Neither Bruce nor the Other Guy gets his due in the latest Avengers movie.
Spoiler Alert! There are tons of spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, Infinity War and much of the MCU below. You’ve been warned!
With so many beloved characters crammed into Avengers: Endgame, even with a three-hour run time some were bound to get short shrift. It’s nevertheless shocking and disappointing that the Hulk, one of the most popular original Avengers and the second-longest tenured MCU hero, is almost completely absent from both Endgame and Infinity War.
Wait a second, you might say. Hulk is all over Endgame! The simple truth, however, is that the character featured in Endgame — helpfully dubbed Professor Hulk by the internet in honor of a similarly merged version from the comics — is not the Hulk at all.
The real Hulk was last seen losing a fistfight with Thanos at the start of Infinity War. The “merged” version we see in Endgame is in fact just Bruce Banner’s default personality hijacking Hulk’s body. While Bruce’s personal narrative is stunted in ways we’ll get to in a minute, Hulk’s is simply deleted. By the time we catch up with Professor Hulk, the original Hulk’s consciousness — which had been slowly but steadily emerging and evolving in every appearance since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk — has apparently been eradicated by Bruce off-screen.
On a surface level, the problem can be oversimplified this way: Hulk no smash. A character we’ve loved for over a decade for being a perfect engine of destruction kicks precisely zero a$$ for the final six hours of the Infinity Saga. He never gets a moment to shine doing what he does best. Banner’s smarts and charm are on full display, sure, and yeah, he gets to hold up the really heavy debris of Avengers HQ. But, all due respect to the very likable Mark Ruffalo, fans have been waiting to see the Other Guy wreck some folks since the end of Thor: Ragnarok. Denying them that for the entirety of the final two movies in favor of Banner’s comic technobabble is like a Superman movie in which the bad guy is brought down not by Superman’s awesome power, but by a really solid piece of reporting by Clark Kent.
Most of the last hour of Endgame is a concerted effort to showcase all the cool moments and team-ups fans could possibly have hoped for. All the surviving Avengers get big hero shots except Hulk, who doesn’t do a ton in that final battle. Meanwhile, Thanos is busy Diggstowning his way through Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, Thor, Captain Marvel, and Captain America.
While the absence of a Hulk vs. Thanos rematch is certainly a missed opportunity in terms of spectacle, however, it also creates a deeper narrative problem. Without that final showdown or something like it, Hulk’s arc — and therefore Bruce Banner’s — is incomplete.
Much has rightly been made of Black Widow dying without reconciling her trauma in the Red Room and her sputtering romance with Bruce. But at least she goes out doing the one thing that’s driven her all along: wiping the red out in her ledger. Hulk’s story, on the other hand, finishes with more loose ends than a shredded pair of purple pants.
Hulk spends all of Infinity War hiding out in the back of Bruce’s brain, refusing to emerge. While we assume he was scared of Thanos, ashamed of his defeat, or possibly just throwing a childlike tantrum, that’s never spelled out. Audiences naturally assumed that not only would Hulk’s unprecedented cowardice be explained in Endgame, but somehow it would be redeemed and he would come out stronger for it.
By rights Hulk should have gotten the chance to overcome his fear or learn from his weaknesses and grow as a person. How much more fulfilling would it have been for both characters if Bruce had to convince Hulk to face Thanos again even though he might not be the strongest one there is anymore? Or, if Professor Hulk had to be a thing, wouldn’t it have been cooler if he could absorb all the gamma rays the second Snap threw off to become stronger, perhaps even turning into something akin to Worldbreaker Hulk? With strength on that scale he might have been able to stand toe to toe with even an Infinity-powered Thanos for a while.
A fitting ending for Hulk would have allowed both of Banner’s personalities to reach catharsis. Banner would still have found harmony with the Other Guy while Hulk would have matured into a more complete individual, which is what they’ve both been yearning for all along. Instead, Professor Hulk is a punchline played exclusively for laughs. While Hulk’s juvenile pranks in Ragnarok were a hoot because they were a change of pace, that sort of thing only works if he gets to return to form later on. In Ragnarok, after all that silliness (which was also character development too), Hulk still comes back to body slam a giant undead wolf. In Endgame, far from highlighting Hulk’s greatest attribute, Professor Hulk literally mocks his savage predecessor’s best attributes when he goes back in time.
Then there’s Hulk and Bruce’s complicated relationship with Black Widow. Since Age of Ultron, Natasha has been the closest thing both Bruce and Hulk have had to love. Nowhere is this more subtly and effectively conveyed than in Ragnarok when a video of Natasha is what finally causes Hulk to retreat and allow Bruce to reemerge for the first time in years. When they’re finally reunited in Infinity War, the two don’t get any alone time but you can tell there’s still something there. Just like Hulk’s absence in Infinity War, this lukewarm reunion seemed to be a harbinger of things to come. The emotional payoff it seemed to suggest, however, was nowhere to be found in Endgame.
Not only do we not get to see what happens between these two (three?) star-crossed lovers after the Snap, the script doesn’t even reference it when things pick up five years later. But in that time Bruce figured out how to usurp Hulk’s body. That eliminated the danger he posed to those around him and the one thing that kept him from returning Nat’s affections in Ultron. Not even mentioning where that led is a glaring failure to harvest a storyline seeded over many years. Even if you were never on board with their awkward courtship, it still feels like the film is abandoning a relationship that fans had been led to believe would be important. Maybe it’ll be touched on in the Black Widow movie (though that seems unlikely) but it should have been at least discussed in Endgame so fans weren’t left hanging.
Now, is Ruffalo done with the MCU? Nothing is official but there’s no reason he should be. Banner presumably ages normally and anyway he can mocap and voice a CG model indefinitely. In the movies we’ve now seen the equivalents of the green skinned Savage Hulk and Professor Hulk from the comics. But in 50+ years of comic books, Bruce Banner has developed many other alternate personalities ranging from a few different smart Gray Hulks (including a Vegas mob enforcer named Joe Fixit!) to a supervillain named the Maestro and more.
Perhaps the MCU’s introduction of Professor Hulk signals a larger scheme for the character’s story. If that’s the case, maybe this portion of the arc will serve a greater purpose when all is said and done. In the comics Professor Hulk was introduced the same way as the one in Endgame — as a merging of the best parts of both of Bruce Banner’s personalities. But the reality, revealed later, was much darker: Banner had simply created another persona. All his other selves were still in there, awaiting their turn in the light. Could Endgame’s Hulk shunning be an intentional foundation for things to come? We’ll have to wait for Phase 4 to find out.
For more on Avengers, read our Endgame review, learn about the post-credits scene in Endgame, or let us explain the Endgame ending for you! Check out all the Endgame Easter Eggs we found, our Endgame questions and answers, our attempt at figuring out Endgame’s time travel rules, who that kid was from Tony Stark’s funeral, or how Captain Marvel rescued Iron Man in space.
Would you like to know more? Follow @FireballMcPhan on Twitter. Service guarantees citizenship.