WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War, in theaters now.
Avengers: Infinity War promised to unite virtually every superhero introduced to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy to Doctor Strange and the forces of Wakanda. However, one character who surprisingly doesn't factor into the effort to stop Thanos is the Hulk. That undoubtedly left some fans stunned, in no small part because Marvel's Green Goliath was part of the film's marketing and merchandising, but because Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner was smartly equipped with the Hulkbuster armor, it's an omission they'll more than likely forgive.
At first glance this creative decision may seem motivated by a desire to take a heavy-hitter off the board, thereby hamstringing Earth's Mightiest Heroes in the fight against the Mad Titan and his invading armies. But if we look closer, we see it's intended to change everything we know about Hulk and, more so, continue the character's evolution in the MCU.
Infinity War gives audiences some Hulk, of course, limited to a cameo in the opening sequence, which picks up just after the events of Thor: Ragnarok's mid-credits scene, aboard the Asgardian refugee ship. When Thanos and his Black Order corner Loki, intent on retrieving the Soul Stone, the Hulk blindsides the Mad Titan. However, he greatly underestimates his foe, and is pummeled by him.
As the villain claims the Infinity Stone, a dying Heimdall transports Hulk back to Earth, where he crashes through the roof of Doctor Strange's New York Sanctorum. When he reverts to Banner, that's the last we see of the Hulk. Whenever Banner attempts to trigger a transformation throughout the remainder of the film, Hulk won't appear, apparently scarred from his earlier defeat by Thanos. It's the first time we've seen the character in such a fragile, even cowardly, state.
That unconventional depiction is sure to shape the Hulk's future within the MCU, especially when you consider Ruffalo's earlier description of Thor: Ragnarok as the first part in a three-movie arc that would redefine the hero. Given that Marvel can't produce a Hulk solo movie because of rights issues with Universal Pictures, the studio needs a hook to make the character more than just a smasher. Infinity War finds just that.
The character's previous MCU appearances painted the Hulk and Banner as antagonists who hate each other, as evidenced by the latter's suicide attempts. That paradigm begins to shift in Ragnarok, where Hulk is a bit more intelligent, yet infant-like. On Sakaar, he succeeds at keeping Banner at bay, thus starting to change the dynamic of their relationship.
Infinity War introduces the second stage in that evolution, with the Hulk and Banner acknowledging one another as separate people -- they even engage in conversation -- and moving away from the traditional Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic. Banner has established a degree of control, but it's a tightrope that Hulk can sever, which is showcased whenever Banner attempts to (literally) call the monster out to play. While the Hulk's fear is a drastic shift that emerges quickly after his beating by Thanos, it paints the character in the most human light.
With the final piece of the puzzle yet to be found in Avengers 4, we're eager to witness the Hulk's eventual return. But it's apparent his future is largely dependent on him trusting Banner enough to be lured back out. In other words, their arc goes grows from a relationship based in hatred, to a tense co-existence in which one party attempts to wrest control from the other, to one where the Hulk's presence depends entirely upon him arriving at a sort of understanding with Banner; with the two of them becoming friends, brothers even.
Unless the Hulk embraces Banner's role and accepts that it's OK to fail -- something the scientist knows all about -- he'll remain trapped within his self-made prison. Ultimately, once Hulk accepts that Banner really is looking out for him, fans will undoubtedly see the return of the hero who touts himself as the strongest Avenger, ready to soothe his bruised ego and challenge Thanos to a rematch.
Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, Avengers: Infinity War stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Holland, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Tom Hiddleston and Josh Brolin.