Red Hulk - Harrison Ford's possible MCU persona - explained

Red Hulk in Marvel Comics
(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Harrison Ford is officially playing Thaddeus 'Thunderbolt' Ross in Captain America: Brave New World, taking over the role from the late William Hurt. He'll also carry the role into the upcoming Thunderbolts movie. 

What's less certain is whether he'll take on the role of the Red Hulk as has been heavily teased. It seems like a safe bet, especially with the return of the Leader to the MCU in Brave New World - but nothing is confirmed, and until it's on the screen or Marvel Studios says so definitively, we can't say for sure whether Harrison Ford's Thunderbolt Ross will be the Red Hulk.

What we can tell you for certain is the comic book history of exactly what the Red Hulk is, how Thunderbolt Ross is transformed into the Red Hulk, and how the Red Hulk saga fits into the mythos of characters like Bruce Banner, She-Hulk, and Abomination.

The answers to these questions are simple - but they open the door to a whole wider Hulk continuity full of numerous Gamma mutates, rival Hulk factions, and much more.

We'll break it all down right now.

Who is Red Hulk?

Red Hulk in Marvel Comics

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

The original Red Hulk is General Thaddeus 'Thunderbolt' Ross. Introduced all the way back in 1961's Incredible Hulk #1 alongside Bruce Banner, Thunderbolt Ross (for decades just a regular man) is the Hulk's oldest enemy, a military leader obsessed with obtaining and controlling - or at the very least destroying - the limitless power of the Hulk.

After years of pursuing the Hulk through conventional (if increasingly powerful) weaponry and tactics as part of the military special forces group known as the Hulkbusters, Thunderbolt Ross finally decides to bite the bullet, and try to match the Hulk's strength through his own transformation.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

But he doesn't undergo the transformation by himself. Instead, he volunteers as a subject for Hulk experiments conducted by the villain MODOK, who steals Bruce Banner's own Gamma energy after it's siphoned off by special satellites built by Tony Stark in the story World War Hulk - a process which leaves Banner unable to turn into the Hulk at all.

Using a combination of Gamma Rays and Cosmic Energy (the energy that gave the Fantastic Four their powers in the Marvel Universe), MODOK empowers Thunderbolt Ross as a Red Hulk, who possesses not just the strength of the original Hulk, but all his own military knowledge and cunning, as well as the power to absorb and release Cosmic Energy with blazing force.

Following the successful creation of the Red Hulk, MODOK joins forces with the Leader, Hulk's other major nemesis, to use the power of the Red Hulk to get revenge on those who have wronged them, and to seize power.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

The newly empowered Red Hulk was introduced in 2008's Hulk #1, but his actual human identity remained secret for some time. 

While still anonymous, the monstrously strong villain tears across the Marvel Universe by seemingly killing Hulk's classic foes the Abomination and Wendigo, single-handedly destroying a SHIELD Helicarrier, and even causing an earthquake in the San Francisco area, before finally suffering his first defeat at the hands of a re-empowered Bruce Banner, and Thor.

Finally, in 2010's World War Hulks (a sequel to 2008's World War Hulk), the true identity of Red Hulk is revealed as Thunderbolt Ross.

But the reveal of Red Hulk's secret identity wasn't the end of Thunderbolt Ross' time as a Hulk - far from it. 

Red Hulk in the Marvel Universe

Red Hulk in Marvel Comics

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

First, Red Hulk teams up with underwater villain Tigershark, the magical Baron Mordo, and former herald of Galactus Terrax the Tamer to form the Offenders, a villain team that mirrors the classic lineup of the original Defenders (Hulk, Namor, Doctor Strange, and Silver Surfer).

In that story, Red Hulk absorbs Silver Surfer's Power Cosmic, nearly killing the spaced-out hero along with several others - until Galactus learns of Red Hulk's theft of the Power Cosmic, which the world devourer takes back, undoing the death and destruction caused by Red Hulk with his own godlike power.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

After finally defeating the Red Hulk, a re-empowered Bruce Banner arranges for him to be released into Steve Rogers' custody. Under the terms of the arrangement, Ross becomes an agent of the United States government working as Red Hulk, and eventually earns membership in the Avengers.

Along with the creation of the Red Hulk, MODOK and the Leader's supervillain group the Intelligencia conducts more Gamma experiments, leading to a series of spin-off characters including Thunderbolt Ross' daughter Betty Ross becoming the Red She-Hulk, and Hulk's longtime pal Rick Jones becoming the explosive, Abomination-esque A-Bomb.

In 2012, Thunderbolt Ross led a new version of the Thunderbolts whose missions involved dealing with the ramifications of Ross' own military career, while Ross continued to operate in the Marvel Universe as the Red Hulk.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

However, his downfall came when Bruce Banner, in his Doc Green Hulk persona, manages to catch Red Hulk and turn him back into Thunderbolt Ross. With his powers depleted, Ross is imprisoned in his human form and later paroled as a powerless retiree.

Tragically, Ross was murdered in 2018's Captain America #1, with Steve Rogers being framed.

Despite Ross' death, the Red Hulk lives on, this time as former retired army general Robert Maverick, introduced in 2017's US Avengers #1 (after Thunderbolt Ross' defeat, but before his death), who becomes the second Red Hulk thanks to a Gamma device which allows him to transform for a limited time.

As of right now, Robert Maverick is still the Red Hulk, though he hasn't been seen for a while.

Red Hulk in the MCU

William Hurt as Thaddeus 'Thunderbolt' Ross in the MCU

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Red Hulk hasn't officially come to the MCU just yet, but with Thunderbolt Ross set to play a big role in Captain America: Brave New World as well as the upcoming Thunderbolts movie, there's every reason to think Marvel Studios will go there and introduce Red Hulk in one of those films.

All the pieces are now on the board. Though the story of the Intelligencia and their desire for She-Hulk's blood in the She-Hulk streaming series ended in a much more unconventional way, the themes of the story remain mostly intact for a more straightforward follow-up in a later film, especially considering the Leader himself, Samuel Sterns, is well known to be after the Hulk's blood as of the events of 2008's Incredible Hulk.

Now that Sterns himself is returning to the MCU in his evolved villain form as the Leader in New World Order, it's not impossible that Red Hulk himself will also play a role in the adaptation of Leader's story in the MCU, with Leader potentially taking the place of MODOK in the creation of the Red Hulk.

It's tough to say whether or how much Harrison Ford will be involved in a role that seems to require a lot of physical motion capture acting, but if the MCU is ready to turn Thunderbolt Ross into Red Hulk, they've got everything needed to make it happen right at their fingertips.

Read up on the best Hulk stories of all time.

George Marston

I've been Newsarama's resident Marvel Comics expert and general comic book historian since 2011. I've also been the on-site reporter at most major comic conventions such as Comic-Con International: San Diego, New York Comic Con, and C2E2. Outside of comic journalism, I am the artist of many weird pictures, and the guitarist of many heavy riffs. (They/Them)