When Marvel Studios boss and producer Kevin Feige said Thor: Ragnarok was going to be very different than its two predecessors we took that to mean they're going to try to make the next one simply better. Little did we know just how different it was really going to be. And then Mark Ruffalo joined the cast, with the Hulk surprisingly becoming a lead character alongside Chris Hemsworth's titular Asgardian warrior.
The surprises didn't stop there either. Feige revealed that Thor 3 would include "very little Earth," two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett joined the cast as the franchise's first lead female villain, the production was announced to be Marvel's first to shoot in Australia, and comedy genius Taika Waititi was selected as director. And now we're learning that not only will Hulk join Thor on a cosmic buddy adventure, but Thor: Ragnarok will serve as the first act in a major story arc for the Hulk.
The remaining two acts - also the remaining two films on Ruffalo's contract with Marvel Entertainment - will of course be Avengers: Infinity War parts 1 and 2, slated for 2018 and 2019. Given the cosmic nature of Ragnarok and next two Avengers movies it's easy to guess what may mean for Dr. Bruce Banner. Universal Pictures may still hold some film rights to The Incredible Hulk, but that's not stopping Marvel Studios from potentially delivering an adaptation of key Hulk stories from Marvel Comics...
Here's what Ruffalo tells Yahoo while he was promoting his latest release, the Oscar nominated Spotlight, about the long-term plan for the Hulk:
"I'd love to do a Hulk movie, but that's beyond my control. It's controlled by Universal. Marvel doesn’t even hold the rights to it. So, it's not on the horizon. And I don't know if it will be."
"But we’ve worked a really interesting arc into Thor 3, Avengers 3 and 4 for Banner that I think will – when it's all added up – will feel like a Hulk movie, a standalone movie."
This vague tease of a larger story for the Hulk - that we know will be largely cosmic in its settings - lines up well with the latest rumor of Thor: Ragnarok adapting the Planet Hulk story - a plan that reportedly was going to be setup in early drafts of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Taking the broad strokes of the Planet Hulk comic event (i.e. Hulk forced off-world and into an alien gladiator arena, later coming back to Earth with new allies) might be the smarter approach rather than a true-to-the-source adaptation of it and the World War Hulk followup storyline. That was already done in animated form and Hulk, as we've seen twice, hasn't proven to be a box office hit as a standalone character. The big green brute isn't as interesting as Bruce Banner, and him on his own isn't as interesting as Banner bantering with fellow Avengers. That's what made Hulk a fan-fave of Joss Whedon's movies since he didn't require that much screen time, but when he was there, he stole the show.
More importantly, how Planet Hulk plays out in Marvel Comics simply doesn't fit the characters as they are currently established in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the comics, a secretive group of top Earth heroes trick Banner to get him into space. Eventually, Hulk returns seeking vengeance. In the Avengers movies however, Stark encourages Banner to become the "mad scientist" and to embrace his "gift," and its Banner who chooses to exile himself at the end of Age of Ultron.
So, Hulk becoming a villain against Earth, or the Avengers taking such actions against one of their own goes against how Earth's Mightiest are depicted on the big screen. Instead, Hulk could meet Thor off-world by his own choice or by some other third party, and perhaps when he and Thor reunite with the Avengers they can bring with them help in the final battle against Thanos and his allies in Avengers 3 and 4 (Infinity War).
As for for the development status of Thor: Ragnarok, the next project Bruce Banner will appear in:
"Taika Waititi's coming in and I love him. That's a surprise and it fits part of this Marvel doing the unexpected, casting the unexpected, and now bringing in the unexpected for writer and director. I'm really interested in where that's going... They're writing the script now. I am thinking about it, I'm doing script meetings and stuff so we’re starting to prep it."
Can you envision Marvel Studios folding the core ideas behind Planet Hulk and World War Hulk but twisting them into the plots of Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War?
Captain America: Civil War will release on May 6, 2016, followed by Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; Inhumans – July 12, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on May 1, July 10 and November 6, 2020.