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Life Outside the MCU, Starring Mark Ruffalo

The latest projects from the actor behind Bruce Banner—‘Dark Waters’ and the soon-to-be-released ‘I Know This Much Is True’—evince not only his talent as a performer, but the difficulty of emerging from the superhero apparatus

Warner Bros/Ringer illustration

It’s not easy to join the Avengers. It’s just as hard to leave them. In June 2015, Mark Ruffalo talked happily to Rolling Stone about playing the Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, characterizing the role as a fulfilling, profitable, part-time job. “I could be in this universe for another 10 or 15 years,” Ruffalo said. “It’s like a television show where you do one episode every two years and get paid well, and have economic reliability in what’s otherwise a completely chaotic market.”

It seemed like a solid career plan, and the rest of 2015 bore out the wisdom of Ruffalo’s approach. He earned acclaim, and later a Best Supporting Actor nomination, for his work in the Best Picture–winning Spotlight. Then, after appearing in the ensemble cast of the 2016 magicians-doing-heists sequel Now You See Me 2, Ruffalo disappeared into the MCU, turning up back-to-back-to-back in Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame (with a Captain Marvel cameo thrown into the mix). After appearing in seven superhero movies in seven years, he emerged to a movie landscape transformed by the mammoth success of the MCU, one in which the small-scale indies that he used to appear in regularly had less room to breathe than ever. The market Ruffalo described in 2015 has only become more chaotic and unreliable—and it was that way even before the coronavirus brought the industry to a halt.

Ruffalo’s late career path is proof that coming out of the MCU machinery may be difficult, if still potentially fulfilling. Though they call on some of the same skills as his MCU work, Ruffalo’s first post-Endgame projects—Todd Haynes’s 2019 film Dark Waters and the new HBO miniseries I Know This Much is True, which premieres on Sunday—are both personal, challenging, and risky. But they’re also projects in danger of being swallowed by the same superhero apparatus Ruffalo was in, as the MCU towers over everything else commercially.

To understand how much has changed in the movie business, it helps to look back a mere eight years to the release of The Avengers, Ruffalo’s first appearance as Bruce Banner and the Hulk. It was Ruffalo’s only big-screen appearance in 2012, but the next year saw him appearing in a variety of projects. Beyond his cameo in Iron Man 3, he starred in the original Now You See Me, the indie dramedy Thanks for Sharing, and Begin Again, John Carney’s follow-up to Once.

The projects varied in quality. Thanks for Sharing reunited Ruffalo with the screenwriter of The Kids Are All Right for a too-neat look at sex addiction. Begin Again found Carney making a movie about selling out that itself felt like a sell-out gesture, substituting pat dramatic beats for Once’s off-kilter rhythms. Now You See Me used the illusion of cleverness to mask a plot that didn’t stand up to scrutiny. But the projects also varied from one another, suggesting Ruffalo had an array of choices and a knack for picking the ones in which he could do good work. He’s appropriately slippery in Now You See Me; his turn as a boozy, down-on-his-luck record exec gives Begin Again a much-needed element of chaos; and there’s a quietly thoughtful performance to be found in Thanks for Sharing, even if it means having to watch Josh Gad attempt to grind up against a woman on a subway to get to it.

The next year offered even better options. For Ryan Murphy, Ruffalo starred in an adaptation of playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. As Ned Weeks, a Kramer stand-in in a piece clearly tailored to the demands of 1985 and a world not paying attention to a mounting plague, Ruffalo has to deliver a series of impassioned monologues. He does so deftly, while also foregrounding the elements that make Ned difficult to like and making his tendency to alienate others understandable—even when he’s right. Between speeches, Ruffalo’s just as effective in quiet moments, wordlessly suggesting Ned’s alienation from the people he’s trying to save.

That same gift for understatement would help earn him a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Foxcatcher as Dave Schultz, a wrestler drawn into a circle of wealth and madness by his love for his brother. And though most audiences wouldn’t be able to watch it until the following year, 2014 also saw the Sundance premiere of Maya Forbes’s autobiographical Infinitely Polar Bear, in which Ruffalo plays a caring bipolar father facing, and not always rising to, the challenge of raising two daughters in ’70s Boston. Where others might have turned the character into a collection of indie movie quirks, Ruffalo makes his odd behavior feel like part of a deep need to connect with his family, and the world as a whole, that his biochemistry rarely allows him to meet.

Ruffalo’s not a chameleonic actor, the sort who transforms himself for a role (unless turning into a green CGI monster). But he’s subtle and adaptive, capable of finding nuance and unspoken depths in characters who never stop talking, and able to suggest hidden complexities when given little to say. These skills have helped make him an effective Hulk, a character he plays less as a Jekyll/Hyde split than different shades of the same personality. (The quiet acceptance with which Ruffalo delivers the line “I’m always angry” has echoed through each of his MCU appearances.) Ruffalo had those skills long before putting on the purple pants, however. He worked steadily in the ’90s, appearing in increasingly high-profile supporting roles as the decade went on. But it was Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 film You Can Count on Me, in which he and Laura Linney played out a complicated, sometimes destructive mix of sibling love and resentment, that gave him his breakthrough. A string of rich, complex roles followed, though some went under-seen at the time. Jane Campion’s In the Cut, for instance, contains some of Ruffalo’s best work as a police detective who remains unknowable, and potentially threatening, to Meg Ryan’s protagonist even as she grows more intimate with him. He didn’t need gamma radiation to specialize in characters with much more going on beneath the surface than met the eye.

Yet the gravitational pull of the MCU can now be felt throughout Ruffalo’s filmography. Zodiac now looks like a team-up between Hulk, Iron Man, and Mysterio. Thanks for Sharing and Infinitely Polar Bear pair him romantically with, respectively, Pepper Potts and Gamora. Spotlight features a cast that includes Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Vulture, Doctor Strange’s Christine Palmer, X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s Sabertooth (part of a different branch of the Marvel Universe), and Iron Man’s dad. The MCU’s success has accelerated a tendency of Hollywood blockbusters to eat up space previously used by smaller movies, further narrowing the market for mid-budget films over the past decade. The once-sure path of alternating big movies with smaller projects is now trickier to navigate than ever, particularly for those stepping out of the MCU. For those emerging actors, their little movies sometimes go largely unseen (e.g. the Chris Evans–starring The Red Sea Diving Resort). Worse, their big movies sometimes turn out to be Dolittle.

If anyone seems equipped to breathe again outside the MCU bubble, however, it’s Ruffalo. If his filmography in much of the second half of the ’10s reads like a story of how actors can be swallowed up by the blockbuster machinery, his most recent projects suggest escape is still possible. Politically outspoken (though occasionally misguided), Ruffalo served as both star and producer of Dark Waters. Directed by Todd Haynes, the film follows the true-life story of a Cincinnati attorney who became obsessed with illuminating the far-reaching consequences of DuPont’s use of toxic chemicals, both those seeping into the groundwater in West Virginia landfills and those spilled onto the marketplace with little regard for their harmfulness.

Though it earned strong reviews, the film didn’t catch on with audiences, who perhaps saw it as a well-meaning issues-driven drama. It is that, but it is also a deeply unsettling film that begins as a kind of environmental horror movie and ends as a clear-eyed depiction of the sacrifice and tirelessness needed to effect change in a world driven by corporate profits. Sometimes echoing his 1995 masterpiece Safe, Haynes creates an unnerving atmosphere that never dissipates, even with the arrival of hard-won victories. Ruffalo’s performance locks into that mood while playing to his strengths as an actor, allowing him to channel both the righteous anger seen in The Normal Heart and Spotlight and his quieter, more internalized work. It’s the sort of film seemingly destined to more appreciation down the line, away from the crush of awards season.

Ruffalo also serves as an executive producer on I Know This Much Is True, an HBO miniseries featuring not one but two intense Ruffalo performances. Directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), the six-part series adapts Wally Lamb’s Oprah Winfrey–approved 1998 bestseller, the story of identical twins in the Connecticut Rust Belt whose lives have taken them in different directions. Ruffalo plays both Dominick Birdsey, a house painter put perpetually on edge by a lifetime of disappointment and calamity, and Dominick’s schizophrenic brother Thomas, who begins the series by cutting off his hand at a public library to protest the Gulf War.

The narrative goes to verging-on-absurd extremes of dramatic misery, but both Cianfrance’s direction and Ruffalo’s performances keep it grounded and moving. Just on a technical level, Ruffalo’s operating at a high degree of difficulty. He filmed his scenes as Dominick and then returned six weeks later, clean-shaven and 30 pounds heavier, to play Thomas. The physical difference between the characters is striking, but the performances hardly hinge on them. Even if they looked as identical as biology made them, there’d be no mistaking one brother for the other. Dominick’s a man who swallows his anger until it erupts, and Ruffalo plays him with an uneasy smile that can’t quite hide his inner turmoil. Thomas, by contrast, has no filter, and no way to hide what’s going on inside.

The dual role contains echoes of his past work—from the Hulk to the manic-depressive highs and lows of his Infinitely Polar Bear character—and his life. Thomas’s body is transformed in part by his medical treatments, a condition that echoes Ruffalo’s early ’00s experience with a brain tumor that left his face paralyzed and his body out of his control for months. The miniseries ends with a dedication to Ruffalo’s brother Scott, who died under mysterious circumstances in 2008. It’s intense, difficult work that few besides Ruffalo would tackle.

But perhaps more importantly, I Know This Much Is True suggests that those looking to slip out of the MCU orbit will need to do so through a combination of resourcefulness and daring. In an environment where choices aren’t what they used to be, every professional decision needs to be the right one. The biggest films draw the money and support they need to survive. The amiable, Sundance-friendly indies don’t get made nearly as often, the rom-coms have moved to Netflix, and even a prestige film with a big-name director gets lost more easily than before, as Ruffalo’s own Dark Waters experience attests. That can’t directly be blamed on Ruffalo’s Hulk smashing the old ways of doing things, but they’re smashed nonetheless. At least Ruffalo has drawn up blueprints for a new way.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.