For this concluding post I’m finally talking about the MCU proper, in which the Hulk is played by Mark Ruffalo starting with Avengers (2012), as distinct from the 2008 movie The Incredible Hulk which is nominally part of the MCU but tonally and narratively quite different from the rest of it. I’m talking about this guy:
He has brief irrelevant cameos in post-credits scenes in Iron Man 3 and Captain Marvel, which we will ignore, but is a major character in five films: Avengers, Age of Ultron, Ragnarok, Infinity War and Endgame.
So far as I am concerned, this is the definitive Hulk, and not just because we have so much more of him than we do of either of the previous movie versions. The key point here is that both Banner and the Hulk are compelling characters in their own right. Banner is not just the guy we’re stuck with as we sit around waiting for the Hulk to turn up.
And this is surprising, when you think that MCU’s Bruce Banner has no backstory to speak of. We know nothing about his pre-Hulk life, or about his family or his relationships outside of the Avengers group. He might be the same character that appeared in the 2008 movie, but nothing about what we see confirms that. He seems to arrive, pre-formed, out of a clear blue sky.
How, then, does he work so well? Part of it is certainly down to Ruffalo’s convincing portrayal of Banner as slightly insecure but simultaneously convinced of his own genius. As convinced as Tony Stark is of his own, in fact, though in a very different way. Speaking of Stark, the developing relationship between him and Banner is one of the greatest joys of the first Avengers movie, which is saying a lot. We are shown, rather than told, that each of them recognizes in the other not just an equal intellect but a kindred spirit.
The nature of the characters means that Stark gets most of the best lines — his initial greeting is “It’s good to meet you, Dr. Banner. Your work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled. And I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.” But what makes it funny is not just Downey’s delivery but Ruffalo’s reaction, or non-reaction. There is subtlety here. One of the reasons the MCU films work as amazingly well as they do is that they have actual actors.
Another striking aspect of the MCU’s Hulk material is that it shows by contrast how humourless all the previous screen versions have been. I don’t remember the 2003 and 2008 films having a single funny moment in them, but in the MCU he’s occasionally very funny. One thinks of course about the way he responds to Loki’s big arrogant speech at the end of Avengers:
What makes this work is that it’s not a joke made by the Hulk, or about the Hulk — in fact it’s not a joke at all. It’s just his fundamental nature, expressed in a way that strikes us as funny. It emerges naturally from who the Hulk is.
Perhaps the success of the earlier MCU films — and here I mostly mean Iron Man and its sequel — gave the makers confidence that they could open up a little in Avengers, that they didn’t need to play it so safe and so poker-faced as superhero films have traditionally been. Really, before the MCU you had your choice between earnest (Superman and its sequels), camp (Batman Forever and the like) and grimdark (Batman Begins and its sequels). I’m not saying Batman Forever didn’t make some attempt at humour, but really it might just as well not have bothered. It failed the most fundamental test by not taking itself seriously. Even if its humour hadn’t been so unrelentingly juvenile, and so poorly executed, it still would have failed for this reason: much of humour is about sudden release from tension, and films like Batman Forever never generate any tension to release from.
And this is the paradox, isn’t it? A film can only be successfully funny if, at bottom, it takes itself seriously. We, the viewers, can know that everything’s going to be OK, but if the characters know it then the drama is dead. We can find sudden moments of humour, but if the characters find their situations funny then the tension is gone — and therefore, so is the humour. The Hulk doesn’t know that the line “Puny god” is funny. If he did know, then it wouldn’t be. As always — with all art, I would argue — everything rests on conviction. Even frivolity rests on conviction. You cannot be smirking and self-aware, and successfully achieve either drama or comedy(*).
Well, that turned out much more Chesteronian than I expected. I hope you’ve enjoyed this trawl through various incarnations of the Hulk. It’s been fun to write, even if it ended up taking about forty times as long as I expected when I started out.
(*) All right, as soon as I wrote “You cannot be smirking and self-aware, and successfully achieve either drama or comedy” I thought of Frasier. Why does that work? I think it’s because both Frasier and Niles are written consistenly as characters who know they are witty and enjoy the fact. So even as they are enjoying their own jokes, doing so is completely consistent with their characters. By contrast, although Martin, Daphne and Ros have plenty of funny lines, those characters never know they’re funny. So there is still a kind of integrity about it.