In the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s decade-spanning run, we’ve seen some of the most iconic characters in film history develop. Watching Tony Stark go from a borderline war criminal to a self-sacrificing father was an emotional rollercoaster for all fans, not just die-hard comic book obsessives. It seems almost inevitable that, given that the franchise is so long-running, characters would grow and change.
However, when it comes to MCU characters, not all arcs are created equal. Tentpole characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, all have clear arcs due to the fact that they each got a trilogy of standalone movies solely for exploring their individual nuances and inner workings. Inevitably, though, this means that the dozens of other prominent characters in the MCU who don’t get entire movies to themselves sometimes fall to the wayside in terms of character development.
One of the most common criticisms about Infinity War was that it felt overstuffed, and for good reason. In under two hours, the Russo brothers directing team had to juggle upwards of forty major players, so it’s understandable that not everyone would be getting as strong an arc as Tony Stark. However, there’s one character in the MCU who I feel was robbed of a true character arc over the course of the movies that he appeared in, and I would go so far as to say that as the MCU progressed, his character grew weaker and weaker.
That character is Bruce Banner.
Out of the three Avengers who don’t have their own trilogies, Bruce Banner has had the least amount of character development. Black Widow had a clear, consistent arc over the four Avengers films, not to mention a strong turn in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a solo film on the way. Hawkeye, while sidelined in the first three Avengers movies, had a very distinct sense of self and a very emotional arc in Endgame, which will be further explored in an upcoming miniseries on Disney+. Bruce Banner had a strong start in the original Avengers and seemed to be taking a certain direction in Age of Ultron, but veered off course in Thor: Ragnarok and fizzled through the last two Avengers movies, with no other upcoming projects to speak of.
But I don’t think Marvel needed a trilogy of standalone movies or a miniseries to give Bruce Banner a clear and interesting story. Joss Whedon laid the foundation for an incredibly nuanced character, and à la video essayist Nando V Movies, I’d like to propose one small change to a few Marvel movies that I believe would give Bruce Banner a strong character arc without having to drastically alter the MCU as we know it.
Before I propose the changes, though, I want to outline exactly why I feel he would benefit from a change. When we first meet Banner in Avengers, he’s an introverted, analytical, and often cynical scientist with a deep self-loathing and a resentment of Nick Fury for dragging him back into the world he was so desperately trying to get away from. Coupled with Mark Ruffalo’s stellar performance, that was a hell of a lot of material for future films to work off of. However, as the MCU films progress, Banner becomes less of his own character and more of an empty shell to be used whenever the writers need someone to make a quip, or come up with a solution for a science-related problem.
If I had to choose a significant turning point of where I feel that Bruce Banner starts to get lost, I would say that Thor: Ragnarok marks where Bruce Banner ends and the shell begins. By no means do I think that the Bruce Banner we see after Ragnarok is bad, per se, but to me, he stands as a symbol of missed opportunity, and I think that there’s a way to tell a Bruce Banner story in the MCU without having to dedicate an entire trilogy to him.
That story starts with Age of Ultron. Though I mentioned earlier that the change in Bruce Banner’s character is more readily apparent in Ragnarok, I think that making one small change in Age of Ultron would lay the groundwork for the Bruce Banner story that I wish we’d seen. That change? Bruce Banner should be much more emotionally invested when Vision is created.
When we pick up with Bruce in Age of Ultron, he is continually haunted by the destruction that the Hulk causes. In a moment that’s played for laughs, Thor tells Banner that the “gates of hell are filled with the screams of [The Hulk’s] victims.” Bruce groans miserably, and that’s the end of it, but I think that the theme of Bruce Banner feeling guilt over the actions of the Hulk is one that should be much more deliberately explored in the MCU, as it was established as a central tenet of Banner’s character in the first Avengers.
Later on in the film, however, Bruce has a hand in creating Vision—an all-powerful, virtually omnipotent, and eternally peaceful being who seeks good in others and lives in constant awe of humanity. By helping Tony create Vision, Bruce Banner has put an undeniable force for good into the world, and I think this is something that should be acknowledged.
When Vision wields Thor’s hammer, it’s another moment played for laughs that could be used as a turning point for Bruce Banner. If we, as an audience, were to really feel how much he struggled with the Hulk’s violence and destruction, it would make it all the more significant when we (and Bruce) see how he has the capacity to give, not just take away. Although the Hulk destroys, Bruce Banner, the scientist, creates. Where the Hulk causes death, Bruce Banner gives life.
It wouldn’t require any major reshoots or huge set pieces, but it would be away for the audience to better understand Bruce Banner and see how he struggles with differentiating himself from the Hulk (a concept that I’ll explore through another movie). If he were to have a genuine emotional connection with Vision, he would have someone to talk to about the guilt he feels over the destruction he’s caused. Most importantly, however, Vision would be able to show him how Bruce Banner is more than just the Hulk’s other half—that he too, is a member of the Avengers, a hero to the world.
If we ended Age of Ultron with Bruce having a newfound confidence in himself, Banner wouldn’t leave Earth at the end of the Sokovia battle, and it would also lay the proper groundwork heading into Captain America: Civil War, and the next change i’m going to propose.
“But wait,” you say to me. “Bruce Banner isn’t in Civil War.” Well, in my rewrite of the MCU, he is. As I mentioned earlier, I feel that Ragnarok (while a great movie for Thor and the MCU as a whole) uses Banner as more of a vehicle for laughs and a straight man for Thor to bounce off of. Since Civil War and Ragnarok are set around the same time period, my change for Ragnarok is very simple: take Banner out of it. Removing him from Ragnarok would give the movie more time to focus on characters like Loki or Valkyrie, but more importantly for our purposes, it would free Bruce Banner up to be in Civil War.
Admittedly, this next change is a little more than small. When it comes to Civil War, I think that there’s a way to bring Bruce Banner more into the spotlight in the MCU, while also exploring his relationships with other characters and testing his newfound sense of self in Age of Ultron. My proposed change is this: as a provision of the Sokovia Accords, Bruce Banner is required to surrender himself to the custody of General Thaddeus Ross and the United States government.
As someone who grew up watching Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes during Saturday morning cartoons, it baffles me that the MCU introduced Thunderbolt Ross but didn’t have him cross paths with Bruce Banner. Putting Bruce Banner in Civil War would have him butting heads with Ross in a big way, while also making some major ground with Banner’s character.
If Bruce were told to turn himself in as a provision of the Accords, it would force him to look inwards and truly decide how he views both himself and the Hulk. Is he still the cynical, self-loathing scientist we met in Avengers? Is he still the only person he hates more than the Hulk? Or is this new, post-vision Banner more at peace with himself and his abilities? If Banner were to have come to terms with the Hulk in Age of Ultron, it would give him a reason not to just surrender himself to Ross and sign the accords.
“But wait,” you say again, “wouldn’t that put him on Team Cap?” Why yes, dear reader, it would. As a second consequence of the accords, Bruce Banner would find himself at odds with the two people he’s grown closest to in the MCU: Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff. In my version of Civil War, Tony and Natasha maintain their positions that signing the Accords is the right thing to do, and by proxy, that would mean that they think Bruce should surrender himself to the government. Suddenly, Bruce and Tony’s friendship is put to the test. This would also serve to make the weight on Tony’s shoulders in Civil War all that more severe; on top of everything else, he’s signing away his friend’s freedom.
As a result of refusing to sign, Bruce would go on the run with Team Cap, and though I think that the rest of Civil War could play out pretty much as it is, at the end of the movie, I want to make one more change. As it happens currently, Cap sends Bucky to Wakanda so that he’s safe while in cryostasis. In this new version of Civil War, Banner would also go with him, as it would be a safe place to hide from General Ross, who, in true comic fashion, is stopping at nothing to find and capture the Hulk.
From there, I would leave the rest of the films pretty much the same. Infinity War and Endgame are chock full as it is, and I think that the changes to Age of Ultron, Ragnarok, and Civil War are enough to create a small “mini arc” for Bruce Banner. While it’s nothing franchise-altering, these changes would give Banner a much more solid presence in the MCU and cement his character as more than just somebody whose role changes from movie to movie as needed.
Instead, Bruce Banner would have learned to be at peace with himself and his abilities more naturally, and he would pay off a classic comic storyline in Civil War while also adding another layer of turmoil between the two sides. Though my timeline will never see the light of day, that doesn’t stop me from thinking about the Bruce Banner that we could’ve gotten in the MCU: the one we met in Avengers, but never truly got to know.
(images: Marvel Entertainment)
Lauren Coates is a film and Chicago-based student with a weakness for junk food, a passion for film & television, and a constant yearning to be at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @laurenjcoates and read more of her work on Culturess.
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