Bruce Banner and the Hulk still have a lot left to figure out.
I don’t mean how to win the war against Thanos, or how to bring back their dead friends (though, yeah, they do have to do that too), but rather the fact the two seemingly separate entities have to learn how to coexist in the same body again. Unlike Peter Parker or Tony Stark, Banner can’t simply put on a mask or suit to become a hero and take it off again as he pleases. It’s either him, or it’s the other guy. From the days leading up to when Black Widow tracked down Banner in The Avengers to where he is now in the half-populated world left behind in the wake of Infinity War, the Hulk and Bruce Banner have been fighting a different kind of war among themselves for years. And ahead of Endgame, they’re in a standoff.
Back when the team banded together for their self-titled debut in 2012, The Avengers, Banner nearly had complete control over his destructive alter ego. As he told Black Widow when she found him in India, he hadn’t had a Hulk incident in more than a year. In one of the big moments of the film, he revealed that the secret to controlling how and when he gets angry isn’t yoga, mindful breathing, or I don’t know, listening to Bronn tell bedtime stories, but the fact that he’s always angry:
Yet years later, when the Avengers are facing their greatest foe in the Mad Titan, Thanos, Banner just can’t get the Hulk to resurface when he needs him most. He hopelessly tries again and again to force him out, but he’s lost any semblance of control he once had. Banner is reduced to either running away from the fight or putting on a suit of armor created with the sole purpose of fighting his alter ego. After that embarrassing display of uselessness in Infinity War, things obviously need to change. Thanos has all six Infinity Stones, most of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy have been turned to dust, and half of the universe’s population has vanished. Banner is still among the living, but it still isn’t clear whether his alter ego is ready to come out and play.
The power dynamic between Hulk and Banner has tilted back and forth for years, never quite finding balance. Though it was a mess of a movie, with an even messier breakup between the studio and its star, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk set the stage for the character’s much-needed reboot in the years to follow. The Ed Norton–led origin film explained how Dr. Bruce Banner’s attempt to re-create the super-soldier serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America went horribly wrong, but more importantly, it introduced Banner’s constant struggles to subdue the rage that turns him into the Hulk. Much of the movie is about everything he does to keep the monster locked away, from disappearing to a faraway country to obsessively monitoring his heart rate. When the movie graciously comes to its conclusion, it seems as if Bruce Banner has mastered his alter ego—an interesting jumping off point for when Mark Ruffalo assumes the role in Avengers.
The control that Banner has over the Hulk in Avengers comes to an abrupt end in the film’s sequel, Age of Ultron, when the then-evil Scarlet Witch manipulates Banner into a frenzied Hulk rage that results in the destruction of Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s one of the few times we see a version of the Hulk that’s completely mindless and blinded by rage, devoid of any traces of Banner. The Hulk is stopped with a little help from the Hulkbuster suit that Stark and Banner designed for moments like these, but even after Banner reemerges, he never really goes back to being the same person. He attempts to run away with his new love interest, Black Widow, before the final fight against Ultron, but she savagely shoves the scientist into a massive hole in order for the monster to rise out of it.
While flying away in the Quinjet after the battle, still in Hulk form, he ignores Black Widow’s commands to turn the plane around, instead embarking on a journey inspired by one of the character’s most popular comic book story lines, Planet Hulk. In those comics, he’s tricked and sent off to a distant planet by Tony Stark, Doctor Strange, Professor Xavier, and some other smart and powerful Marvel characters, but the MCU makes the deliberate choice for Hulk to exile himself. And as he did in Planet Hulk, the green giant fights as a gladiator on the planet Sakaar, though on the big screen the story is told in Ragnarok, in a plot that mostly belongs to Thor.
Before the third Thor film, we hardly get a chance to see what Hulk is like when he’s not smashing. And despite being in his monstrous green form, the Hulk exhibits a personality and human traits; he’s capable of emotion (though still mostly, you know, anger), memory, even empathy. He notices that the God of Thunder is upset about the loss of his father, his hammer, and his long blond hair (shouts to Stan Lee for the clean cut, though), and he aptly says: “Thor sad.” He’s certainly no Dr. Banner, but the Sakaar Hulk can have a heart-to-heart, make nature analogies, and even befriend a Valkyrie. Eventually he gives up the life of being Jeff Goldblum’s champion in order to help out his friend from work.
While mindlessly destroying the Quinjet, their ticket off of Sakaar, Hulk sees the message Black Widow left for him at the end of Age of Ultron, and Banner reemerges for the first time in two years. Shaken by the news of the long passage of time, Banner tells Thor: “The whole thing is totally different this time. In the past, I always felt like Hulk and I each had a hand on the wheel. But this time, it’s like he had the keys to the car, and I was locked in the trunk.” Their once shared experience is shared no more, and Banner laments that if he turns into the Hulk again, he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to come back. Inevitably, the Hulk is needed to fight Thor’s evil sister and her souped-up direwolf on Asgard, and it takes an absolute beatdown from Thanos in the opening scene of Infinity War for the weak Banner to be smacked back out of him. Ever since then, Hulk has grown tired of being a pawn in Banner’s games.
Endgame marks the end to the unofficial Hulk trilogy that Ruffalo once promised would exist outside of any previously rumored solo films. In Ragnarok, Hulk takes the wheel and enjoys a life of violence on a distant planet. In Infinity War, Banner is back but he can’t bring out the Hulk when he needs him most. Only one of them is ever in control at any given time. The version of Hulk we have yet to see is one who finds the elusive balance between the monster and its creator.
While I’m not going to speculate about what will happen in Endgame based off of a few Hasbro action figure voice commands, or a TV spot in which Banner’s voice sounds deep but not totally Hulk-deep, there are emerging fan theories that “Professor Hulk” will be introduced in the movie. Given that we’ve now seen both individual sides of the character, as well as the comic book precedent of a Hulk with both the intelligence of Banner and the brute strength of his failed experiment, it would make sense for a new Hulk to arrive in time for the grand finale. Another possibility is that Banner will figure out a way to somehow separate his two personalities, so that he and the Hulk no longer have to worry about this persistent power struggle. The Hulk could smash as much as he pleases and Dr. Banner could go back to doing science. Perhaps Scott Lang found something useful while floating around the mysterious Quantum Realm during the post-credits scene of Ant-Man and the Wasp. What would seem more likely, though, is that Banner could use one of the Infinity Stones to split himself from the other guy. As codirector Joe Russo explained back in November: “The Soul Stone obviously has the ability to manipulate your soul, the essence of who you are.” If the scientist could figure out how to purge the other soul inhabiting his body, or alter the essence of his conflicting sides, Hulk and Banner could either exist symbiotically, or just part ways for good.
In Endgame, whether we find Hulk or the smart yet puny Banner at the wheel, the two of them will have to decide who’s in charge of the vessel they share when it comes time to face Thanos, or finally learn to live with their duality.