict, but the tragedy that’s befallen him adds only an extra, fascinating layer to Hulk’s story. Despite overcoming everything, he still loses, and there's plenty to be done with that concept. Disney+ seems the ideal place to explore his story and would avoid awkwardly fitting him into an already-stacked Phase 4 (and Phase 5) lineup. Whether this would actually be possible, though, due to Universal still having distribution rights to Hulk solo projects, remains to be seen.
Ruffalo is a fine actor who could no doubt pull off anything Marvel throws at him. The story doesn’t have to be Planet Hulk-sized. Just give us more time with potentially one of the most complex, complete heroes around. He may not look it, but Hulk is an open book just waiting to be read – all we need is a proper second chapter.