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Dressed in prison fatigues, Tim Roth finger-guns roguishly from his chair as Abomination/Emil Blonsky in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Image: Marvel Studios

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She-Hulk brings back the second Marvel Cinematic Universe villain ever

Emil Blonsky’s back, baby! ...You know, Emil Blonsky?

The premiere episode of Disney PlusShe-Hulk: Attorney at Law made a point of proving to viewers that the titular hero isn’t your old-school kind of Hulk. Unlike her big cousin Bruce Banner, from whom she acquires her gamma-irradiated blood, Jen Walters doesn’t struggle with repressed egos or monstrous alternate personalities. During her transformations into a green-skinned, occasionally costumed brawler, she’s still the same clever, sarcastic, and periodically hotheaded lawyer she always was.

Pity the same can’t be said for her enemies. Sharp-eyed observers of the She-Hulk trailer may have spotted a certain towering, fin-eared, and British-accented brute who just happens to occasionally transform himself into the rakish looks of actor Tim Roth. Its the long-awaited return of the Abomination, last spotted in 2021’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. And despite his long absence from the MCU, he’s a character with a surprisingly storied history on both the page and the screen. So who is he, and what’s his (I’m so sorry for this) Abominexplanation?

A Hulkier Hulk

“Now there are only two of us,” cries the Abomination as he destroys the machine that gave him gamma powers, “Me, and the brainless green Hulk! [...] One I destroy him... MY strength will be the GREATEST! MY power will be SUPREME!” in Tales to Astonish #90 (1967). Image: Stan Lee, Gil Kane/Marvel Comics

To answer that question, we need to look to the glory days of Marvel Comics, where writer Stan Lee and penciler Gil Kane first introduced the wiry, scheming Communist spy eventually dubbed Emil Blonsky in the pages of 1967’s Tales to Astonish #90. In that first appearance, Blonsky is depicted as Marvel’s favorite go-to Cold War cliche: a military infiltrator from deepest Russia who stumbles on a gamma machine built by Bruce Banner, and deliberately turns it on himself to acquire strength, rage, and a green-hued and muscled-up appearance equal to the Hulk himself.

Then, Blonsky existed to turn a cracked mirror to the character of the Hulk. The self-loathing Banner, whose ongoing mission was to find an escape from the curse of gamma radiation (in a shockingly bleak move for a Comics Code-approved story, the machine Blonsky discovered had originally been built by Banner to take his own life). But Blonsky’s self-dubbed Abomination reveled in his newfound size and grotesque physique: “No longer need I resort to being a furtive spy,” he shouts to no one in particular. “Now I have only to desire a goal… And I possess the strength to make it mine!”

But the real key to the Abomination’s enduring success wasn’t his deep psychology, but his ability to out-Hulk any Hulk on the block. Lee had wanted a character “bigger and stronger than the Hulk” who could do the unthinkable by knocking the Big Guy flat on his back in their first fight, and for the better part of three decades, that’s exactly what he got. It wasn’t until the storied run of writer Peter David beginning in the late ’80s that Blonsky’s character (and appearance) went through a series of surprising transformations.

First, there was his physical mutation into an even more hideous gamma creature (courtesy of some inconveniently spilled nuclear waste, which is a hazard you’d think more people in the Marvel Universe would look out for at this point). Then there was the revelation of Blonsky’s poignant origin: Before his mutation, he had a wife, Nadia, who believed he had died, and whom he now could only gaze at from afar.

Under David’s pen, the Abomination became not only a physical reflection of Banner, but an emotional one, too; he was what the Hulk might have become, if he didn’t have the love and loyalty of people like his cousin, Jen, or his wife, Betty. Since then, Blonsky has followed a rocky road through his comic appearances, sometimes a tortured antihero looking for redemption (he adopted a community of homeless sewer dwellers in the late ’90s), but more often just a full-on evil SOB (at one point he killed Betty Banner, but in his defense, she did get better).

[Ed. note: The rest of the piece contains spoilers for She-Hulk episode 2. And, like, Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings and The Incredible Hulk. Yes, the one from 2008 with Edward Norton.]

The Abomination in the MCU

The Abomination’s mutated form, snarling, in The Incredible Hulk. Image: Universal Pictures

When it came time to adapt Blonksy to the big screen for 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, however, the brain trust at Marvel Studios knew exactly which version of the character they wanted: the massive, green, grunting slugger who could lay Bruce Banner out on his gamma-irradiated keister. As played by Tim Roth, this version of Blonsky bears some marked differences from his comic counterpart. Rather than a sneaky Commie spy, he’s a British Royal Marine, enlisted by General Thaddeus Ross to destroy the Hulk — only to be battered and traumatized while trying. That humbling experience is what prompts Blonsky to volunteer for an experiment to re-create the Hulk, with predictably gruesome and chaotic results.

It’s a take that brings an interesting angle to Blonsky’s origin, even as it preserves the basic elements of the comics (violent weirdo sees Hulk, decides he’ll have what he’s having). This Abomination lusts after the Hulk’s mutation not just because he’s jealous of his limitless strength and power (though casting the wiry Roth in the role was something of an inspired choice when it comes to that), but because he sees him as the ultimate weapon: a big, green muscle cannon that every soldier wants, but no one else can get.

Movie Abomination’s original design was also leagues away from his comic book origins, discarding bright green scales and flappy ear fins for a look more akin to Dennis Hopper as King Koopa — a change that did not sit well with early MCU fans. But changes aside, once Blonsky’s transformation was done, it was all over but the punching. The movie’s climax finds the Abomination wrestling with the Hulk throughout Harlem, before being brought down, captured, and put on ice (literally) by his military handlers.

And that’s where things stood for more than a decade, since the entire Hulk franchise found itself inconveniently put on ice, too. That is, until a surprise cameo appearance in 2021’s Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, where the Abomination pops up in an (apparently friendly) fight club match against Dr. Strange’s partner in magical crime, Wong. By this time, it seems Blonsky has undergone some major off-screen changes, both physically and emotionally. Gone is his early, Super Mario Bros.-esque form, replaced with an appearance far closer to Gil Kane’s illustrated design. And his personality seems to have physically mellowed, too, taking on a seemingly amicable rapport with his heroic combatant.

All of which serves as setup for the character’s forthcoming appearance in She-Hulk this season. In episode 2 we find out that Blonsky is up for parole — and who better than his fellow gamma-impaired person and cousin of his enemy who is also a lawyer to make the case for his rehabilitation? The episode’s cliffhanger shows that Jen has her work cut out for her, though, as footage surfaces of Blonsky at that fight club. Escaping your supermax prison to punch the Sorcerer Supreme is not generally considered “good behavior” by any parole board. The show’s head writer, Jessica Gao, recently told an interviewer that the whole first season was originally going to be about the Abomination’s trial, before the writers realized it would require a David E. Kelley grasp of scintillating legal drama.

And that suggests that we’ve come full circle, back to some of the themes the comics had always emphasized in the first place: not only Emil Blonsky’s halting desire for redemption, but the fear both Bruce Banner and Jen Walters have of becoming as lonely and uncontrollably violent as Blonsky himself. In She-Hulk’s first episode, her cousin Bruce ominously warns her, “When people start seeing you as a monster, that never goes away.” It looks like Tim Roth’s Abomination is about to put that claim to the test.

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