Thor: Ragnarok Confirms Hulk May Be Equally in Control
While introduced as an analogue for Bruce Banner's rage, or an uncontrollable reflection of himself, the dynamic changes from one that gets audiences cheering when Bruce transforms into (or gives in to) Hulk. By Age of Ultron, Bruce has no memory of what he does while in the Hulk's form. It's as though it's being done by a different person; one who shares common traits with Bruce, and yet is distinct.
Thor: Ragnarok takes this one step further. Heartbroken by his relationship with Black Widow, the Hulk flees from the Avengers - and takes control of the steering wheel. Shockingly, Bruce remains in Hulk form for at least two years, and the Hulk grows into a separate, distinct persona.
It takes Thor's arrival to draw Bruce back to the surface, and he is left shaken by the experience. Banner is faced with the disturbing truth that the Hulk persona may well be stronger than he is, and that his own identity could ultimately be erased. In spite of that, in a single heroic moment Bruce chooses to change one last time.
Where Will The Story Go in Infinity War & Beyond?
Thor: Ragnarok closed with Bruce in Hulk form once again. Crucially, though, the trailer for Infinity War has already demonstrated that the Hulk will be cast down to Earth. Presumably defeated by Thanos, the Hulk will transition back into Bruce Banner form. There's some evidence that Banner will initially resist the urge to change back, even piloting Iron Man's Hulkbuster armor rather than transform into the Hulk. No doubt the Banner persona will be strengthened by his reunion with Black Widow, and Scarlett Johansson has teased a reunion between the Hulk and Black Widow.
Ruffalo has also hinted that Marvel may consider the "World War Hulk" event, or something close to it, at some point down the road (but not in the immediate future). In the comics, this saw the Hulk persona take full control for a while, and seek brutal revenge on Earth's heroes - who he believed had wronged him. The Hulk actually led a planetary invasion, and brought most of the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four to their knees.
He was only defeated by the cosmic power of The Sentry, finally reverting back to Bruce Banner. Marvel has already incorporated the "Planet Hulk" story, precursor to "World War Hulk," into Thor: Ragnarok. So it's certainly possible they could choose to add elements of "World War Hulk" into the mix, too.
Ultimately, though, there are only two real ways this character arc can end. Either one personality is destroyed forever, or the two blend and create something new. The latter was the approach taken by Peter David, and led to a period in which Bruce and the Hulk were unified. The Hulk proved more formidable than ever before, a terrifyingly powerful being who retained the genius of Bruce Banner.
Naturally, these are comics, and that adjusted status quo didn't last beyond David's run; but it would certainly be an appropriate direction to take on the big screen. The only question would be whether or not Marvel explored Banner's tragic history in order to bring about the integration. David's plot used hypnosis to explore the impact of his childhood on Bruce's mind, and ultimately force the different personalities to merge. It was a powerful, albeit disturbing, scene - and it may prove a little too much for a PG-13 Marvel movie.
It's worth remembering that Bruce's background trauma is no coincidence. The Hulk has always been a favorite for children whose lives are shaped or impacted by abuse, giving voice to their own repressed anger, sadness, or sense of injustice inflicted upon 'the little guy.'
It's always tempting to assume that superheroes, as part of pop culture, somehow don't matter. The reality, however, is that the most successful superheroes always resonate with viewers because they speak to their humanity. That makes this Hulk arc - the battle for control - one that really matters.
The story arc may have kicked off humorously in Thor: Ragnarok, but it will need a careful and sensitive resolution through Infinity War and beyond in order to conclude with the power it deserves.
- Avengers: Infinity War / The Avengers 3 (2018) release date: Apr 27, 2018
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019