(Note: This post contains spoilers for “Avengers: Infinity War.”)
In “Avengers: Infinity War,” there’s something really odd about The Incredible Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo): the Hulk’s almost total absence from the story after the first scene.
“Infinity War” begins right where “Thor: Ragnarok” leaves off, with Thanos (Josh Brolin) having murdered half of the Asgardians who survived the events of the earlier film. In the middle of that mess, the Hulk attacks Thanos and for a hot minute it looks like he might even give the Mad Titan a real fight. Turns out, however, that Thanos was just having a little fun — after he and Hulk trade a few punches, Thanos absolutely kicks Hulk’s ass. Hulk only survives because a dying Heimdall (Idris Elba) uses the last of his dark magic to create the Bifrost (Asgard’s rainbow-colored wormhole transportation system), zooming Hulk to Earth so he can warn the Avengers of what’s coming.
When Hulk finally arrives back in New York, he quickly morphs back into Bruce, and the weird thing is that for the rest of the film, Bruce is unable to transform back into the Hulk. In fact, on two different occasions, the Hulk briefly emerges from Bruce’s face to tell him “no!” before retreating back to wherever the Hulk lives when Bruce is in control of their body.
So what exactly is up with Hulk and Banner? According to the director commentary on “Infinity War,” we’re seeing Hulk refusing to come out and fight Banner’s battles for him. It’s not that Hulk is afraid of Thanos — it’s that Banner relies on Hulk to do the dangerous stuff, and he’s tired of Banner only tolerating him because of his strength. (We actually learned a whole lot from the commentary — read about all the cool tidbits right here.)
It also looks like this hangup between Bruce and “the other guy” looks like the next big step in the Hulk’s character arc, one that could fundamentally change the nature of the Banner/Hulk relationship.
The thing to remember first is that by the start of “Infinity War,” Bruce Banner and his big green alter-ego have been through quite a lot. Exile from earth. Two years spent fighting in The Grandmaster’s gladiator games on Sakaar. An expedition to liberate Asgard from the goddess of death. And that’s not including years Banner spent desperately trying to exert some kind of control over his transformations.
An important detail is that in “Thor: Ragnarok,” we see Banner has been locked in his Hulk form since the ending of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” two years earlier. Not only that, Banner has become afraid that if he turns back into the Hulk again, he’ll be stuck in that form. Despite those fears, he chooses to do so at the “Ragnarok” climax, recognizing how necessary being Hulk is even if he doesn’t want to, helping to save the day even if he’s still in that form at the end of the film.
But a Thanos ass-kicking later, he’s back as Bruce Banner and somewhat ironically, stuck in that form instead. As Banner noted near the end of “Infinity War,” the pair have a lot of things to work out. And a read through Marvel Comics lore suggests what that might mean — a version of one of The Hulk’s weirdest incarnations when “Avengers 4” drops next year.
Bruce Banner’s situation is a little more complex in the comics universe than what we’ve seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For instance, there’s a third personality: the Grey Hulk.
Unlike the rage-filled yet childlike Green Hulk (“Savage Hulk,” as he’s known in the comics), Grey Hulk speaks in full sentences and is smarter and more cunning — although he’s still not as smart as Bruce Banner, and they’re still distinct personalities.
The Grey Hulk is actually a retcon of sorts. In The Hulk’s first appearance (“Incredible Hulk” #1) in 1962, he was grey. According to later accounts, Stan Lee wanted a color not associated with any human ethnicity, and preferred grey, but changed his mind after seeing how that looked after issue #1 came out. From issue #2-on the color was changed to green and for the next 20 years, even reprints of the first issue changed the color to green.
That stopped in 1984, when it was established via flashbacks that Bruce originally turned into Grey Hulk before developing into the more formidable green version. Two years late, in issue #324 (1986), Banner reverted back to transforming into Grey Hulk instead of Green Hulk.
Grey Hulk is a slightly smaller and weaker Hulk than the green version. In the new backstory, Banner originally transformed into the Grey Hulk uncontrollably at night, and Grey Hulk used that time to work as a bouncer in Las Vegas, going by the name Mr. Fixit.
Around the same time (starting in 1985), Banner’s split personality issues began to be explained in the comics as stemming from abuse as a child, his Hulk personas the result of dissociative identity disorder stemming from that trauma. There are apparently other potential Hulk personas buried inside Banner, but only the strongest of them ever manifest on the surface. The main personalities have even been merged together, creating different versions, such as the Savage Grey Hulk, the Gravage Hulk, and two we think tie most closely to “Infinity War”: the Merged Hulk, and “Doc Green.”
The Merged Hulk, who first showed up in 1991, is a version of the Hulk in which all the personalities come together into a single, balanced person — and that includes the Banner personality. The character is as powerful as Hulk at his strongest, but is able to use Banner’s intellect. Basically, it’s Hulk at his most well-adjusted. This version called himself “The Professor” and claimed to be the best of all components of Banner, but this was later retconned as a reality distortion.
More recently, a new version of Hulk appeared in the comics — Doc Green. In a 2014 storyline, Bruce Banner exposed himself to chemicals that reacted with the Extremis virus (that’s the one that allowed for genetic manipulation, which bad guy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) planned to use in “Iron Man 3”), creating a super-smart version of the Hulk persona. It was basically Hulk with Banner’s brain, although not his personality.
A Banner-ized version of Hulk feels like culmination of a long-term story heading into “Avengers 4,” as Banner and The Hulk figure things out.
At first, Bruce Banner was all about fighting to repress his Savage Hulk identity, because when he Hulks out, the Hulk’s rage is often indiscriminate and innocent people get hurt. That’s the focus of both Marvel’s recent “Hulk” movies, particularly 2009’s “The Incredible Hulk,” which is part of the MCU (though Ed Norton played Banner in that one, rather than Ruffalo).
Beginning with “The Avengers” and lasting until “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Banner attempts to live with Hulk in a kind of psychological truce. In the first film, after being manipulated into becoming the Hulk again he figures out how to provoke a transformation on purpose: “That’s my secret. I’m always angry,” as he puts it near the end. But by “Ultron,” Banner’s willingness to become Hulk on purpose is tested when he’s driven temporarily insane and tears up a city. This time however, it is Hulk, not Banner who takes control of things. Banner is once again tricked into becoming Hulk during the film’s final battle, but when it’s over, instead of calming down and letting Banner take the body back, Hulk chooses to leave earth behind rather than live among people who fear him, (including The Avengers.)
Which brings us to “Thor: Ragnarok,” where we find Hulk on Sakaar. As noted above, Hulk hasn’t turned back into Banner in over two years, and when we meet up with him he’s developed considerably. Now capable of expressing himself coherently, it seems he feels intense loneliness and a need for companionship despite awareness of his all consuming rage. But after turning back into Banner, Banner says he’s terrified he’ll be stuck as Hulk if he does it again. By the end of the film, it looks like that might even be the case.
In “Infinity War,” though, the opposite happens — Banner gets stuck as, well, Banner. It seems the loss (more or less his first ever) has demoralized Hulk, or even rendered him scared to come back out to fight. But this time, the Hulk is able to communicate his refusal to come out to Banner clearly. That’s the first time Banner’s dual personalities have ever been able to communicate with one another, and it has to have huge implications for the future of the MCU.
Given where Bruce and the Hulk’s arcs have been headed, it seems like “Avengers 4” might finally find them trying to figure out their situation once and for all. What we’ve seen so far, particularly in “Infinity War,” that suggests that some kind of take on the Merged Hulk or Doc Green could definitely be in their future.
In other words, we might be looking forward to not only Hulk smash, but Hulk articulately explain why Hulk Smash. So here’s to Hulk being the strongest and smartest there is.
The home video release of “Avengers: Infinity War” has introduced a lot of new information about the state of the MCU. Here’s everything we learned from the “Infinity War” director commentary, and why Red Skull is probably pretty happy about the Thanos situation. We also learned why Spider-Man lingered a bit after Thanos’ snap; that you don’t have to be “worthy” to wield Thor’s new “Stormbreaker” axe; why Thanos didn’t go after the stones years ago; and why Thanos didn’t just double the universe’s resources.
We’ve spent a lot of time digging through the details to try to figure out what’s coming not just in “Avengers 4” but also “Captain Marvel.” We have come up with a pretty solid guess about what is involved in the one future Doctor Strange saw in which the Avengers defeat Thanos. Click here for our deeper look into how “Captain Marvel” might impact that distressing plot twist at the end of “Infinity War.” There’s also another obscure Marvel Comics hero who could be essential to “Captain Marvel” and “Avengers 4.” Click here for our discussion of the whole Vision situation and whether he’s really dead. Here’s a rundown of how “Infinity War” could actually be a giant, elaborate test. If that’s not weird enough for you, here are some other wild fan theories. And, finally, here’s our run-down on how the comic book version of these events played out.