Hulk smash. The Hulk has always smashed; it’s his thing and he’s incredibly good at it. But in Avengers: Endgame, the Hulk is given a new emotional depth that allows him to do more than express rage with his irradiated fists.
Bruce Banner has become a new, more complicated person, and after nearly a decade of living in constant fear of getting too close to people, he’s ready to open up. Unlike Marvel’s other heroes—who’ve had opportunities for major growth within the context of their own films where they are the story’s main focus—the Hulk’s evolution has been doled out piecemeal across the handful of movies where he’s been featured as a significant, but still supporting character.
Of course, there’s always Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, but that film both is and isn’t part of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe when we’re talking about how the franchise has handled this incarnation of the hero since he was first introduced in 2008. The events of that film are what made Bruce Banner the person he is in the present, but aside from Thaddeus Ross’ continued presence in the MCU, The Incredible Hulk goes largely unacknowledged because reminding audiences about it would draw attention to the fact that Marvel can’t put out Hulk solo movies without sizable involvement from Universal. So, the Hulk has existed in a cinematic limbo and Marvel’s very been very careful and deliberate with the way it uses him.
Tony Stark’s appearance in The Incredible Hulk’s post-credits stinger solidified the Hulk’s future as a core part of the MCU, but from his reintroduction in The Avengers up until his dramatic Thor: Ragnarok entrance, his and Bruce Banner’s characterizations felt decidedly one-note. With Mark Ruffalo’s casting came the era of Science Bro Banner—the Bruce who found an intellectual companionship in Tony and genuine friendship with the other Avengers as they crafted harebrained schemes to save the world. This existential divide between Banner’s Hulk and human selves is as classic as it is simple: The Hulk’s brawn is what makes him a formidable force on the battlefield, but it’s Bruce’s humanity and brilliance that made him a vital member of the team.
That tension’s always been a key part of the Hulk’s iconic rage, and it’s touched upon frequently in Marvel’s movies, but there are only so many stories to be told about a guy losing his temper and giving himself over to a monstrous berserker rage...that can only be calmed with a cringe-inducing lullaby. While there are a number of storylines from Marvel’s comics that delve deeper into the duality of Banner/Hulk’s identity—like John Byrne’s run that split the two in half and pit them against each another—Marvel’s movies have forgone those plot lines in favor of trotting Bruce out to babble about science and break things when necessary.
Aside from a clumsy attempt at a romantic subplot with Black Widow in Age of Ultron that ultimately went nowhere, there didn’t really seem to be any sort of grand vision for a Hulk character arc. But then, in Thor: Ragnarok, the Hulk began speaking. Expressing himself with purpose and nuance and a kind of self-awareness that marked the beginning of something new.
Back in 2016, Mark Ruffalo reiterated that it wasn’t like he’d star in a Hulk sequel, but he insisted that the Hulk’s roles in Ragnarok and the next two Avengers films would, together, “feel like a Hulk movie, a standalone movie.” At the time, Ruffalo’s statement added fuel to the idea that the third Thor movie would borrow elements from Greg Pak’s Planet Hulk series, but in retrospect and with Endgame behind us, it’s clear just how literal the actor was being.
Age of Ultron attempted to humanize the Hulk by contrasting the respective strengths he and Banner brought to the Avengers before ultimately settling on the Hulk choosing to leave the team out of a desire to keep them safe and take time to find himself. Having the Hulk basically disappear from the MCU for a few years might have initially seemed like a strange decision considering how important Civil War was to the franchise, but giving the Hulk the narrative space and solitude for a plot like his role in Thor: Ragnarok was crucial to making his appearance in Avengers: Endgame possible.
While Bruce’s struggle to control the Hulk might be the sort of concept that can (almost) continuously work in the comics, where readers understand that there’s a certain degree to which characters never change for all that long, the concept had already worn somewhat thin by Ragnarok. And so, the film largely did away with it in favor of spending more time with the Hulk as a fully-realized person with his own articulated thoughts and dreams independent of Banner.
For the Hulk, the planet Sakaar was a place where his strengths made him a beloved hero and part of the world in ways he never could be on Earth. Superheroes having public personae and fame has never been a particularly important aspect of the MCU, but Ragnarok very subtly plays with the idea that, on some level, they are parts of the job Hulk and Banner have always wanted. Even though Banner’s had the chance to live that part of his dream through his involvement with the Avengers, it’s different for the Hulk, who’s always treated less like a person in his own right and more like an attack dog Banner’s responsible for unleashing on command. But being on Sakaar and joining the Revengers created a space for the Hulk’s own desires to become realized, and while he says that he doesn’t want to be a team player, it’s obvious that deep down, he wants and needs people just as badly as Banner does.
The Hulk getting his ass handed to him by Thanos in Infinity War’s opening scene set an important tone for the movie and was one of the first signs that the Avengers were destined to lose their first encounter with the Mad Titan. But his loss also served to reemphasize the split nature of the Hulk’s relationship with Banner. As funny as it is to see Banner running around in the Hulkbuster suit, it’s a very real reflection of the fear the Hulk had about the matter at hand and the belief that he’s been carrying all of his and Banner’s weight all these years.
Infinity War leaves Banner and the Hulk in uncertain territory and with plenty of emotional work left over to get through before they’re anywhere near being “better off” by anyone’s standards. But Endgame fast-tracks us to a point in their lives when they’ve made monumental leaps of progress. While it might at first seem like a bit of a cop-out to have the bulk of that evolution take place off-screen, what we get in exchange makes the narrative shortcut entirely worth it.
Calling “Professor Hulk” a blend of the best parts of Banner and the Hulk is technically correct, but it doesn’t exactly do the character justice because he’s more than that—he’s the embodiment of their full, shared potential, and not just in terms of his physicality or brilliance.
As iconic a line as “I’m always angry” is, being in a constant state of anger is no way to live. As Professor Hulk, the two entities are finally at peace both with one another and with the world around them, something that allows them to experience the full range of their all-too-human emotions. It makes him an infinitely better friend and teammate to those around him and, on a more personal note, it means that Professor Hulk actually gets a chance to live. This Hulk can easily leave the house, go out for a few dozen drinks, strike up a conversation with someone at the bar, and hey—who knows? Maybe they’ll go home together and hook up because: a) one imagines that’s more of a possibility now, and b) Professor Hulk’s hot and everybody knows it.
As Professor Hulk, Bruce is able to be an active, and conscious participant in the world around him while also having access to the whole of his powers, both extraordinary and mundane. He’s just as capable of smashing as he’s always been, but he’s able to do it in a way that inspires awe and wonder in the public, even at a time when the world’s fallen and hope for the future is at an all-time low. For the first time in his life, Bruce is able to enjoy the same level of fame and notoriety as Captain America because of the kind of symbol he’s become. That might seem selfish, but within the context of the life he’s lived, it’s an important change for the Hulk. It’s a glimpse of what the future might hold for him.
Said future would, of course, holds more full sentences and even more of this new Hulk model whose faces and expressions skew closer to Ruffalo’s likeness, so the Banner in Professor Hulk is that much more emphasized. He might not be quite as inclined to wreck things with blind rage, and after the events of Endgame, it’s likely that we’ll see him in more of a bespectacled, cardigan-wearing capacity.
Point is, after a decade of watching the big green guy fling himself around and roar like a mindless animal, he’s become a thinking, feeling, articulate person who’s ready to share himself with the larger world. He deserves it, and it’s going to be one hell of a ride as we watch him embrace it.
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