The trailer for Avengers: Infinity War included a lot of oh-my-god-it’s-really-happening! scenes. But the biggest moment by far came in the final shot: We see Captain America, Black Widow, the Winter Solider, Black Panther, War Machine, Okoye, and the Hulk charging full speed into battle, the Wakandan army on their heels. It’s an epic shot, one that gave a glimpse of all the action that would take place when the MCU heroes would finally fight side by side. And while Infinity War delivered on many levels, one big, green part of this epic shot was missing: The Hulk. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner never does charge behind the rest of earth’s mightiest heroes as the Hulk. During the film he was having, um, performance issues and couldn’t get the green guy to show up.
There were reasons for Bruce Banner’s issues. The opening scene Infinity War, which begins just moments after Thor: Ragnarok ended, sees Thanos and his henchman wreaking havoc on the ship that contains Thor, Loki, Banner, and the rest of the Agardian refugees. Thanos is looking for an infinity stone. Loki, who secretly swiped it, offers it to Thanos before jumping out and explaining “we have a Hulk,” before the big green galoot comes beserking through and pummels the Titan.
The sneak attack doesn’t work out well. While Hulk delivers a number of body blows to Thanos, they don’t do much damage. Thanos, showing how truly strong he is even without the Infinity Stones, K.O.s the Hulk with but a few punches. It’s a stunning defeat. Hulk is the strongest Avenger, after all. He runs through enemies as though they were bowling pins. Hell, he survived as a gladiator on Sakaar for two years, defeating contestant after contestant. Never before has he suffered such a defeat.
Sufficed to say, the beat down from Thanos bruises the Hulk’s ego as much as his body. And for the rest of the movie, Banner can’t summon the Hulk. This isn’t for lack of trying. Banner tries to cajole him from his dormant several times in the film and during the climatic battle with Thanos. Let’s be honest: During this last instance, Banner could’ve been yelling “come on buddy! you can do it!” while looking down at his crotch.
Banner hasn’t had any problems getting the green guy to appear in the past. The Hulk was either appearing at inappropriate times or at will. It’s hard to forget Bruce’s iconic line in the original Avengers: “That’s my secret: I’m always angry,” before transforming into the Hulk, ostensibly at will. In retrospect, it seems like a frat boy’s brag. Now, some years down the road, Bruce has a different relationship with the Hulk.
So what gives? Could it just be the embarrassment and the fear from the pummeling from Thanos? Is Banner aging and therefore having some Low-T issues? Could it simply be performance anxiety? The answer, as we see it, is yes to all three.
But then of course, we’re just spitballing. Is it possible that keeping the Hulk as restrained as possible makes him more powerful? Or that the Hulk is not just an angry, hulking being, but another person with feelings (and fears) of his own, stuck in Bruce Banner’s body? Totally. This is the MCU.
Whatever the case, this viewing does provide a powerful and relatable character arc for male audiences, one that switches the script on a hero who is mostly delegated to punchlines or being the deus-ex-machina when the Avengers just need a wrecking ball to turn the tide. After all, Bruce’s relationship with the Hulk is very much a come-when-called relationship. It’s possible that the writers of Infinity War wanted to draw a parallel between the Hulk and testosterone or erectile dysfunction, about the anxiety of performance in a high-stakes environment, or about value being gauged by ability to transform into something bigger. But even if they didn’t, the parallel exists without their efforts.
So perhaps we treat the Hulk with a little more compassion and understanding. He’s a person, too. Just a big, green, strong one. And, if it comes down to this, let’s hope these performance issues pass and the Hulk regains his confidence. If it’s something bigger, we hope there’s a little blue pill that can help the big green guy appear in the next film, when the Avengers need him the most.