It’s not a huge surprise that Marvel Studios wouldn’t bring Edward Norton back to play Bruce Banner in this week’s episode of What If…? But it’s still a bit of a swerve, as the show walks through the first phase of Marvel’s movies, and recasts scenes previously played by Norton in the much maligned 2008 movie The Incredible Hulk with the actor who replaced him: Mark Ruffalo.
Here’s the setup, in case you’re confused (and it is a little confusing). In the episode, we get to see a loose adaptation of Marvel’s Phase One movies (Iron Man 2 through The Avengers, specifically) through the lens of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). However, things take a dark turn immediately as Iron Man mysteriously dies when Black Widow tries to cure him of palladium poisoning. The deaths continue to build with the murder of Thor, then Hawkeye.
Black Widow is on the run, and decides to head and talk to someone not involved in S.H.I.E.L.D.: Betty Ross, aka Bruce Banner’s on and off again girlfriend. While interrogating her, Black Widow is tasked to find the Hulk by Fury… Only he’s already there, hiding in the same lab where Widow and Betty are talking.
And what follows is a scene straight out of The Incredible Hulk, with a few big changes. Widow and Banner run to a glass encased bridge. General “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) goes to take down the Hulk. And something gets shot at Banner, causing him to Hulk out and attack the army. Only unlike in the movie where smoke-bombs were shot at Banner, here he actually gets shot in the arm (it later turns out to be Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas, who is killing the Avengers as revenge for the death of his daughter), and then later explodes. It’s pretty gross.
Anyway, back to the recasting of it all. It isn’t a huge change from Norton to Ruffalo here, and it’s not like it’s a live-action scene. You could even excuse the event as “well it’s another universe in the multiverse where Ruffalo was always Bruce Banner.” But it does seem like part of a more active effort on Marvel Studios to reclaim The Incredible Hulk as a part of Marvel Cinematic Universe canon.
Caveat here: the movie was always part of canon, technically; it’s just in a weird place, financially. Way back over a decade ago, Marvel wasn’t the dominant cultural force it is now, and had previously sold rights to most of its top tier characters to various movie studios. So when it came time to produce movies themselves, most of them were co-productions, or co-distribution deals. That includes The Incredible Hulk, which was a Universal movie (the rest of Phase One was distributed by Paramount, until Disney fully bought out the rights). Reports on where the rights for a Hulk movie lie are murky and conflicting at best, so we won’t run all that down (seriously, that’s another whole article entirely), but the Louis Leterrier directed movie has always felt like the odd man out in the MCU canon.
There have been references before, mind you. After Norton parted ways with Marvel, and Ruffalo (the original first choice for the role) was brought in to replace him for The Avengers, Banner’s past wasn’t ignored completely. Footage from the movies — mostly Hulk fights — has been used before, and the Hulk’s climactic battle with Abomination (Tim Roth) in Harlem has been used as fodder for jokes. The biggest tie-in to canon was Hurt returning as Ross for Captain America: Civil War, and he’s since proved to be a go-to baddie in other movies like Black Widow.
But What If…?, despite being animated, is the most time we’ve spent in the timeline of The Incredible Hulk in the MCU since 2008, and having Ruffalo there instead of Norton shows a willingness on Marvel’s part to re-canonize the events of the movie. Add in that Roth (or at least a CGI monster) will be showing up as Abomination in September’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and again on Disney+’s She-Hulk series, and there’s a sense that perhaps other dangling plot-lines from the movie like Tim Blake Nelson’s villainous Leader, and perhaps even the missing Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) could be somewhere on the horizon.
Or perhaps this was just another universe in the multiverse where Ruffalo was always Bruce Banner. Either way.
New episodes of What If…? stream every Wednesday on Disney+.
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