The Hulk refused to show up in Avengers: Infinity War after being defeated by Thanos in the opening moments of the film, but his absence wasn’t due to wounded pride. The movie’s creative team has clarified that the Hulk is working through his place in Bruce Banner’s life, and for now that doesn’t include saving the day whenever Banner needs a problem solved.
[Warning: The rest of this article is going to feature heavy spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War past the first few minutes.]
“People speculated whether there was some fear on the Hulk’s part about having to face Thanos again,” director Joe Russo explained on the film’s commentary track. “But I think ultimately it’s that he’s tired of playing hero to Bruce Banner.”
This emotional development works well in retrospect, but it may not have been explained clearly in the film itself. The Hulk is there, Thanos beats him without much effort and then Hulk refuses to take part in the fight moving forward.
That arc was an effective way to defuse the threat of the strongest Avenger from the beginning, but the sequence of events does make it seem as if the Hulk is scared, or at least ashamed, of his failure in that first battle.
But Russo’s explanation is more satisfying narratively. Banner spends his time trying to keep the Hulk contained, and only calls the green monstrosity to the surface when he doesn’t have any other solutions to whatever trouble he finds himself in. Thor: Ragnarok introduced us to a version of the Hulk who was in control of his surroundings and actions, and seemed pretty content with his lot in life. Being shoved back into the figurative bottle only to be welcomed out again when Banner needed something had to have felt like a huge step backward.
This interpretation of the character is much more interesting than a man who turns into a monster. What if they were actually two people, neither of which were good or bad, and they don’t know how to live with each other in a way that feels good to either of them?
The scenes feel better when viewed through this lens; prior to Infinity War it’s assumed that the Hulk is always looking for an excuse to get out. But maybe saying no to those situations is the only control he has left when Banner is driving their body.
“What makes him unique as a character is that there’s a host body that is being fought over by two distinct personalities who hate each other,” Russo said. “Both want control of the host body. We thought an interesting direction to take him in is, well, what if Banner, who typically uses the Hulk to solve crisis situations, what if the Hulk were no longer interested in solving those problems for Banner? So, the relationship is becoming increasingly dysfunctional and that’s what’s going on here.”
And all this plays out by the time the movie is over, with Banner giving up on asking for the Hulk’s help and winning a fight on his own. Well, while wearing the Hulkbuster armor. But the fact remains he was able to deal with things himself, without either giving up or relying on the Hulk.
“Hulk, we got a lot to figure out, pal,” Banner says near the end of the movie. That’s going to have to wait until the next movie, but for now the Avengers series has taken a nice step forward with both Bruce Banner and the Hulk by making it clear they are two individuals sharing a body, not just a scientist who sometimes loses control.
That won’t be an easy problem to solve, but it does make both characters much more interesting.