Avengers 4 may be adapting one of the most popular Hulk plots of all time, bringing the Hulk and Bruce Banner personas into head-on collision - and creating a new identity nicknamed "Professor Hulk." There was already significant evidence that Marvel was working towards that idea, but recent artwork - that might actually be a leak from Avengers 4 - has just provided compelling evidence.
With the distribution rights to the Hulk sitting with Universal, Marvel has opted to create a three-film character arc for the Hulk that runs through other films. It kicked off in Thor: Ragnarok, ran through Avengers: Infinity War, and is building to a climax in next year's Avengers 4.
That means we're two-thirds of the way through this particular character arc. By looking at the story so far, we can extrapolate onwards and work out just what Marvel is building up to. And that leaked concept art could be the final clue we need to work it out.
This Page: The Hulk's Character Arc So Far
Next Page: Deducing the Hulk's Character Arc
The Hulk's Arc Leading Up To Avengers 4
This character arc all began with the Hulk and Bruce Banner separating into two different identities. "Hulk speaking [in Thor: Ragnarok] is the start to separating of these two individuals," Ruffalo explained, "these identities in this split-identity person, and where that's going to end up going."
There's a sense in which Bruce Banner suffers from a form of multiple personality disorder; there are two minds, trapped in the same body. In human form, Bruce is in control; but whenever Banner transforms, the Hulk takes charge. The MCU has always treated Banner and the Hulk as distinct personas, with Bruce referring to the Hulk as "the other guy." But it wasn't until the events of The Avengers that Bruce first began to understand the Hulk is truly a person in his own right, not just a rampaging monster. When the Hulk chose to redirect his fall from the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier so as not to endanger innocents, Bruce realized the Hulk actually had the ability to empathize. Although Banner didn't trust the Hulk - that's why he worked with Stark to build the Hulkbuster armor - he did begin to let the Hulk out to play every now and again.
The events of Thor: Ragnarok changed everything. Stranded on the world of Sakaar, the Hulk persona decided to suppress Bruce Banner, to refuse to change back. The Hulk remained in control of Banner's body for two full years, learning and growing, developing language. As Ruffalo put it, "He's like a baby! He's like a five year old or six year old. So he has the same syntax, he has the same world view." In the end, Thor managed to coax the Hulk into turning back, but this experience left Bruce terrified. If he turned into the Hulk again, would he ever change back?
But Bruce Banner is a hero. Seeing the last surviving Asgardians threatened by Hela, he decided to transform one more time. Notice what happened, though; rather than transform as Banner jumped down on to the Rainbow Bridge, the Hulk waited until after Banner had hit the surface. It was an amusing scene, but in hindsight it was an objection from the Hulk - an expression of frustration at being taken for granted, at being treated as a weapon of war. Moving on to Avengers: Infinity War, when Thanos beat the Hulk down, the Hulk had enough. He survived the Bifrost, crash-landing on Earth, and changed back to Bruce Banner. But he wasn't willing to carry on being Banner's weapon any longer. Instead, throughout the film, the Hulk refused to return. As Joe Russo explained it, "I think that if the Hulk were to say why, it’d be [that] Banner only wants Hulk for fighting. I think he’s had enough of saving Banner’s ass." Banner was forced to step up and become a hero in his own right, using the Hulkbuster to take on the Outriders. There's perfect continuity between the third act of Thor: Ragnarok and the Hulk's arc in Infinity War.
What We Know of Hulk's Arc in Avengers 4
Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War have placed these two personas in conflict. The Hulk and Bruce Banner are as antagonistic towards one another as ever, two personas who share the same body and seem to have a fierce dislike of each other. The beginning of Avengers 4 will presumably pick up with the status quo at the end of Infinity War, with the Hulk still refusing to do Banner's dirty work. It's safe to say the Russos are planning the Hulk's return sooner or later. Action figures for Infinity War even teased the Hulk tearing out of the Hulkbuster, and according to the Russos these were inspired by an early draft of the film's script. That suggests the direction of the Hulk's character arc, although it's uncertain whether or not the actual Hulkbuster scene will happen - that could easily have been cut.
Meanwhile, while this may be the end of a three-film arc for the Hulk, it doesn't necessarily mean the character's MCU time in the MCU will be over. Contractually, Avengers 4 is the final film for Chris Evans, while most viewers are expecting Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man to pay the ultimate price in the effort to defeat Thanos. But Mark Ruffalo's contract may not be coming to an end. It's generally believed he has at least one film left on his contract after Avengers 4. That means the Hulk's arc probably won't end in death, but rather will set up some sort of new status quo, one Marvel can explore in another Avengers movie, or perhaps by having the Hulk cameo in another character's film again.
Page 2 of 2: Avengers 4 Should Introduce "Professor Hulk"
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