Ever since Mark Ruffalo’s charming turn as Dr. Bruce Banner, and his rage-prone alter ego, the Hulk in 2012’s The Avengers, fans have been clamoring for more of the Jade Giant on screen. While one of the best things about Marvel Studios is their willingness to deliver upon — and often exceed — fan expectations, here is one case in which Marvel has mysteriously been unable to meet demand. The history of the Hulk in motion picture media demonstrates some of the challenges to rolling out another solo film. The formula of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno show of the 70’s works in serial television, but its ability to translate to film has already been tested by Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk, the result being a respectably watchable if lack-luster installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Ang Lee’s Hulk would have had more traction if not for a weird final act that all but requires us to never speak of it again unless it is to talk about what a disaster it was. The “He-who-shall-not-be-named” of the modern Marvel movie era.)
These pre-Avengers iterations of the Hulk give us some idea about what kind of storytelling legs the character has in a solo feature — which is to say, they are somewhat limited. This is not to say that with some creativity, another Hulk feature film couldn’t be done. Yet much of the difficulty of writing the character is that the berserker rage and subsequent destruction that we are all rooting to see is also the hardest thing to reconcile about someone who spends their time hanging out with heroes. Explosive, anger-powered destroyers of cities are, as good guys, kind of a tough sell. This, I think, speaks interestingly of the origins of the Hulk, which owe quite a bit to Victorian era horror, and the creature feature trends in cinema at the time, as well as in the monster comics the Hulk’s creator Stan Lee was writing just prior to broaching the super-hero genre. He’s essentially a mash-up of Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein’s Monster, and like the two of them, who definitely occupy a moral territory with which it is hard to sympathize, there is no misunderstanding when it comes down to the fact that the destruction left in their wake is a threat to society and human life. Can you redeem such a character? This is the kind of uphill battle that adaptations of the Hulk present. You can only do that persecuted, misunderstood monster story so many times before you realize the reason why he’s being persecuted is because he really is a threat. You can ascribe all the malicious intent you want to General Ross in his pursuit of Bruce Banner, but the guy’s really just trying to make the world safe. The awkward, challenging thing about writing the Hulk is that his weakness IS his super power, and if a story doesn’t take the Hulk on a journey that grows him into something other than a pariah, then the character really is a one-and-done concept.
Joss Whedon’s handling of the Hulk in the first Avengers movie provided a brilliantly obvious answer to the question of how to take the Hulk further. By putting him in a supporting role in an ensemble film, Marvel found a solution for a problematic character that was so simple that they could have reasonably missed it. How well the Hulk works in the first Avengers is not only a testament to the writing and acting efforts of Whedon and Ruffalo, but a testament to the strategy itself, which made The Hulk the breakout character of the movie. It’s a good news/bad news situation: the good news is, we’ve found a way to make the Hulk work in film. The bad news, and irony of it, is that he only really works well as part of an ensemble. So, weirdly, the strongest character in the Marvel Universe will always be resigned to the confines of another character’s movie. Sorry Hulk. So much for breaking out.
It’s understandable that, if Marvel has stumbled on so elegant a solution for the film future of the Not So Jolly Green Giant, they wouldn’t want to jeopardize that plan with another foray into a Hulk territory with which they are still not all that confident. While Whedon and Ruffalo are on record referencing a rights issue with Universal Studios as the main obstacle to another solo Hulk movie, I speculate that it’s more complicated than that. Universal Studios has distribution rights to a Hulk movie, while it sounds as if Marvel Studios retains the rights to the character. Superficially, it sounds comparable to the Spider-Man deal Marvel has recently worked out with Sony, but different in some very key ways. While Marvel Studios now has the right to use Spider-Man in the MCU, and will have a good deal of creative input into the solo Spider-Man movies (which will now take place in the Marvel continuity) Sony will still be exclusively producing, and retaining the revenue from, the solo films. Marvel won’t see a dime from the solo ventures, but will get to keep all revenue generated in the Marvel Studios produced films in which Spider-Man appears. In the Hulk’s case, from my limited understanding of how the film industry works, Marvel Studios stands little to gain, financially, with the set-up they have at Universal. Marvel may retain the rights to the Hulk to use him how they please, but you can bet they aren’t looking for opportunities to front the production costs for a film property they already consider risky, while another studio is poised to reap the bulk of the profits at the distribution level should the gamble pay off. They might as well be doing it for free. If a solo Hulk movie succeeds, Marvel stands to gain relatively little (as compared to its other, completely in-house productions). If the movie fails, as it very well could, that sticks Marvel with the damage control for one of their most visible characters.
This isn’t to say that a solo Hulk film won’t ever happen (if any studio is full of surprises, it’s Marvel) or that it couldn’t be a great flick (the studio shows a pretty decent track record for some excellent uses of and deviations from canon), but that it is, at this point, so unlikely to happen as to not really be worth speculating about. What we *can* do is think about everything we know already about the Hulk-related material in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and ruminate on what sort of ride Marvel’s got in store for the Hulk and his fans.
If a Hulk movie can’t get a greenlight, the Hulk can at least get the spotlight.