Thor: Ragnarok isn't just the God of Thunder's film, but also the Green Goliath's. Unfortunately, while Taika Waititi gives us some of the best Hulk ever, the same can't be said of Bruce Banner; Mark Ruffalo's nervy scientist is vastly underserved by this stealth Planet Hulk adaptation and, if we're being honest, stands as the film's weak link.
So, yeah, Hulk is awesome in Ragnarok. His gladiator persona on Sakaar is an unexpected joy and powers the film's best action sequence (a forced fight that seems to be in part sending up Batman v Superman). But when you get past that trailer moment, things get better. This Hulk is self-aware and he speaks - not just canned phrases but full, cognisant conversations. After decades of being mired in the very basics of his core concept, we finally get a big screen version of the character that takes a step beyond the Jekyll and Hyde green meanie he's often reduced to. That's really exciting, opening up a host of new storytelling avenues; for the first time, Joe Fixit (Grey Hulk who became a casino bouncer) feels like a genuine possibility.
However, the MCU looks to be making these Hulking leaps forward at the expense of Bruce Banner. Ruffalo's human-sized half of the character gets just a handful of scenes in Ragnarok that don't offer a complete arc and leave him essentially written out of the story.
Ruffalo was the best part of The Avengers, hands down. The scientist Banner was made an essential part of the team as a regular human and gave a grounded, fearful sense to the ensemble's powers. And, of course, his Science Bros. relationship with Tony Stark is still an incomparable pairing. Above all, though, Bruce's relationship with Hulk also felt progressive, with the "I'm always angry" twist deepening the two personalities. Avengers: Age of Ultron really played up that tricky balance and, in a movie where its ensemble felt muddled, Bruce was actually given time to develop (we'll avoid the rather forced romance with Natasha for now). The short of it is, coming from a backdrop of cinematic shrugs - Ang Lee's Hulk is widely derided and The Incredible Hulk is one of the most ignored aspects of the MCU - Ruffalo's take came out roaring.
Bruce Banner's Arc in Thor: Ragnarok Is Slight and Unresolved
With that in mind, Ruffalo's third proper go around (the Iron Man 3 cameo doesn't count) really fails him. Bruce Banner has been suppressed by Hulk in the two years since Age of Ultron, with the Green Goliath free to enjoy his celebrity lifestyle on Sakaar. Bruce is only released when seeing the recording of Black Widow asking the "big guy" to turn the quinjet around, springing the bemused scientist. He immediately expresses fear at a further transformation, saying that for the first time Hulk was fully in the driving seat, then spends the rest of the Sakaar sequence as an accessory in Thor's escape primarily there to partake in some quasi-flirting with Valkyrie. Things come to a head when Bruce willingly becomes Hulk to help save Asgard, a state in which he stays for the rest of the film.
While there are evidently interesting ideas new for the character of Banner, none of their ramifications are really explored. He's unnerved by his experiences since Ultron and sets up his next transformation as potentially his death - an evolution of the Hulk we've got to know that feels genuine and fraught - yet when he comes to face that it's with a brief acceptance beat that ends with one of the film's biggest laughs. There's nothing wrong with comedy in a comedy, but that gag seems to shield a lack of consideration for the fact that Banner may never return; we never come back to this point, leaving the arc of arguably the film's second most important character unresolved. It's like we're not really meant to care about Bruce so long as Hulk's alive, perhaps meant to assume (without prompting, mind you) he's trapped away in one little nook of the other guy's brain.
His secondary arc is likewise dropped suddenly, and this is one that's more confusing as a concept. Bruce is the second hit Marvel character this year to have his personality changed for a needless romance subplot: in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Drax, a character defined in the first film as on a mission to avenge his wife, falls into a hyper-literal coquetry with Mantis, forgetting everything from his past to find her inner (but definitely not outer) beauty; and now Banner, who was already forced into a non-Hulk-shaped hole to suddenly have feelings for Romanoff in Age of Ultron, is defined by his interaction with Valkyrie. Yes, it does have a better link to the duality than with Widow - the drunken bounty hunter only feels she knows Banner because she was so close to Gladiator Hulk - but it feels like a sidestep, especially when Valkyrie finding out Banner's secret doesn't change anything for either character.
Bruce Banner's entire time in Ragnarok is personified by a lack of emotional connection. Whereas you feel for Thor, Loki or even Hulk thanks to the comedy, for Bruce it acts as a barrier to his story. This leaves him wasted. You could have had him just be Hulk the entire time, afraid of the real man inside, and lost nothing from the bigger plot - and not undermined one of comics' greatest alter egos in the process.
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