Why the Hulk is in Thor: Ragnarok

The individual movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe started out relatively simple: Iron Man was about Tony Stark. The Incredible Hulk was about Bruce Banner. Captain America: The First Avenger was about Steve Rogers. Iron Man II brought in the Black Widow, and of course the first Thor had a cameo from Hawkeye. After The Avengers, though, all bets were off. Black Widow was almost an equal costar in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which also introduced the Falcon in addition to the title character. By the time we got to Captain America: Civil War, the cast had so many superheroes, it was practically another Avengers movie. Everybody appearing in each other's movies has become the norm for the MCU.

So when it came time to make a third Thor movie, the obvious question loomed: who else from the Avengers would show up? As Kevin Feige put it in an interview with Screen Rant, "When we were thinking about what other Marvel players to bring into Thor's story, which was important to us, it was important to Chris [Hemsworth], he had looked and seen Captain America get Black Widow and Iron Man, and all of these other players and he goes, 'Mate, who's coming into my movies?'"

As we now know, the answer for Thor: Ragnarok included a heaping helping of Hulk. Here's why Marvel turned to the not-so-jolly green giant, and what it may mean for the future of the MCU.

Thor already had a big supporting cast

Of course, one of the obstacles to bring more Avengers into Thor: Ragnarok was how many characters the Thor movies already had to juggle. Whereas at the end of the day Iron Man has Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan, Thor occupies a whole world of supporting players—two worlds, in fact. In addition to his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and adoptive sibling Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the realm of Asgard also contains the fierce female fighter Sif and the Warriors Three: Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandrall (Josh Dallas in the first movie, Zachary Levi in the second), and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson). Plus there's the gatekeeper of Asgard, Heimdall (Idris Elba). And of course Thor also has friends on Earth: his love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her collaborators Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård).

And there were even more characters from the comics still to be introduced. As Feige explained, "We wanted to see Valkyrie in this movie. We wanted to introduce Hela in this movie, and there's Balder and there's Beta Ray Bill and there's still people we haven't done yet because he's got such a great cast of characters." 

There wouldn't be room for everybody

Ultimately some characters had to be left out, starting with the Earthbound trio of Jane, Darcy, and Erik. Since this movie largely takes place on Asgard and the distant planet Sakaar, rather than Asgard and Earth, it would be hard to fit them in anyway. Sif and at least some of the Warriors Three are expected to appear, but from the trailers it looks like they don't have major roles. Heimdall is more prominent in the trailer, and of course fan favorite Loki wasn't going anywhere. Odin also doesn't seem to be around much, but considering Asgard is conquered by Hela (Cate Blanchett), what happens to him is probably a plot point.

In short, Thor's large supporting cast had to be pruned a bit, and not just to make room for Valkyrie and Hela. Because there is another Avenger joining the show, and he takes up a whole lot of room.

Thor and the Hulk make a great duo

"We kept thinking about how fun it would be if we took our two most heroic, most powerful characters, Thor and Hulk. Pit them against each other and but also play the humor and the fish out of water humor between Thor and Banner," Feige explained. It may seem strange that he called them "most heroic," since characters like Captain America and even Spider-Man would seem to have them both beat when it comes to the kind of nobility and purity of purpose that we usually define as heroism. After all, Thor is famously arrogant and the Hulk is a creature built out of all-consuming rage.

It makes sense, however, if you look at things more mythologically. Thor is literally a mythological hero, of course. And while the Hulk has a sci-fi origin, there's still a simplicity to him that brings to mind figures from myth. Hulk is the Enkidu to Thor's Gilgamesh—the uncivilized monster-man who fights the hero before becoming his closest ally against true evil. And while they may not technically be the most powerful either—Doctor Strange can unravel time itself, after all—they're certainly the physically strongest Marvel heroes, which makes them well-suited to an adventure together.

And of course Feige also makes a good point about the potential for humor. The moment when Hulk suddenly knocks Thor offscreen with one punch got one of the biggest laughs in The Avengers.

Hulk has his own character arc

One of the challenges of the MCU is finding space to tell the Hulk's story. He hasn't appeared in his own solo film since 2008's The Incredible Hulk, back when the shared movie universe was a theoretical concept and Bruce Banner was played by Edward Norton. The Mark Ruffalo version of the character, introduced in The Avengers has proven far more popular, but the problem is that Universal Pictures, the company that helped make The Incredible Hulk back before Marvel had their own studio set up, still owns the distribution rights to any Hulk films.

So Marvel has to find ways to develop the Hulk's character, and tell the story of Banner and his angrier self coming to some sort of balance, through other characters' movies. And when there's not room to tell that story in a particular movie, it may be best to leave the Hulk out entirely.

Both heroes were absent in Civil War

Neither the Hulk nor Thor appeared in Captain America: Civil War, and that's not an accident. Both heroes are so unstoppable, and so disinterested in the complexities of diplomacy and bureaucracy that were central to the conflict in that movie, that they would have thrown that conflict all out of balance. Thor undoubtedly would have sided with Captain America, who was fighting out of loyalty to his oldest friend and against the need for government oversight. And if the actual God of Thunder was at that airport fight, who would have been able to stand against him? Unless of course Iron Man had used some technological solution to control the Hulk—but that would have made Tony Stark seem like even more of a jerk. Because if you didn't rein in the Hulk somehow, he wouldn't have cared which heroes he was punching once he started punching heroes.

Thor and Hulk were both missing from the comic book version of Civil War as well. Thor was hibernating at the time, after Ragnarok destroyed Asgard, as revealed in Avengers Disassembled: Thor. And Hulk wasn't even on Earth, but more on that momentarily.

Hulk's status is uncertain after Avengers: Age of Ultron

Knowing that Hulk shouldn't be around for Civil War, the team behind Avengers: Age of Ultron gave him an ambiguous ending in that movie. Upset about the destruction his alter ego has caused, Banner flies into the unknown in an Avengers Quinjet, hoping to find isolation. Nobody knew where he was headed—perhaps not even Banner himself—but comics fans noticed it looked a lot like what happened in Incredible Hulk #88-91. 

In that story, the Hulk loses control due to a gamma bomb and wreaks havoc in Las Vegas. The Illuminati—a team of manipulators made up of Iron Man, Professor X, Black Bolt, Namor, Mr. Fantastic, and Dr. Strange—decide the Hulk is too dangerous to remain on Earth, so they trick him into boarding an automated ship and blast him into space. Their goal is to send him to a serene planet where he can live in peace, but the ship is sucked into a wormhole and he ends up in a place that's pretty much the opposite of that.

Planet Hulk

Planet Hulk, a hugely popular storyline which began in Incredible Hulk #92, finds the character on the planet of Sakaar, an extraordinarily violent and oppressive world where he's taken into slavery and becomes a gladiator—and ultimately a revolutionary. Unlike Thor: Ragnarok, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) isn't in charge here, just the evil Red King, who allows the Hulk to become a popular fighter in the arena and then regrets it when the green goliath leads a rebellion against him. Along the way, the Hulk teams up with other former slaves of Sakaar, including the stone man known as Korg, who will be played by director Taika Waititi in Thor: Ragnarok. Hulk also encounters another well-known Marvel hero in that fighting pit, but it wasn't who you might expect.

Thor is replacing another of Hulk's friends

In Planet Hulk, the "friend from work" with whom the Hulk reunites in the arena is none other than the Silver Surfer, who has also been fitted with gladiator armor and wields his surfboard as a shield. Of course, even if the movie rights to the Hulk allowed for a direct adaptation of the story, the movie rights to the Fantastic Four (the franchise in which the Surfer is a supporting character) would still be a problem—they're owned by Fox. In fact, when Planet Hulk became a direct-to-video animated film in 2010, the Surfer's part was played by Beta Ray Bill. Bill, in turn, is a supporting character from Thor—a heroic alien who shares the powers of the god of thunder. He's also one of the names Kevin Feige mentioned as someone from the Thor comics that it would be fun to include in a movie.

But in the meantime, this is the perfect mechanism for mixing the two heroes' stories. First, replace the Silver Surfer not with Beta Ray Bill, but with Thor himself. Then, tell the story from Thor's point of view, so he doesn't know that the Hulk has become the greatest gladiator on Sakaar until he meets him in the pit. Obviously from there, the story will depart from Planet Hulk to include a return to Asgard and a team-up with Valkyrie, instead of just a saga of revolution on Sakaar (although that may happen along the way). Replacing the Red King with the Grandmaster also ties the movie into the larger cosmic saga of the MCU, since he's an Elder of the Universe like the ones who've appeared in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Hulk has a history with Valkyrie too

For fans of classic Marvel Comics, it's also exciting to see Hulk and Valkyrie together, because they were friends and teammates for many years in The Defenders. That may sound strange since The Defenders is the name of the street-level Marvel team that appears on Netflix, but the original Defenders included Hulk, Valkyrie, Silver Surfer, Namor, and Doctor Strange. Strange is also due to appear in Thor: Ragnarok, although we don't yet know how big his role will turn out to be. Still, with no disrespect meant to Daredevil and company, the Revengers of Thor: Ragnarok may be the closest that fans of the classic Defenders comics come to seeing their preferred team onscreen.

It all leads back to Infinity War

It's been clear since Avengers came out in 2012 that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in some sense one big saga, leading up to the climactic battle with Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, and there have been many hints that Thor: Ragnarok is a key part of that setup. The destruction of Asgard in Ragnarok may play a direct role, as implied by producer Brad Winderbaum, who discussed Asgard's role as a protective force in the cosmos. "The whole cosmic world of the MCU was like okay," he explained to ComicBook.com, "You had Thanos, and you had Chitauri, and you have all kind of threats from above coming. But you also have Asgard, you also have these protective forces out there too." It sounds like the powerful heroes of Asgard being off the table will play a role in Thanos' decision to attack. There are also rumors that Thor remains lost in space at the end of Ragnarok, where the Guardians of the Galaxy find him at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War.

But whatever else happens to set up that movie, the reunion of Hulk and Thor in this one helps build toward a larger Avengers capable of battling the omnipotent Thanos. It also reestablishes Hulk's potential as a team player after the chaos of Age of Ultron. And if he and Thor bring back Valkyrie and maybe a redeemed Loki, that puts them in an even better position for the war to come.