Thor: Ragnarok just arrived on the comic book film scene like Vinny Chase and his Entourage with style, presence, and a Hulk. While the Odinson’s family skeletons and the fate of Asgard are the primary plot and driving force of the story, there’s another that is developed very much in tandem with the concept of a comic book crossover on screen and its all due to the complicated film rights of The Incredible Hulk, a character that hasn’t had a stand alone film since 2008 yet has made a handful of appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since. Fair warning, there are minor Hulk related spoilers concerning Thor: Ragnarok.
As you may well know, Marvel Comics was in financial dire straits in the mid to late 90’s which led them to sell the film rights to several of it’s characters like the Spider-Man Universe to Sony, all things X-Men/Mutant, Fantastic Four, & Daredevil to 20th Century Fox, Hulk & Namor to Universal Studios, The Punisher to Lions Gate Films, Ghost Rider to Columbia Pictures, & Blade to New Line Cinema. Since the successful launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with franchises such as Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, they have been able to reacquire most of these with a clause that allows the properties to revert to Marvel if a film isn’t made at least once every seven years. Outside of that clause there has been a short term deal that lends them the Amazing Spider-Man, the ability to share/split the use of Quicksilver & The Scarlet Witch, and The Hulk distribution vs production rights which is the main focus here.
Back when this all started out in 2008 with Iron Man, Marvel couldn’t afford to distribute the films themselves. A deal was made with Paramount for six films that distributed the Marvel Cinematic Universe until the big sale to Disney, who eventually went back and purchased those rights from Paramount. The deal with The Hulk was a bit different as it was with Universal who saw no reason to relinquish distribution rights, yet didn’t mind letting Marvel have the film production rights which basically allows Marvel to use him in any film, so long as it isn’t a Hulk one. Disney doesn’t need anyone else to distribute their films so Marvel was able to use this to their advantage as an extra draw by featuring the character in the grander ensemble tentpole films. Heading into Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel Cinematic Universe architect Kevin Feige and Mark Ruffalo came up with a way to do a Hulk film in the most comic way ever, a three film crossover arcing over Thor:Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers 4. The current Hulk/Bruce Banner actor says,
“Kevin brought me in and he said, ‘What would you do if you could do a standalone Hulk movie?’ I said, ‘I think it should be this, this, this, and this, and it should end like this,'” Ruffalo recalled. “And he said, ‘How about if we do that — love that — let’s do that starting with Thor 3 and end in Avengers 3, and we’ll use those three movies to basically do a standalone Hulk movie. How about that?’ I was like, ‘That sounds great.'”
Ruffalo says Avengers 3 because at the time Infinity War was being advertised as 2 films, Part 1 & Part 2, but would still be considered as Avengers 3. After the deal with Sony, they decided to reorganize the two parts into two separate Avenger films with Part 1 becoming Infinity War (Avengers 3) and Part 2 becoming an untitled Avengers 4. For those who have seen the first phase of this Hulk arc, you can already see the road they have begun to traverse. Banner has been the Hulk for the two years since he went missing between Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War (see what Thor was up to during Civil War). He describes the experience as the Hulk holding the keys and driving the car while he’s locked in the trunk as apposed to each of them having one hand on the wheel. He’s afraid that any of his future transformations could become quite permanent, completely losing his human side. I expect this theme to be heavily explored along with the possibility of other forms of the Hulks personality emerging like the more balanced intelligent/savage Grey Hulk, the completely balanced and in control Banner/Hulk, the cold and unforgiving Maestro, or the brutal and intelligent morally inverted black Hulk Kluh. This process could also go further down the path of making the two personalities more separate, as we hear the Hulk run down his puny Banner side several times before the sun begins to set on his rage on Sakaar.
They are off to a great start and with what is likely to come with the struggle against Thanos and his Black Order over the Infinity Stones, he will be put to the test and through the ringer with who knows what coming out of the other end of this. Whether he’s recast in a reboot of sorts over another three film arc after the dust settles or they pass the mantle to another like Amadeus Cho’s Totally Awesome Hulk in the comics, his son from Planet Hulk Skaar, or expand the Hulk brand with characters like Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk, Thadeus “Thunderbolt” Ross/Red Hulk, or even Rick Jones/A-Bomb, we know the Hulk is a character that will likely be here to stay in one capacity or another.