Where do we go, Alter Ego?:
I have to say, leaving the theater after watching Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was a little disappointed with what seemed like an abbreviated role for the Hulk. After having spent months reading every article about AoU I could find, I was led to believe there was something big in store for the Green Goliath. What I felt left with was a skeletal story arc for Bruce Banner and his alter ego that only kind of pays off in the end. If fleshed out, I imagine it being a pretty moving journey. I suspect it was, in whatever version Whedon originally drafted (and possibly even filmed). Already packed to the brimming point, I’m sure the AoU cutting room floor was just littered with fun and interesting stuff. I remember having read about how Whedon fought to keep the scene in which Thor has an Asgardian acid trip. I understand why the structure of the narrative required that we see why Thor disappears from the action for a half hour, even if we don’t completely understand what took place. Thor’s vision in the mystic well was an extension of the nightmare state originally induced by the Scarlet Witch, and even if somewhat snipped, we get some insight into Thor’s interior life as well as a convenient seeding for his next solo outing. I understand why that all remained in the final edit, absolutely. But I didn’t find it all that interesting, especially considering that the only Avenger whose worst nightmares aren’t represented on screen at all are the Hulk’s. I think a look into the Hulk’s worst fears would not only be absolutely fascinating, and would give some heft to his decision to take what could be the longest quinjet ride ever — but what’s more, I’d imagine we’d have had at least a bit of a clue as to what the Hulk’s future in the MCU might look like.
Interestingly, during the Hulk vs. Hulkbuster fight, the bewitched Hulk’s color was supposed to be gray instead of green. It’s hard to say what the motives were for deciding to nix that idea, but the fact that it was an idea at all is extremely interesting. I would find it hard to believe that in a discussion over a superficial change to the Hulk from green to gray, someone in that room wouldn’t suggest a more significant change in the Hulk’s substance as well. The gray Hulk, traditionally a more cogent, verbal Hulk with a bit of a dark side, might have some marketing value to the guys in that room. It is perhaps that the gray Hulk would have been billed as “Savage Hulk” (a misnomer actually referring to the “original” green Hulk in the source material) that they decided to scrap the idea for AoU, and tuck it away for a time and place where it could be better utilized. Or at least, that’s my runaway imagination’s version of it. Or maybe it was something really mundane, like green pixels are cheaper. I have no idea how all of that works. Though it wouldn’t surprise me entirely if we come across an altered version of the Hulk in the near future. I think it would be smart for Marvel to establish that the Hulk can be altered, depending on the circumstances. Variant Hulks exist as part of Bruce Banner’s persona in the comics, and manifest due to either a change in psychological state, or as a result of trying to “cure” the Hulk. If we are introduced to the concept that Banner can change his expression of the Hulk in the cinematic universe, Marvel is not limited to a single incarnation of the Hulk when there might be a better version from which to choose. Perhaps Whedon and Co. didn’t have enough time to establish that in AoU, or perhaps their version of this concept didn’t mesh with whatever plans Marvel’s higher-ups are formulating for the character. At any rate, the finale of AoU finds Hulk pulling a Cap with a quinjet, and we’re left to wonder when and where he might grace us with his great green presence again.
We seem to be left with two options: On-world, or Off-world?
We don’t even know if an actual decision has been made yet, so they are both equally valid avenues for Marvel to take, as far as we know. However the Hulk appearing next in an on-world setting, to me, seems the less likely of the two options. Looking at the line-up of earth-set movies on Marvel’s slate — Dr. Strange, Black Panther, and even Spider-Man — it’s hard to see where a character like the Hulk would serve any purpose. The realms of the mystical, the political, and teenage drama all seem an ill fit for a presence like the Hulk’s. Normally I’d say I’m confident in Marvel’s ability to shoehorn shared universe elements into a movie without it being distastefully forced, but trying that with the on-world properties might end their streak, though.
It’s unlikely Hulk will show up in Captain America: Civil War; there’s been no casting news to that effect, and Ruffalo recently stated that, although such things can change at the last second, he has not filmed anything for the Cap sequel. One interesting piece of casting news is that William Hurt will be reprising his roll as General “Thunderbolt” Ross in Civil War. Whether or not the Hulk will put in an appearance here, it’s evident that his world is still an important part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the comic books, the Hulk is off-world during the Civil War event, as he is in the midst of the Planet Hulk storyline. That Marvel doesn’t appear to be using him in the Cap sequel doesn’t mean we can discern the reasons for why that may be just yet, however. But its clear from the casting that the Hulk’s supporting characters have a role to play. There is a rumor that Tony Stark will be using the pro-Registration agenda to aid his pursuit of the Winter Soldier in response to latter’s involvement in the death of the former’s parents. It doesn’t seem implausible that Stark might seek out an individual who’s spent a good portion of his career chasing a super powered being, and task him with tracking down another super powered being. Given a small strike team of powered villains or pro-registration heroes, and you could easily debut the MCU’s incarnation of the Thunderbolts under General Ross’s leadership. Of the rumors around the return of William Hurt to the Marvel movie franchise, one is that he will serve as the connective tissue between Ant-Man and Civil War in either a cameo or an end-credits stinger. Ant-Man’s talents (or his suit) might prove useful on a team dedicated to hunting super humans. The other rumor is that Ross is being highlighted in order to introduce the Red Hulk, or Rulk, to the MCU. I could see this working as a final twist, perhaps Ross’s reveal as the Red Hulk being the turning point at which we realize the Thunderbolts aren’t really the good guys. If Marvel decides to export Banner into space, they’ll at least have another Hulk on earth to play with. If they decide to keep Hulk strictly domestic, the introduction of the Red Hulk may open up storytelling possibilities Marvel would be interested in pursuing.
Where the other on-world Marvel movies are concerned, it isn’t far fetched that Banner, having exhausted his medical and scientific options to “cure” the Hulk, might eventually turn to a mystical solution from Dr. Strange. Perhaps whatever spiritual therapy they employ is used to introduce a new variation of the Hulk. Yet what could be condensed into a mid-credits scene is probably not enough to spin into a relevant subplot of a Dr. Strange movie. Marvel’s deal with Sony allows for Sony’s access to MCU characters to fold into the new “joint-custody” iteration of the Spider-Man franchise. However I would imagine that, since the solo movie is Spidey’s major debut in the MCU, they won’t be doing much plot-work with the Avengers loaners that doesn’t directly serve the title character, in order to keep the spotlight on how new, and different, and more Marvel the MCU version of Spidey will be. Black Panther won’t be released until after Infinity War Part One, and while it isn’t impossible to envision Bruce Banner having a field day with Wakandan tech, a role for the Hulk seems minimal.
These movies aren’t big enough, or thematically connected to the Hulk canon enough, to allow for any significant or satisfying Hulk-related story arcs to play out. Unless Marvel manages to work their magic with Universal, and settle on a mutually beneficial deal where they can give the Hulk his due, a terrestrially based Hulk storyline just doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
All that said, I think it would be in Marvel’s best interest to take advantage of the potential that would open up were they to introduce the gray Hulk. One of the ripest plot devices from the comics sees Banner merge the green and gray Hulk personas into a third incarnation of the Hulk, called the Professor: a Hulk that is as smart as he is powerful. The new Professor character would be a convenient way to allow the charm of Ruffalo’s Banner to inhabit the body of the Hulk, full time (which would be ideal for addressing some of the problematic aspects of the Hulk already discussed in part one of this article). And, come Infinity War’s inevitable ballroom blitz with Thanos, not having to choose between the brawn of the Hulk and the brains of Bruce Banner might serve as a satisfying pay-off for a character who’s had a tough go of it. Ultimately, though, I don’t see the Hulk reverting back to Banner in that quinjet, and bringing it in for a landing in any Marvel properties where he will get the character development Marvel keeps implying they want to give him.
That is to say, not on earth, anyway.