If there’s any Marvel character that truly represents the idea of what it means to be a hero, there’s none more fit than Bruce Banner, the Jade Giant himself. With Infinity War upon us, now is a good time to take a look back on Banner’s arc throughout the MCU, and celebrate what makes Hulk truly the strongest Avenger.
Origins: The Chase
Practically every hero has a tragic backstory, but none in the MCU quite as harrowing, or traumatic as Hulk’s. While working to recreate the supersoldier serum that created Captain America, Dr. Robert Bruce Banner accidentally transformed himself into the rage fuelled titan that would become known as “Hulk.” Except for the fact that Banner was never even told the truth about the project he was working on. In reality, Banner had been told that he was working on a radiation resistance formula, and in General Ross’s own words in The Incredible Hulk “was very early phase…wasn’t even weapons application.” From that point forward, Hulk is considered property of the US Military, and Ross threatens Banner to cooperate, or be hunted down for his secrets. So, Banner chooses to go on the run instead. Banner’s decision to go on the run, and to hide away from the world is the first decision that really prompts his “hero” status. Knowing the incredible risk that the Hulk could pose if left in the wrong hands, and having the strength to leave everything behind in hopes that no harm would come from his decisions ever again is what starts Banner’s arc throughout the MCU.
Alone: The Man
Being a fan of superheroes, you’re likely to see some extreme low points of some of your favorite characters. At Banner’s absolute lowest point, in a deleted scene from The Incredible Hulk, we see him attempt to take his own life before Banner transforms, and Hulk stops the suicide attempt from taking place. This scene is referenced again in Avengers, and remains one of the most humanizing, and painful moments any of the characters in the MCU have really gone through. Even after The Incredible Hulk, we see in Avengers that Banner has been keeping his low profile and helping the sick, and injured to the best of his ability. It doesn’t take something as extremely tragic as a suicide attempt to make a great hero, but what does make a great hero is the perseverance to do good in the face of everything bad that has happened. Like Black Widow says in Avengers, Bruce keeps out of the fights because he knows he can win, and what he does instead with the time, is giving to those who need his help. What makes Banner the strongest Avenger isn’t necessarily his physical strength, but the fact that he has the ability to help others without the need of the Hulk at all.
Together: The Hero
Once rejected, now accepted, the Hulk finally finds a place amongst the Avengers and can smash whatever he likes with the Chitauri invading New York City. Although Nick Fury had recruited Banner to help with finding the Tesseract (a move with ulterior motives disturbingly similar to Ross’s own that caused Banner to become the Hulk in the first place), Bruce managed to find an outlet for his rage induced Hulk rampages with the Avengers, and through that, he managed to control the monster within. After operating alone for so long, watching Bruce finally find a place among friends was a heartwarming moment in Avengers, as he, and Tony bonded over their powers, flaws, and love of science, only to have Hulk come to his rescue at the end of the day when Tony comes plummeting out of the sky. Not only that, but later on in Iron Man 3, we see that their friendship has continued to develop, as Bruce tries to help Tony through his PTSD. By the end of the first Avengers film, Bruce is no longer being hunted, and instead he finally finds the hero’s welcome he deserves after his long battle with both his inner demons, and the environmental pressures around him.
Apart: The Rage Within
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and although Hulk finally finds solace with his superpowered friends, things quickly turn south in Age of Ultron first when Scarlet Witch uses her powers to manipulate his mind, and cause a fight between him, and Tony, and second when Black Widow forces the Hulk out of Bruce for the final fight against Ultron. For someone who had spent their entire time trying to avoid being manipulated, and used as a weapon, this is pretty much the biggest turning point in Hulk’s life. In fact, it really should be noted that Bruce wasn’t the one who left the Avengers at the end of the film, but instead it was Hulk who made the conscious choice to leave the team and head to the deep reaches of space where he’d eventually find himself on Sakaar. It’s revealed in Thor: Ragnarok that two years have passed since Hulk has left, and since Bruce has been able to come out of the Hulk state. Not only was the stressful environment on Sakaar enough to keep Hulk in charge for so long, but to manage to stay as angry for so long on the journey over means that the trauma of being used was enough to fuel his rage for an entire space journey. By the time Thor even finds Hulk, he’s able to speak in full sentences, and although Thor does manipulate Hulk’s anger slightly into helping him, Hulk did make an attempt to try and keep Thor on Sakaar, seemingly because he was lonely. Hulk even has a chance at being a hero again when he helps Thor save the Asgardian people against Hela, and at the end of the film we see the Revengers team on their way back to earth.
Hulk: The Incredible
Bruce Banner has had a tumultuous existence within the MCU, but if it’s one thing his character has taught audiences, it’s that it takes much more than raw strength to be a hero. Through compassion, bravery, and brains Banner’s real strength isn’t simply his transformation into the Hulk, but his transformation as a friend, and his acceptance of who he is inside. Although the Hulk has only had one solo film in the entirety of the MCU’s roster, his arc throughout the films is astoundingly profound, as he proves that even at our most vulnerable, and when we feel we’re at our absolute lowest points, there’s always room to go up. Bruce Banner is the prime example of teaching us that we are not our traumas, and controlling them is how true strength is forged.