Plan it, Hulk:
As recently as last week, reference to the fan favorite Planet Hulk story sent a ripple through the internet once again, this time in IGN’s interview with Guardians of the Galaxy’s Chris Pratt. Pratt’s reaction is funny and interesting, but what’s more significant is just how persistent the rumor is that Marvel will bring some version of Planet Hulk to the big screen. The rumor seems to resist all denial, despite numerous instances wherein Whedon, Feige, and others have gone on record claiming that doing it would be prohibitively difficult for a myriad of reasons. It isn’t implausible that Marvel requires a strict policy of denial when those in the know are confronted with rumors, particularly when the they might be viable. It’s also difficult to determine whether the rumor that Marvel has plans to adapt Planet Hulk refuses to die because of the tenacity of fanboy wishful thinking, or due to the fact that the studio really does have something in the works.
And yet, I believe, that is exactly where the Hulk is heading.
While the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron leaves the Hulk on a quinjet joyride, the destination of which is left ambiguous, subsequent interviews with Mark Ruffalo suggest Hulk is on a voyage into the final frontier. Bruce Banner even asks in a tellingly rhetorical piece of dialogue “where in the world am I not a threat?” There were rumors at one point that indicated the Hulk might show up in the GotG sequel as a shot in the arm to the franchise, if the initial installment didn’t do as well as Marvel would’ve liked. That’s clearly not necessary now, as Guardians was wildly popular, but that doesn’t mean the Hulk won’t show up there anyway. Perhaps not as a main cast member, perhaps not even with any relevance to the movie itself — again, mid- and end-credits stingers are what built the Marvel empire. One interesting thing to note is that the Sakaarans in GotG — those vaguely insectoid ‘ninja turtle’ henchmen of Ronan’s — by virtue of being called Sakaarans, in all likelihood originate from the planet Sakaar. That seems a painfully obvious observation to make, except that the existence of Sakaar in the MCU is signficant, being that it is where the Planet Hulk story takes place. This proves nothing, of course. But it’s all very convenient.
We can expect as much of the two part Infinity War saga to take place in the heavens as it does on earth, which means that between now and the end of Marvel’s great apocalyptic event, there will be a total of five movies in the franchise that will feature off-world settings. With certainty, Guardians 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and the Infinity War installments will follow off-world storylines; Captain Marvel absolutely has that potential, although, like the new Spider-Man, the significance of Captain Marvel to the MCU may mean she won’t be sharing much of her spotlight, on or off world. All that to say, there are four, potentially five, off-world set films in which to move a “Hulk in space” story along. Between those five movies, there is a lot of screentime for the Hulk to grab.
Thor: Ragnarok poses an interesting opportunity for the Hulk to make a substantive debut off-world. For Thor, it might round out the character some — not only stretching their bond from teammates and comrades in battle to something more friendly, but it would also provide a tether to Thor’s earthbound life that plays less awkwardly on-screen than his romance with Dr. Jane Foster. Much has been made in internet culture of Banner and Stark’s relationship as the “Science Bros.”, but just as satisfying, if not more so, would be to see Thor and the Hulk as a pair wreaking havoc on the enemies of Asgard as Battle Buds, or Asskicking Amigos, or whatever nickname might do justice to the serious amounts of smackdown the two might be capable of laying in tandem. This would be a bit of a detour for the Hulk, but a useful one. On Earth, the Hulk might be a threat; on Asgard, he would be an asset. An appearance in Thor: Ragnarok would give the Hulk some much needed time in the spotlight, not to mention it would be a creative way of avoiding the repeat of a lonely and dangerous Hulk, who, with every retread of that territory becomes more and more the villain in his own story. On Asgard, Marvel is afforded the opportunity to further play out the dynamic that a socialized Hulk is a heroic Hulk.
Laying the ground work for the Hulk as hero is essential for the character’s on-screen success. Finding a way to make the Hulk work seems to require him being part of an ensemble cast (which leaves solo features, the rights of which are tied up with Universal, a virtual no-go). It also seems to require leaving behind what Whedon refers to as Banner’s “werewolf” story. Other ingredients important to the Hulk’s success, which the first Avengers has already showcased, are Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, and the “save-the-day” opportunities the Hulk is given. This last piece is one on which I believe Marvel is (or should be) angling to capitalize.
That Thor: Ragnarok is the movie that directly precedes Avengers: Infinity War Part One leads me to believe that many elements of the former will serve as a direct set up to the latter. Not the least of these elements will be the positioning of the Hulk to be as incredible on-screen as the folks at Marvel, and the fans, know he can be. One of the most convenient aspects of the Hulk traveling to Asgard is that, from there, he can go anywhere. That Asgard is rife with avenues to get around the cosmos — the Rainbow Bridge, the Tesseract, Odin’s mysterious “Dark Magic”, etc. — means the Hulk can go wherever Marvel decides they need him next. I personally like the idea of Loki (still disguised as Odin?) bringing the Hulk to Asgard in order to aid with their defenses, and, once the Hulk’s purpose has been fulfilled, having Loki teleport him elsewhere in the universe without much circumstance. Loki, not being a complete sack of garbage, perhaps sends the Hulk to some out of the way corner of the cosmos where he might thrive, but stands little chance of ever being a threat. Perhaps that special place is Sakaar.
This is all, of course, fanboy speculation. The Hulk could just as easily figure prominently in GotG 2, and they might eventually find themselves on Sakaar courtesy of the Milano. The details are anyone’s guess. I am convinced that the Hulk will end up on Sakaar (or some version of it) so that Marvel can make the most of the Green Goliath. While clamoring fans may not get the Planet Hulk movie they’ve been very vocally rooting for, I think Marvel will yet serve them well, and then some. The length, breadth, and scope of Infinity War Parts One and Two are well poised to deliver the one two punch of a Planet Hulk and World War Hulk mash-up. It would be, by necessity, very different from the source material. But also very plausible.
I do believe Marvel is desperate to characterize and capitalize on Hulk as hero. If the first Avengers movie offers us any insight into how they’d like to continue to use the Hulk, then there is a very handy three-pronged plan upon which this article has already touched. The first is Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. How the Banner character himself figures into the weird, off-world plans toward which Marvel seems to be steering is a mystery. But Marvel isn’t short on the lip service they give Bruce Banner when talking about the Hulk’s future in the MCU. How that will work is a writer’s problem, and I’ve already discussed one solution. There are any number of ways alien tech could be introduced to alter Bruce Banner and the Hulk, but suffice it to say Marvel’s scripts have always been clever, and if they want more Ruffalo, they will find a way to get more Ruffalo. The second prong is the necessity of the Hulk’s role being part of an ensemble, which is dictated as much by the creative end as it is the business end at Marvel. The third is that the Hulk as breakout phenomenon in the first Avengers movie had a lot to do with him saving the day. He arrives at the Battle of New York just in time to lay out a Leviathan with one punch. He’s the one that saves Iron Man from a long fall back to earth. He’s even the one to jolt Stark awake (back to life?) when it looks like Iron Man isn’t as invincible as he’s often billed. You can believe that if Marvel can have more of that, they will.
So…how are they going to get it?
The backbone of the Planet Hulk storyline is pretty simple. Having been blasted into space, the Hulk eventually finds himself on Sakaar. Fitted with an “obedience disk,” he and other captives are forced into gladiatorial games for the entertainment of the Sakaarans. The Hulk gains notoriety for his skills in the arena, is eventually freed along with the other slaves, and works his way into a position to confront the evil ruler of Sakaar in battle, in which the Hulk is naturally found victorious. Some on Sakaar even consider him to be the fulfillment of a prophecy about a savior, the Sakaarson. Eventually, he is crowned the Emperor of Sakaar. Incidentally, the Hulk encounters the Silver Surfer on Sakaar, and it is the Surfer that is responsible for freeing the slaves. Due to rights issues, the animated adaptation of Planet Hulk substitutes Beta Ray Bill for the Surfer, providing a template where any cosmically powered hero could take on the role, further showcasing the shared continuity of the MCU. Captain Marvel (either the Kree or Carol Danvers versions) could make an interesting choice here.
There is little in Planet Hulk that wouldn’t work well on-screen, and it would be a pretty solid ancillary plot for Avengers: Infinity War. If Marvel takes advantage of evolving the Hulk from a green temper tantrum into a cognitively aware and more multifaceted being, all the better. A world-ruling Hulk that can barely speak would be much less preferable, and far less believable, than one who can execute complex tasks and engage in political decision making. The Sakaarans may not need to have very high levels of intelligence, but the Hulk’s should appear to be higher. Again, perhaps due to the extra-terrestrial conditions, differing stress factors, the effect of cosmic rays or the mental rewiring done by the Sakaaran obedience disks, the Hulk that manifests on Sakaar might be an altered Hulk who has become capable of higher thinking. Ruffalo acting as a newly expressed full time Professor Hulk persona would again allow audiences to experience his charisma without a constant reversion back to Bruce Banner being a necessity, and it would highlight his further adventures with moral struggles in taking on the role of ruler, warlord, and leader of the Sakaaran army. Or maybe you just get the Conan of Hulks, which is fine too.
In a Planet Hulk inspired story, the Hulk would finally be given the chance he deserves to flourish, but the trick is relating him back to the overall plot at hand — dealing with the threat of Thanos, and what will presumably be the destruction of the universe itself. While the Hulk is unmistakably a hero in the Planet Hulk story — a symbol of survival and freedom, crowned as benevolent ruler of Sakaar — he is a hero only to the people of Sakaar, which means that doesn’t carry the same weight as if he were a hero to the Avengers, or to the Earth, or to us as moviegoers. Which is where adapting elements of World War Hulk would come in.
World War Hulk, the storyline directly leading from Planet Hulk, sees the Hulk return to earth with an ax to grind. In the source material he was blasted off into the great unknown by the rest of Earth’s mightiest, such was the threat they believed he presented. Hulk returns to take his vengeance upon the heroes of earth, and he’s not alone: not only are his Sakaaran wife and son along to help take his revenge, but he brings an entire army. Since the MCU’s Hulk leaves Earth of his own accord, that plot point which made the Hulk an antagonist has been neatly dispensed with in the cinematic continuity. What we’re left with is a potentially groundbreaking film incarnation of the Hulk — one who, when Thanos has the heroes of Earth and the rest of the cosmos on the ropes, shows up as a battle-hardened king flanked by the entire host of Sakaar to turn the tide on the Mad Titan. The Hulk and Thanos have faced off more than once in the comics, and Thanos tends to be the victor…but what an action piece that would be. Considering the visual it would create, its hard not to think of it as being inevitable. While I hate the cultural overuse of the word “epic,” a knock down, drag out between a conqueror Hulk and a gauntlet wielding Thanos amidst the chaos of interstellar war could only be described as such. Is there anything audiences would relish more than to see the Hulk come full circle from monster to hero, and once again save the day?
Like I said, this is all speculation.