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Source images: Al Ewing, Joe Bennett/Marvel Comics; Alamy; Marvel Studios | Photo illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

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Avengers: Endgame failed the Incredible Hulk

A decade-long character arc deserved better

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Avengers: Endgame has finally arrived in theaters, and most fans have hopefully had a chance to see it. Now that all the Loki-smashing and Thanos-clashing has come to an end, or will at least be paused for a moment or two, it felt like a good time to look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s treatment of the Hulk and see its place against the larger history of the character.

Especially since Endgame treated the character so poorly.

Immortal Hulk #1
Image: Al Ewing, Joe Bennett/Marvel Comics
Immortal Hulk #1
Image: Al Ewing, Joe Bennett/Marvel Comics

1. Why the Hulk?

Given the nom de plume, it’s fair to say that I get asked this question a lot. But I’m afraid that my answer disappoints people because it is both far more simple and more complex than they expect.

On one level, it was just a snap decision. I saw Drunk Hulk on Twitter and thought it would be funny to have a Hulk doing New Yorker-style reviews. I didn’t have many expectations for the conceit beyond the initial lark, but soon it started evolving.

The persona went from coming up with silly jokes with friends to something more sprawling, personal, and resonant, a reminder that sometimes snap decisions are the best kinds of decisions if you’re willing to explore the limits of what they can be. But after doing this for the last decade (good granola, has it been that long?), hearing that question so often has forced me to examine my own history with, relationship to, and understanding of the character at large. And I’ve come to realize that whenever someone asks me, “Why the Hulk?” what they’re actually asking is a different question altogether:

“What is it about the Hulk that we all find so compelling?”

Luckily, we have a lot of information to draw from because the Hulk has been a part of the pop culture lexicon since May 1962. Originally created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, this new body-bursting brute seemed an unlikely candidate for a superhero. Sure, he stems from Kirby’s fascination with the golem figure of Jewish lore (and if you want to understand his relationship to such figures, know that Kirby himself was often compared to his creation of Ben Grimm, aka the Thing), but it was Stan Lee who broadly painted the objective of this new character:

For a long time I’d been aware of the fact that people were more likely to favor someone who was less than perfect … I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Frankenstein monster. No one could ever convince me that he was the bad guy … He never wanted to hurt anyone; he merely groped his torturous way through a second life trying to defend himself, trying to come to terms with those who sought to destroy him … I decided I might as well borrow from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well — our protagonist would constantly change from his normal identity to his superhuman alter ego and back again.

What’s remarkable about this quote is how quickly it gets to the true heart of the character, specifically Lee’s empathy for the unwitting monster. This is so important to understand because there are so many people out there — even some writers — who reduce the Hulk to a simple metaphor for blind, overwhelming anger, and that’s that.

But for Kirby and Lee, it’s far more nuanced. The Hulk is not just an angry, mindless vehicle for brutality. He is a direct expression of childlike emotional purity. Like Frankenstein’s monster, there is essentially a toddler residing in there, complete with a limited ability to interpret what is happening to him. And like a child, those interactions give way to the most extreme versions of joy, anger, fear, sadness, and disgust in response. The beauty of this choice reveals a simple irony: The Hulk may be physically invulnerable, but he is as emotionally vulnerable as it gets.

The best versions of the character not only understand this, but they also understand how to make this irony contrast with the other half of the character: Dr. Bruce Banner. Just like Jekyll and Hyde, the duality of these two “sides” should be clear. There’s Bruce, the high-functioning self who pushes down his emotions and makes himself suitable for human presentation.

And then there’s the Hulk, the fully busted-out expression of the raging subconscious id within us all. But in dramatizing this high/low dynamic, many writers make the mistake of portraying this duality in ways that are too plain or reductive. They will sometimes just make a Banner who is meek and repressed, and then indulge in Hulk as the obvious (and often ugly) power fantasy.

But what this approach fails to realize is that there are so many different kinds of nuanced dualities contained in the human brain. So, contrary to what might seem obvious, it turns out that the most emotionally affecting Hulk stories are the ones that give us a personable, engaged Bruce Banner with aching humility.

2. The Lonely Man

The Incredible Hulk was a beloved television show that ran from 1978 until 1982. For many Americans, it came to define the character while also giving us a plethora of pop culture gems, from impressively-thrown bears to the ever-quotable motto, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

I came to the show a little later, when the dawn of cable TV meant that we could all suddenly absorb a bevy of syndicated reruns every dang day of the week. I can’t tell you how many times I came home from sports practice, sat down with a box of Cheez-Its, and started my homework as I happily watched a body-painted Lou Ferrigno flex right through some denim. But even though I thought I was watching for those fun, tangible thrills, I was actually watching for the man who played Banner.

Bill Bixby is one of our shining examples of the great working television actor. His career stretched over three decades, featuring guest appearances on an array of classics like The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, Ironside, The Love Boat, The Joey Bishop Show, and even Fantasy Island. And he had three stand-out starring roles before he ever got to his Hulking days: first as the alien-hiding straight man in My Favorite Martian, then as a widowed young dad in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and then as the only magician-detective that I care to recognize: Tony Blake in The Magician.

What is low-key remarkable about these three roles is that he brought vastly different performances to each of them: from wide-eyed comic fear, to understated flirtation and self-effacing grace, and then to the smooth, debonair manner needed for his sleight-of-hand-wielding detective. It’s almost as if he was a great actor or something.

But what made Bixby downright transcendent is that he could do all that while still keeping this quiet, plain-faced nature underneath it all. It’s as if he just couldn’t help but emit this unflappable decency whenever he appeared on the damn screen. And I’d argue there was nothing more important to the function of his performance as Dr. Banner.

Because Bixby never played the role as meek, repressed, or unemotional. Instead, he was a kind and gentle everyman who had something intensely fatherly about him. You looked into his eyes and you trusted him. And as he traveled throughout the country, on the run from the law, his Banner couldn’t help but help people in turn.

Lou Ferrigno as The Incredible Hulk
Image: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

But this is exactly what turned the Hulk into a genuine curse. Banner never wanted to hurt a soul or put himself at risk, which created the drama of putting your hero into the perpetual state of being caught between a rock and a hard place. But in that space, you could see how quickly Bixby’s kind emotions would turn to fear as the anger or defensiveness built up inside him, afraid of the hulking transition to come and the disasters that would surely follow.

In this space, the show absolutely nailed a simple dramatic dynamic: Sometimes our dear Banner was trapped in some horrible situation, and you rooted for him to turn into the Hulk. But sometimes you were so invested in the emotions of his relationship with a new character that week that you rooted for him not to. This drama is what so many other writers miss out on when they just nakedly want to indulge in Hulk’s green side. But the TV show instead played with how Banner’s transformation into the Hulk would inevitably come too late or too soon and often to great consequence.

And for a fun little aside, I will always link to this decade-old list of all the things that caused Banner to Hulk out during the show.

In the end, we knew that every episode would come with the smallest of victories, but often at the greatest of costs to our dear Bill Bixby. He would simply have to move on to the next town, ever on the run, ever searching for a cure. And as the credits rolled, we got a look at him walking on the side of the road as the mournful “Lonely Man” theme played in our ears. It could make you cry almost every time, especially as you saw him stoically trying to carry all the pain and sadness within him. But he was never fully dejected, so our Banner pressed on as the paragon of decency.

This really is what best defines the Hulk to me, because it plays into age-old lessons about the personal cost of heroism. This approach understands that our deepest expressions and fears can hurt others when we never mean them to. It upholds Stan Lee’s original vision beautifully and gets to the tragic heart of the character. But even still, it all comes with an important caveat:

There is nothing that actually “defines” the Hulk.

3. The Non-Crisis of Infinite Hulks

One of the more frequent criticisms I’ve gotten over this silly alias has been the following: “He doesn’t even talk like the Hulk!”

I often can’t help but take the bait and respond with something akin to, “Actually, I’m sort of a cross between Merged/Professor Hulk from the Jenkins run in the comics.” pushes glasses up nose

The point of this comment is not to throw back some pedantic nerdery. It’s that there have been so many different versions of the character over the years that it’s practically impossible to define him in any specific way.

“The Hulk” has at different times been stupid, intelligent, angry, incapable of speech, eloquent, savage, noble, a She-Hulk, Korean-American, red, gray, as old as eons, and even once had a run as a mob-loving casino security guard. Really.

So when you pull the idea of the character back for common assumptions, you realize that the Hulk is simply a vehicle for exploring different dualities. With Bixby, it was about the curse of power, seeing the Hulk as a monstrosity operating against our most humble and good-natured selves. But for other Hulks? It could be a chance to explore the destructive mindset of barbarism, or the controlling mixed messages of the patriarchy, or even exploring feelings of inadequacy in comparison to one Freddie Prinze Jr. This also really happened, and it was actually written in pretty toxic fashion.

But with infinite Hulks to choose from, how should he be adapted into the movies? It’s no accident that we’ve seen some more careful, muted versions, but the translations have also come with a few errors in judgment.

Ang Lee’s Hulk, 2003
Image: Universal Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo

4. The False Starts

When viewed as a whole, Ang Lee’s film Hulk (2003) has its own stark duality. For it is a quiet, cerebral, and somber film about serious subjects, but it is also punctuated with some of the most bizarre and goofy choices I’ve ever seen in a modern blockbuster. When it was released, I don’t think it was disliked so much as people just weren’t sure what to do with it. But, like most mixed bags, I don’t think it gets enough credit for all the ways in which it’s actually good, starting with the way that Lee thoughtfully turns the Hulk’s characterization into a deeper metaphor for trauma.

We meet our new Bruce Banner (played with sunken physicality by Eric Bana), the poster boy for adult males who can’t connect to their emotions. His disconnection is a coping mechanism, one deeply tied to a buried memory of his father trying to kill him and inadvertently killing his mother. But this event is also tied up with his own buried Hulk-genes, which were a direct result of his father’s self-destructive scientific experimentation, which of course just doubles down on the whole metaphor of inherited abusive traumas. So when the events of the current story serve to re-traumatize him, our Banner breaks from his unemotional exterior and the inner “hulk” (read: emotion/trauma) finally comes to the surface with destructive consequences.

Yes, this is textbook psychology, but it’s also well-aimed and observed. Lee treats these subjects with the utmost seriousness, and it all cascades into an Oedipal battle with his father that invokes the notion of Greek gods in the heavens.

It’s fascinating stuff on the cerebral level, but I’ll admit that the action in the film feels unclear in motivation. For instance, the tank battle is fun and raucous, but there’s also the weird mutant poodle battle, not to mention the freeze-framed and embossed Josh Lucas exploding into the camera. There are comic book hallmarks all over the movie, but they often feel like they’re coming from a different film with different aims. I can’t help but feel like Nick Nolte’s off-kilter, gonzo performance makes the aforementioned battle of the gods feel just as confused as everything else.

But please understand I’m not talking about mere changes in tone, which can shift as much as it wants. I’m talking about dramatic objective. Where the old TV series felt laser-focused in understanding what it wanted out of a given Hulk altercation, I never felt quite sure what the Hulk sequences in this film were after in terms of characterization or rooting interest. Ultimately, I really like Lee’s film in terms of thematic ambition and find its goofy choices oddly fascinating, but I recognize how underwhelming it is as a cathartic blockbuster. In other words, I fully grok why it might not be a great Incredible Hulk movie.

So when the MCU came in to take over the character, I understand why they sought to correct that charge.

For starters, they leaned heavily into the references and signifiers of the old TV show and comics. From the lonely man to the purple pants to Lou Ferrigno himself, The Incredible Hulk (2008) is dead set on reminding you that this film is grounded in the popular roots of the character as it sets him up for the bigger world of Tony Stark and super-soldier serums.

But perhaps the best quality of the film is that it wants to make the Hulking-out fun and clear and properly motivated. It wants smashes and slams and a whole lot of Hulk make bad guy go squish! All in all, the populist aims make sense and work as needed.

But unlike the bottled magic of the combo of Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau in the first Iron Man, this pairing results in a comparative thud. Director Louis Leterrier never really had a deft dramatic hand or an ear for comedy — something that most Marvel directors would have going forward — so all the references in the world can’t save it from the clunky execution of its obvious aims.

But the bigger problem is actually in their choice of Banner. Edward Norton is talented, but if you’re going to try and give a Bixby-like affectation of the decent man at the center of the film, you really, truly need a Bixby-like figure. And Norton has never been that, for all his other gifts.

Luckily, the third time’s the charm.

The Hulk in Avengers: Infinity War
Source Image: Marvel Studios | Photo illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

5. Where the Huffalo Roams

Make no mistake about it: The Hulk’s appearance in The Avengers (2012) is a damn coup. Mark Ruffalo shuffled into an established cast as the first actor to capture, at the very least, the gentle humility of Bixby. But Ruffalo also gets to double down on the “aw shucks” goofball aura that he exudes so naturally.

And watching him bounce off Downey Jr., Evans, and Hemsworth proved exactly why he was the perfect fit for both the group and the MCU’s version of the Hulk stories. The big green guy roars into the third act after a lot of table-setting and is given spectacular moment after moment, from the Loki smash to the sucker punch to the catch, all of which were captured in endlessly GIF-able moments that endeared the character to a new generation of fans.

The Hulk smashes Loki Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures

Better yet, the movie sneakily said something about the grand Hulk duality. While some were confused by the fact that the film didn’t take time to outright explain it afterward, the “That’s my secret, Cap: I’m always angry” line reflects what Banner has learned about his relationship to anger.

Chiefly, that anger can throw us into blind, destructive rage — as it does for him earlier in the film — but anger can also be a feeling we channel from inside ourselves as a useful, powerful force. “Healthy anger,” as it’s often described in therapy, is the willingness to fight for self and what’s right, a lovely little duality within the duality. But the question coming out of that film was a question that all the original Avengers faced: Where does their arc go from here?

The answer is more personal and relationship-driven, as our Banner/Hulk gets a lot of emotional space to explore in Avengers: Age of Ultron. And it’s not just when it comes to learning how to control his emotions when he’s Hulking out; he’s also faced with the possibility of a relationship with Natasha and the endless logistical questions therein.

In short, he’s scared about getting close because he’s scared of hurting people. Which makes his choice to take the jet and fly far away from her both powerful and tragic. There’s so much I love in the subtle execution of that scene, particularly the way Hulk lets that childlike bashfulness and fear peek out for a moment as he turns to withdrawn sadness. But where does a fearful decision take us? Particularly one that takes us away from those we love and secretly want to run toward, not away from?

On a bender, of course.

Hulk’s appearance in Thor: Ragnarok is one long approximation of the fallout of that decision. He’s gone full Hulk-mode 24/7 on a gladiatorial planet and drunkenly embraced the ego that comes with his raw physical strength. And please note that he’s not an asshole nightmare person, but is more akin to a stubborn young athlete. And when he finally comes back to Banner, so to speak, he’s hitting that confusing, sobering wall at the end of his decisions. Banner finds himself terrified that he let Hulk have control for literal years. Now, honestly I’m not really sure the problem is fully addressed by the end of the film, but he does at least pull out all the Hulk stops again for one more big, fun moment in the climax.

But it all brings us to Infinity War, which now inherits Hulk’s story and the responsibilities that come with it. To be frank, there’s not a lot going on in terms of characterization, arcs, or even relationships in this movie. Everyone is in such a rush to ping-pong about into different alliances and situations as Thanos goes on his mad quest that they aren’t really given enough space to explore their inner lives. Each character barely has time to react to what’s going on, much less process it and grow.

But we do get a small snippet of change at the beginning of the film when Hulk is beaten handily by Thanos. This causes Banner to effectively “go impotent” and fail to turn into the Hulk when necessary. Is this due to him being emasculated by the stronger enemy? Is this about the deeper fears that the toughest men in the universe have underneath their burly exteriors? Oddly enough, the Russos chimed in on the subject after the release of the film and claimed that the Hulk was just “tired of playing hero to Bruce Banner.” It’s an interesting conflict for sure, but the obvious problem is that it’s not explored whatsoever within the text of the movie.

This is problematic for two reasons. The first is that all the important thematic work is left to pure conjecture when you don’t actually dramatize any of it.

But the questions at the heart of this conflict are everything: What do we want to say about Banner’s journey after all this? What is the “endgame” for our beloved character? Who is the Hulk? Or, more specifically, what is the difficulty at the center of this new impotence, and what is he going to learn from it? The second problem with not addressing this conflict is that it prevents us, the viewers, from truly answering any of it, because we simply have to wait until we get more from the next film.

When I said I was disappointed that Infinity War didn’t address this question in any larger way during the running time, I was met with the far too familiar chorus of MCU fans who said that I wasn’t being fair, and the creative team at Disney would likely deal with it in the next movie. Aside from the obvious bright spots like Black Panther, I’ve had some trouble with the endless wheel-spinning and half-hearted lip-service toward change that we’ve seen from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At some point, these problems and conflicts are going to have to be addressed somewhere if the stakes are to feel high enough to matter.

6. Which brings us to Endgame.

The film does indeed address the impotence conflict of Hulk’s character from the last film, but they do so in a way that’s … troubling to me. Because we simply cut to him as this new Banner-speaking “Huffalo,” and everything’s fine. It’s almost as if you can hear the storytellers say, “Don’t worry folks! He solved it all! And he did it off-screen! A few lines of lip-service should do the trick, and besides, who cares? This new Hulk is dabbing and funny and everything’s fine, just enjoy it!”

To be clear, I do think that the new Huffalo is enjoyable as all hell. The character is funny, charming, and something we haven’t really seen before in these films. But my jaw was on the ground when Endgame finished, because the Hulk character has literally nothing to do on any emotional level for most of the running time. He’s just … there. Sure, you can throw as many lines like “I was born to do this” when Hulk reaches for the Infinity Gauntlet as you want, but you can’t tell me that this is part of a psychological journey that was dramatized in the actual story we’ve seen so far. It’s just a convenient moment of seeming destiny.

It would have been so much more interesting to have Hulk’s final “Huffalo Catharsis” come through the dramatized action of the story and not part of an obligatory action. Seriously, imagine how much fun these moments would have been in an act of discovery for the audience, much like the joy of getting to see Cap finally wield Thor’s hammer. But instead, his “endgame” happened between movies, and after that point he was just there to explain things and be physically strong and resilient when necessary.

You can shout the logic of “hey, it was five years later!” at me all you want, but you shouldn’t save the most important parts of a character’s arc for the time between films. You shouldn’t hand-wave solutions that were set up by multiple films’ worth of struggle.

And yet we have to acknowledge that’s exactly what the MCU does in its endless game of Calvinball. The creative team had two whole movies to really explore the fallout of Banner’s relationship with Natasha, and what did they do? Nothing. There was an awkward hello and then no other conversation.

The only other recognition of that entire relationship came from Hulk being the most physically upset when they find out that Natasha died. This is exactly what I mean when I talk about the dramatic lip-service of the latest films and the way the stories coast off established dynamics without having the willingness to either change them or dig deeper into what they mean. Even Natasha’s sacrificial choice felt hollow. She can shout her explanations in the moment all she wants, but there was literally no buildup to make us feel like that choice was in play beforehand.

It is just one of many undermining thematic choices of Endgame, from the problematic 180-degree reversal on Thor’s thematic journey, to the troubling timey-wimey resets of Phase-One Loki and Gamora, to Bucky having absolutely nothing to do, which helps prove how little he made sense as the MCU’s Helen of Troy.

Even Tony and Cap’s final scenes can’t help but come to mind. Were they executed beautifully? Yup! Did they give us the emotional fireworks we always wanted? You betcha! But I can’t help but point out how, emotionally speaking, both of these endings could have come right at the end of Phase One without many other changes. And that leaves me wondering just what the heck has been the point of these last few phases, where everything felt like a half-hearted conflict delay.

Ultimately, the MCU gave the Hulk the worst of the half-hearted treatments. The new Huffalo is fun, funny, and, dare I say it, strangely attractive (fight me!). But the problem is that his final arc just became another undramatized lie. And when I think about that promise of the first Avengers movie? The promise of his deeper relationships that followed? When I think about the creative ways the merged Hulks were explored in the comics? Even when I look back at Ang Lee’s flawed but purposeful version? And most of all, when I think about the beautiful integrity of Bill Bixby that was fundamental to the character’s heroism and dramatic crux? Well, I can’t help but feel like the MCU let the point of Hulk’s overall story completely get away from them.

“They’ll address it in the next one!” you might say.

But we’ve been down this road before. And I argue now what I’ve argued then: that all our stories have to mean something deep to us in the moment. Because our lives are filled with so many crushing dualities and shortcomings that we need to find meaningful apotheosis.

And the critical lessons of empathy that we need to learn to get there? They’re created in shared experience, both through witnessing and being witnessed. Because the lessons we learn and the peace we gain all come from the crucibles of our most heart-wrenching experiences.

They don’t happen off-screen.


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