The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been nearly perfect. Especially in the age of social media, it is almost an anomaly for a story in a TV show or movie franchise to be widely beloved by fans from start to finish. “Game of Thrones” faced backlash for not providing a satisfying ending to the series, “WandaVision” was met with plenty of criticism when its conclusion did not live up to the expectations of fans, and even tremendously successful franchises like “Star Wars” have been deeply ridiculed for not satisfying people’s love for the story as the years have gone by. Many, if not most, stories over the years have become vulnerable to criticism as they progress toward the end. Very rarely is a story told whose conclusion is as beautiful and loved as its introduction.
That is precisely why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the pop culture phenomenon that it has become. 2008’s “Iron Man” set the stage for a beautiful 20+ movie long story that took place all over the galaxy and featured everyone’s favorite heroes; and while there were blunders along the way, “Infinity War” and “Endgame” were the conclusions to the saga that solidified the Marvel Cinematic Universe as something truly special. By the end of it all, fans mostly saw the arcs and endings they wanted for everybody … besides one character.
Bruce Banner, also known as The Hulk, is a character who has long been mistreated by Marvel’s storyline. Since “The Incredible Hulk” in 2008, many fans have adamantly pointed out the flaws in nearly every appearance of the supersize superhero. By the end, there was little to no redemption for the fumbling of the character. Fans never got to see The Hulk they fell in love with from the comics and animated series. He did not get his long-awaited rematch with Thanos, he did not ever become a walking weapon of mass destruction, and he was frequently shown to be a monstrous brute with little complexity who somehow found himself on the short end of every fight.
The MCU actually did the opposite of what fans expected. Instead of becoming the world-breaking, dangerous beast that fans wanted, he became Bruce Banner in the body of The Hulk with little purpose outside of using the Infinity Gauntlet to snap everybody back into existence. Perhaps there is more to come from everybody’s favorite green behemoth, but for now, The Hulk has been nothing short of disappointing. In the spirit of Marvel’s new “What If?..” series on Disney+, what if The Hulk’s story throughout the saga was different?
Reimagining the Hulk
One of the best renditions of the character thus far came in 2012’s “The Avengers” film. In the movie, Banner was portrayed as a struggling scientist ashamed of the monster inside of him, sneaking around the globe and hiding from authorities while he used his brilliant medical knowledge to help those in struggling countries. Eventually, Loki tries to use him as an uncontrollable weapon against his own team, which backfires when he reveals that he has taken control of the Hulk inside of him.
This is where they first went wrong. Giving Banner control of Hulk so early on in the story shrinks the room for growth. Hulk is at his best when he is the X-factor of the squad. At this moment, it shouldn’t have been Banner’s newfound control of Hulk that backfired for Loki, but rather, the ensuing destruction caused by The Hulk’s rage. The first Avengers film had enough happy endings. The great flaw that takes the characters into the next movie could perhaps have been something more along the lines of Banner going insane and losing more and more control of the monster inside of him. As he runs away from his team, they are forced to find him in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
Now, imagine this. The second Avengers film opens with the Avengers team responding to a sighting of The Hulk. As they approach the same base that Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were found in, it is revealed that Banner has been held captive and tortured since the events of the first movie. He is eventually rescued by his fellow teammates, but he is left with a severely damaged psyche and extreme remorse over The Hulk’s rampage in the first movie. As the Avengers bring him back to their base, the threat of Ultron arises.
Ultron begins to overpower The Avengers. The sheer number of Ultron-controlled robots is too much for The Avengers to withstand, and his power begins to multiply by the second. With one last hope, Banner is coerced into transforming into The Hulk. He saves the day and redeems himself for the events of the first Avengers movie. At the end, he is seen exerting a little more control over The Hulk that lays inside of him.
In this version of events, The Hulk does not go to space. Therefore, his next appearance isn’t in Ragnarok, but in “Captain America: Civil War.” The U.S. government once again tries to force superheroes to register with the government, but this time, they specifically cite The Hulk’s presence as the reason why. Many people in the world are shown to be scared of The Hulk, and Banner swears to never let the beast emerge again. He begins to feel like Earth would be better off without him. Banner, depicted as suicidal in the first Avengers movie, attempts to take his own life. However, The Hulk disagrees. As the media shows the final fight between Avengers, it also shows The Hulk on the loose again rushing to the scene. As the fight reaches its climax, The Hulk speaks his first words.
The irony of the green rage monster telling Earth’s mightiest heroes that fighting isn’t the way is a huge step for both the story and for the character of The Hulk. There seems to be a bit of balance between Banner and The Hulk at this point, as well as a reason for the fighting to stop. As the heroes disperse and Captain America and The Winter Soldier escape, The Hulk finds a solution to Banner’s problems in the cockpit of a Quinjet. The Hulk decides to fly away as far as possible, as he finally determines that Earth isn’t the place for him or his other half, Bruce Banner.
“Avengers: Infinity War” begins. The Hulk’s journey to other worlds does not end well. After being sucked into the abyss of a black hole, he finds himself in the orbit of a planet. As the Quinjet crashes into the surface, it is revealed to be the home planet of Thanos. The two monstrous beings duel, with Thanos coming out on top yet again and taking The Hulk hostage. Now, both Banner and The Hulk know what it feels like to be a prisoner. The Hulk is brought back to Earth as Thanos invades, and he is forced to fight against the people he once called friends. Iron Man in the Hulkbuster armor eventually breaks through to him as he returns to the form of Banner. At this point, even Banner wants revenge on Thanos for what he did to him and the rest of the world.
“Avengers: Endgame” features the final showdown between the two most powerful beings in the universe, The Hulk and Thanos. In the final battle, as Hulk snaps his fingers to bring everyone back, he is shown a vision — one that features all of the people Thanos killed in this world and the next, and his love interest Black Widow telling him, “For now, it is okay to be angry.”
As he is shown the death and suffering of so many people, his eyes turn bright green with the hunger for the blood of his enemies, specifically Thanos. The Hulk becomes the world-breaking menace that we all know and love. He redeems himself and puts his brain and brawn together. Most of all, he puts the pain of Banner and The Hulk together. He transforms into the most enraged version of himself and becomes the one that takes down Thanos and gives Iron Man the chance to grab the Infinity Stones. The rest is history.
With just a few small tweaks in the story, The Hulk becomes a much more prominent, powerful and complex character. Obviously, Marvel was disadvantaged by not having the full rights to The Hulk and being unable to make solo movies about the character. In the midst of trying to fit a story that deserved so much elaboration into smaller moments in multiple movies that do not center around him, they did not quite establish The Hulk as a character.
However, The Hulk will return. He will be a heavily featured character in the new “She-Hulk” Disney+ series and there have been recent rumors of a solo movie. Only time will tell if this character can be saved from the brink of disappointment.