Through all of its twists and turns and sometimes-questionable decisions, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has consistently proven to the be epitome of what blockbuster franchises should be: fun, action-packed romps with character-driven narratives and spectacularly realized worlds. Even if some of the individual choices they’ve made have been less than ideal, the total that they add up to is far greater than the sum of its parts and degrees superior to even its nearest competition.
In the going on ten years of Marvel’s shared cinematic universe, only one decision has really stuck in my craw: refusing to let me sit back and enjoy the ride as the company has laid it out. I wasn’t all that bothered when they wasted the most iconic Iron Man storyline (Demon in a Bottle) on its most lackluster movie (Iron Man 2). I wasn’t upset by their decision to reimagine The Mandarin as an invention of the media or to use Captain America to spearhead post-9/11 politics; on the contrary, I loved them for it.
What I haven’t been able to fully get behind, despite their years of sense-defying precedent and immaculate record of delivering on the promise of their universe, is where they decided to stick the iconic “Planet Hulk” storyline in the MCU. Rather than having it as a standalone Hulk sequel, or pairing it with a more space-friendly franchise, they decided to stick it in the middle of Thor 3.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Thor movies, almost as much as I love the critically under-appreciated Incredible Hulk. There are few things that are as viscerally satisfying for me to see than my favorite green rage-monster duke it out with the strongest brawlers Marvel has to offer, whether that ends up being the Stark-branded Hulkbuster or the God of Thunder himself. It scratches a barbaric itch that no other movie franchise has been able to satisfy in quite the same way.
The problem is that beyond the two Avengers fighting for my amusement, I don’t quite see where the decision makes sense. The genius of the Hulk is that you get the best of both worlds with him: the mousy scientist and the mindless berserker. The former gives you excellent, character-driven drama and a complex dynamic with the other heroes when there’s nothing to punch, the latter gives you some of the most satisfying action scenes this side of Die Hard.
While Hulk and Thor have great chemistry together in battle, I don’t see the same being true for them outside of it. The awkward gate of the immortal space Viking played against the guilt-stricken man of science is great fun in the context of the larger superhero community, but I don’t see their one-on-one interactions being especially enriching. They’re just too different of characters, from too different of worlds, to really find the kind of dramatic common ground needed to carry a story forward.
This has me worried that they will make the same mistake Marvel always makes regarding the Hulk. Rather than deal with the complex nature of their dissociative protagonist, they favor the more marketable monster over the more interesting scientist: engineering the circumstances that allows the Hulk persona to take over as the default version of the character. It’s what they did in TV’s Ultimate Spider-Man (and, by extension, Agents of SMASH) and what they did in the Planet Hulk comic, and although I can’t deny it has a certain appeal, it is not what makes the character interesting to see in action.
There is, however, a context that would allow for both aspects of Banner to receive their fair share of the spotlight while also giving him compelling characters to play off of in both forms. Rather than appearing in Thor: Ragnarok, he should have been the focus of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Granted, I have not seen the movie at the time I’m writing this. Early word says that it’s as good as the first movie and I have no reason to doubt any of the specific decisions that they’ve made regarding that property. On top of that, I have no idea what they could actually do with Thor outside of the narrative bubble that they’ve written him into at this point, and I’m sure that any alternative to his story will be inherently worse than the one they’ve gone ahead with in Ragnarok. As far as their treatment of “Planet Hulk” as an individual story, however, I cannot think of a better context for it than alongside everybody’s favorite group of cosmic a-holes.
The story of “Planet Hulk” deals with Bruce Banner’s exile from Earth. While the comics saw him banished by his fellow superheroes for the risk he posed to the planet, the MCU has seemingly gone with him entering self-imposed solitude. After being launched into space, he ends up on the planet Sakaar, where he becomes a gladiator who fights for his freedom in the arena.
We’ve actually already seen Sakaarans in the Marvel movies, believe it or not. What’s more, is we’ve seen them connected with the Guardians of the Galaxy. When Starlord stole the orb in the beginning of his movie, he’s confronted by Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou’s character who had never heard of “Starlord” before), who commands a regiment of Sakaaran soldiers. These are also the soldiers that a surrounded Yondu takes out with his whistle-commanded arrow.
It would not be much of a stretch for the movie to see Sakaaran soldiers, frothing at the prospect of avenging their fallen brethren, pursuing and eventually capturing the Guardians over the course of the movie’s first act. And to entertain the gathered masses, the Sakaaran elite pit the team against their greatest gladiator, captured during his flight from Earth: the Incredible Hulk.
It would give us the same bombastic hero-on-hero fight that Ragnarok promises, only instead of the familiar faceoff between Hulk and Thor (which we already saw in part during The Avengers) we get to see him square off against an entirely new set of characters. It would give us the Groot / Hulk showdown that Vin Diesel evidently wants to see happen, as well as battle-hardened Drax, barbaric Gamora, smart-mouthed Starlord and the trigger-happy Rocket.
Maybe they find a way to beat the big guy, or wait out his regression back to Banner. Either way, when the day is done and the fighters are tossed back into their cells, you’d have the Guardians dealing with Bruce Banner, whose keen mind would doubtless give the Guardians a few ideas on how to escape their current situation. This would all culminate in a dramatic battle with not only Hulk and the Guardians, but all the gladiator-slaves on Sakaar. And as our final shot, we would have the Guardians, with the fresh addition of Banner, jetting off to Earth (giving the team the perfect excuse to join up for the coming Infinity War).
This version of events would give us a lot more to work with than a perpetually monstrous Hulk or an awkward Banner / Thor team-up. You’d have the 80’s-centric Starlord interacting with a more contemporary Human, letting him play out the “man out of sync in time” shtick that you just can’t have when everybody’s more alien than you. Gamora’s respect for Hulk in battle will invariably clash with his reality as the mild-mannered Banner, and Rocket will inevitably want to shoot the benign Human form despite everything he can offer them in a means of escape (which is pure comic gold in the hands of James Gunn). Besides, you’d get everything you’d get out of him pairing up with Thor as you would from Drax.
But like I said before, I haven’t seen the movie yet: either movie, for that matter. Maybe it turns out just fine in the end (and knowing Marvel, it doubtless will). Still, I can’t help but think that they’ve squandered the perfect team-up opportunity in the entire MCU outside of another Avengers sequel.