The Hulk is one of Marvel’s most enduringly popular characters, so it’s no surprise the company turned to the big green guy when it came time to try and start launching the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the early aughts.
Neither Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk nor Louis Leterrier’s 2008 Incredible Hulk reboot performed to expectations, but the character remains on the MCU canvas, so why haven’t we gotten a new Hulk movie—especially considering the character has easily proven to be one of the most popular members of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes when it comes to team-up time in the Avengers films?
Well, there are a few reasons. Let’s dig in.
They’ve already made two, and they weren’t very good
It had been awhile since anyone actually tried bringing the Hulk to the screen, so the pressure was on for 2003’s Hulk film (which came five years before Marvel’s attempt at a connected universe). Directed by Ang Lee and starring Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, Hulk wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great—and if nothing else, it wasn’t good enough to garner a sequel.
Fast forward five years, and the fledgling Marvel Studios was looking to take advantage of the characters still under their control to anchor new film franchises. Heavy hitters like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men had been sold off years ago when the company was cash-strapped, so Marvel turned to the biggest names they had left: the Hulk and Iron Man.
The studio dropped Iron Man first, and thanks to the awesomeness of that movie and immense charisma of Robert Downey, Jr., it was a major hit. The Incredible Hulk was the second film on the slate, hitting a few months after Iron Man, and it was… not as good. The film received decent reviews and was a so-so performer at the box office, but compared to the coolness of Iron Man, it just didn’t hold up.
The last one didn’t really make that much money
As we’ve mentioned, Marvel Studios took a bet that either Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk would be a breakout hit. The prize went to Iron Man, which pulled in more than twice Incredible Hulk’s global box office haul. The Hulk film banked $263 million worldwide on a $150 million budget, while Iron Man knocked it out of the park with $585 million against a $140 million budget. The studio quickly realized which character was the hot commodity, and built the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe around Iron Man. Had The Incredible Hulk made $600 million? Edward Norton would probably still be the Hulk and we’d certainly not be talking about why the studio hasn’t made a sequel in eight years.
Marvel already pulled the plug on a sequel
Before Marvel mapped out plans for movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Infinity War, the studio was planning ahead for another Hulk film. But with the interest pushing more toward Iron Man and other characters, the project was shelved and original star Edward Norton was eventually axed and recast with Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers.
So what was the plan for the aborted sequel? Here’s what Norton told GamesRadar back in 2008: “To me the whole thing was to envision it in multiple parts. We left a lot out on purpose. It’s definitely intended as a chapter one. You know, part of the problem with these films in general is they seem to feel the obligation to tell the origin story in a linear fashion, to deal with it first and then go on into the adventure. But a lot of great stories don’t start at the beginning and with this—especially given audiences know this story—if you’re going to deal with the origin you might as well deal with it artfully. My attitude was, ‘Let’s start with a mystery and slowly unpeel what the roots of it are, all the way through—like let’s have revelations even in the third act about what set this whole thing in motion.'”
He makes The Avengers movies more special
If you’ve been catching up with every single character in standalone movies in between, it takes some of the luster off the eventual team-up movies—at least, that’s the opinion of Avengers director Joss Whedon. In an interview with CinemaBlend, Whedon said it’s hard enough trying to keep up with what Thor, Captain America and Iron Man have done in the movies leading into the Avengers films. Having a character like the Hulk off the board makes the planning process a bit easier, and provides something truly fresh for those big-budget tentpole movies.
“Everybody loves Mark [Ruffalo]. He’s phenomenal. But the fact that there hasn’t been a Hulk since that Hulk, it doesn’t suck,” argued Whedon. “I mean, my job is hard enough. Cap’s had a movie, Thor’s had a movie. Everyone’s gone through big changes. Iron Man had a movie. So I have to juggle everybody’s perception of that while still making a movie that you can see having not seen any [other Marvel movies] except the first Avengers—or not even that.”
The character just works better on a team
It’s hard to quantify, but you don’t have to look much further than the quality and success of the two standalone Hulk films against the character’s appearances in the Avengers movies: he just works better as part of an ensemble. The story of Bruce Banner is a compelling one, but we’ve already had two attempts to dig into it with minimal success. As io9 pointed out in an excellent op-ed, doling out those story bits in smaller chunks really allows the character to truly shine. There’s also the fact that the Hulk is literally a force of nature, and it’s hard to line him up against a bad guy he can’t just smash into bits. But the foes are always out of this world (sometimes literally) in the Avengers films, so this ultra-powerful character can still seem like an underdog when the battle royale kicks off at that scale.
He’s actually kinda getting his own movie anyway (it’s just split across three other movies)
Though the Hulk hasn’t gotten top billing in a movie since 2008, he’s still played a pivotal role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and it’s only getting bigger. We’ve seen the character grapple with his inner demons in The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, plus find and lose a new love in the latter. Moving into the next phase of Marvel’s releases, the Hulk will take on an even larger role with a co-starring stint in the next Thor film, Ragnarok. He’s also set to play a role in the third and fourth Avengers sequels rolling out in 2018 and 2019.
Ruffalo has said Marvel is taking special care to map out a larger story for Bruce Banner across those three films, and told Yahoo! Movies that once you put them all together, it will essentially tell a complete Hulk story. “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.”
Keeping the Hulk onscreen for two hours isn’t cheap, and isn’t easy
Making a movie where the main character can turn into a giant green monster isn’t easy, and neither is finding a way to fit all that effects work into the budget. Sure, you can keep him in Bruce Banner mode for a lot of the time, but then viewers are just biding their time waiting for him to Hulk out. It’s a hard balance to strike.
The first two Hulk films did a decent job of bringing the green behemoth to life via CGI, but Marvel Studios really knocked it out of the park with The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. They offered easily the best interpretation yet of the character, and the effort earned the first Avengers film a nomination for an Academy Award in the “Visual Effects” category. The effects team incorporated part of Mark Ruffalo’s face into the character’s look (just Hulk-ier), and took advantage of just about every FX advancement over the past decade.
Here’s what Jeff White, ILM’s visual effects supervisor for The Avengers, told Animation World Network in a 2012 interview about working on the film: “We really wanted to utilize everything we’ve developed the last 10 years and make it a pretty spectacular Hulk. One of the great design decisions was to incorporate Mark Ruffalo into the look of him. So much of Hulk is based on Ruffalo and his performance, not only in motion capture and on set, but down to his eyes, his teeth, and his tongue.”
It’s just not cheap making a movie all Hulk, all the time.
Hulk’s greatest battles are internal, not external
The Hulk is an amazing character, but when you translate those dynamics from page to screen, it’s not easy to tell a compelling Hulk story. The reason? His biggest struggle is within himself, and that’s not an easy thing to showcase in a medium that typically relies on explosions and big action. Some of the best Hulk stories are character studies, and that just doesn’t fit into a superhero film. Kent Worcester, a professor of political science who also teaches a comics and animation course at Marymount Manhattan College, told ABC News it boils down to the fact that the Hulk is really the story of one man fighting with himself.
“The Hulk is the Marvel character whose internal conflict is the most obviously manifested externally. I’m talking about a deeper conflict, a conflict involving Bruce Banner, who does not want to be the Hulk, who does not want his anger unleashed, does not want his id to run free, and who is caught in a soap opera involving the general, general’s daughter, this secret world of the military, and the media,” said Worcester. “The conflict is just not whether I should use my powers for good or should I save the world. It’s personal. It’s psychological.”
There are some distribution rights issues
There’s been a lot of confusion surrounding the film rights around the Hulk. A big part of that goes back to some comments Mark Ruffalo made to Collider blaming the fact that we never got another sequel on a rights issue: “Marvel doesn’t really have the rights to that yet. That’s still Universal’s property, so there’s that issue. That’s a big impediment to moving forward with that.”
Ruffalo is kind of right, but the real situation is a bit more complicated. Yes, Universal apparently does have right of first refusal to distribute a potential new Hulk film—which could create some problems, sure, but it’s not a big enough roadblock to keep Marvel from making the movie. They cut deals with Sony for Spider-Man, and if they wanted to make a Hulk movie, this wouldn’t stop them. But it does make the process a bit more complicated.
The good Hulk stories are typically pretty weird
The character of the Hulk dates back to the glory days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early 1960s, and if you’ve ever read any of those comics, you know they get a little weird sometimes. That’s not to say you can’t do those stories well on the big screen, but it makes it a little harder to pull off. Where someone like Captain America is fighting Nazis, a relatable selling point, the Hulk is a bit more complicated. As io9 noted in a rundown of stories that could make for good movies, arcs like World War Hulk (which is reportedly being incorporated to some extent into Thor: Ragnarok), and the time-hopping Indestructible Hulk: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. could be a harder sell for typical mainstream audiences.
There’s not really anywhere to put it on the schedule
Marvel has made a lot of movies in the past eight years. Between sequels and originals, the studio has cranked out a mind-boggling 13 movies. But the studio is just getting started: they already have at least four movies currently shooting or in production (Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok), with at least five more on the way (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, the untitled Avengers film). So even if Marvel wanted to make a new Hulk film, it’d arguably be 2020 or later until they could even fit it in the schedule. Considering just about every Marvel movie is a hit, and they have to keep the train rolling with new characters at this point, it’s hard to make space for a guy who already plays a major role in the Avengers films and has already had two shots at solo glory.
Why Hulk, when there are so many other characters?
They might not have the X-Men or Fantastic Four in the stable, but Marvel still has a ton of comics heroes to mine for future films. Black Panther was a breakout character in Captain America: Civil War, and the studio is gearing up for the eagerly anticipated introduction of Brie Larson in the solo Captain Marvel movie. Oh, and there’s also an Inhumans film on the way. There are just so many great characters who haven’t gotten a chance to shine on the big screen, so from a creative standpoint, how can you justify cranking out another Hulk movie when there are so many great characters worth giving a shot? If Marvel wasn’t so eager to take chances, the world would’ve missed out on the monster hit Guardians of the Galaxy, and the quirky superhero heist flick Ant-Man.
There’s still enough of the big green guy to go around
There are a lot of reasons for why Marvel hasn’t made a new Hulk film, and though we’d obviously love to see more of Mark Ruffalo being angry, it’s just a hard project to justify in the grand scheme of things. But despite the lack of a standalone project, we at least have a whole lot more Hulk action to look forward to in the next few years—so there will be more than enough anger to go around through at least 2019.