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Red Hulk's Comic Book History Explained

In the long history of the Incredible Hulk we've seen numerous different versions of the character. From the original, bestial green-skinned hero to the grey-hued Mr. Fixit and the bespectacled Professor Hulk, readers have met many different Hulks. Throw in his cousin She-Hulk, his son Skaar, and his future self Maestro, and there's a veritable universe of Hulks out there. But in the 2000s came an all-new, all-different Hulk that quickly became a mainstay in the Marvel Universe: the Red Hulk.

Since his debut, Red Hulk has become more than just a fan favorite, but a major player in some of Marvel's biggest storylines. Though you might think that Red Hulk is simply just Hulk in a different color, that couldn't be further from the truth. That's because this is no new personality for Bruce Banner, but an entirely different Hulk, whose alter ego is none other than Banner's adversary — and father of his wife Betty — Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross.

Despite being a more modern creation, Red Hulk already has a long and winding journey in the pages of Marvel comics. He's tried to kill Bruce Banner, worked with MODOK, switched sides and joined the Avengers, and even fought cosmic world-eater Galactus. So right here, right now, this is the long history of Red Hulk explained.

The mystery of the Red Hulk

First appearing in "The Hulk" #1 in 2008, Red Hulk is a monstrous, nearly-identical copy of the Hulk, but shaded in the brightest red hue imaginable. When he first appeared, the creation of writer Jeph Loeb and artist Ed McGuinness, his true identity was a mystery. Readers didn't know if he was a new alternate Hulk form of Bruce Banner, another member of Hulk's supporting cast who may have been granted Hulk-like powers, or even an entirely new character.

Coming in the aftermath of the "World War Hulk" storyline, Red Hulk's emergence sees him soundly defeating the Abomination, among others. He is hunted by the likes of Iron Man, SHIELD, and General Thunderbolt Ross, who wants answers as to who this new mystery monster really is. But surprisingly, it would be two whole years before the secret would be revealed. In an interview with IGN, Loeb claimed he knew the identity of Red Hulk from the beginning, and took great pains to hide it from everyone, including his own artists. But he also laid plenty of clues in the pages of the book, leading to much speculation among the fans and a vast array of competing theories.

Red Hulk revelations

Fans continued debating their theories of Red Hulk's true identity after his first appearance in 2008, but it would be two years before readers got any concrete answers. By then, the consensus pick seemed to be that he was really General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, who somehow gained the powers of the Hulk. Fans' suspicions proved correct in 2010, when in the pages of "Hulk" #22 they learned the truth of Red Hulk's identity, though it would be a little longer before all the details of his origin were doled out.

Once it all came out in the open, it was revealed that after the death of his daughter Betty, Ross was approached by villains MODOK and The Leader with a diabolical plan. Fearing the return of the Hulk after his exile into space, the two big bads convinced Ross to join them by promising to resurrect his daughter and return her to the land of the living. As part of their scheme, they were able to capture the body of Bruce Banner after Hulk's return in "World War Hulk," and use it to extract and transfer energy into Ross. The result was Ross gaining the ability to turn into a Hulk of his own at will, all while a SHIELD Life Model Decoy helped prevent anyone from suspecting the truth of his new persona.

He has a Red She-Hulk counterpart

In the pages of "Hulk" #15, about a year into the saga of the Red Hulk, a new character popped up that raised baffling new questions: the Red She-Hulk. As her own story progressed, it created dueling mysteries as readers puzzled over who this new character was, while still trying to guess the identity of the Red Hulk himself. This new crimson-colored version of She-Hulk was clearly not Jennifer Walters — cousin of Bruce Banner — but someone else entirely, and she had a strange connection to the Red Hulk, often appearing protective of him.

With the revelation that Red Hulk was really Thunderbolt Ross, readers learned that Red She-Hulk was none other than the General's daughter, Betty Ross. But how had she returned? It was thanks to the machinations of the Intelligencia, led by MODOK and the Leader, who'd promised her father they'd bring her back from the dead. Little did he know that her return would come with a cost, as she too became a monstrous, Hulked-out powerhouse. Now, father and daughter were both cursed with gamma powers.

Red Hulk spawned Hulked-Out heroes

In the "She-Hulk" series on Disney+, MCU fans got their first look at the Intelligencia, a collection of like-minded geniuses who have a personal vendetta against super-powered beings. The Intelligencia are actually based on a group from the comics who made their debut in a storyline called "Fall of the Hulks," centered on Red Hulk and his reluctant alliance with a group of Marvel villains. The Intelligencia are led by MODOK and The Leader, and have also included the likes of the Mad Thinker and the Wizard among their roster.

In "Fall of the Hulks," the Intelligencia set out to abduct the world's smartest people, and that includes Bruce Banner, Reed Richards, Tony Stark, Hank Pym, Hank McCoy, Dr. Doom, and T'Challa. To stop them, Banner and the Red Hulk join forces, but the Intelligencia's insane gambit also includes a plan to turn the Avengers into Hulk-like monstrosities. This leads to Thor, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America, and even Deadpool transforming into Hulks.

In a shocking twist that few probably saw coming, the bad guys actually win the day, and the Intelligencia have an army of superhero Hulks at their disposal.

Red Hulk fought in a war of Hulks

"Fall of the Hulks" didn't just see the debut of the Intelligencia, it also revealed new clues to the Red Hulk's origins, and led directly into the Earth-shattering crossover, "World War Hulks." It's during this story that the truth of the Red Hulk's origin is revealed, and we learn how the villainous masterminds manipulated Ross into becoming his own greatest enemy. The story also opens with a jaw-dropping, unexpected showdown between Red Hulk and the SHIELD Life Model Decoy of General Ross.

As the Intelligencia move forward with their plan to capture the world's smartest men and take over the country, Red Hulk turns into a hero. He saves the Fantastic Four when they come under attack, and even finds himself allied with the X-Men. Unfortunately, even Red Hulk is no match for the combined might of the so-called "Hulked-Out Heroes," and he's roundly rousted by the likes of Hulkpool. But Red Hulk gains the upper hand at the climax of the story, defeating the Leader and taking over the White House. This leads to an epic brawl between Ross and Banner in their Hulk forms that begins on the South Lawn and ends at the Lincoln Memorial.

At the conclusion of "World War Hulks," it's also revealed that Ross no longer has the ability to revert to his human form. The man who despises Hulks is now seemingly stuck as one forever.

Red Hulk led the Offenders

Red Hulk has joined a number of super-powered teams over the years, up to and including the Avengers. But the first one he joined, the Offenders, wasn't really his choice, as he was plucked by the cosmic villain the Grandmaster to be a part of a group designed to take on the Earthly team of heroes known as The Defenders. Though Red Hulk had no animosity towards the likes of Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, and Namor, he was happy to join up because of the presence of his old nemesis, the Incredible Hulk.

The Offenders were an odd assortment of villains, each one a rival of a member of the Defenders. Alongside Hulk's foe, the Red Hulk, were Namor's nemesis Tiger Shark, Dr. Strange's adversary Baron Mordo, and Silver Surfer villain Terrax. The two teams duke it out as part of a bet between the Grandmaster and the Collector. After defeating Terrax, Red Hulk actually usurps Silver Surfer's cosmic powers and proceeds to lay waste to heroes and villains alike. When the dust settles, he even challenges the mighty Galactus, who shows up too. But because the Power Cosmic is of Galactus' making, Red Hulk is quickly sapped of his energy and sent on his way. In the end, the game is cut short and everyone returns to their homes as if nothing had happened.

Red Hulk fought side-by-side with the Avengers

In "Avengers" #7 in 2010, after Red Hulk is captured and confined to a prison known as Gamma Base, he's approached by none other than Steve Rogers — Captain America — for a mission of paramount importance to the safety of the planet.

In that issue we learn that the Hood has found himself in possession of one of the six Infinity Gems, and decides he wants more. The man he finds himself fighting in his quest to get them is the Red Hulk himself. After Red Hulk is defeated by the Hood, who is in possession of not just one but two Infinity Gems now, Ross seeks out the rest of the Avengers to warn them of the threat. Now with the Red Hulk by their side, the Avengers — then composed of Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, Spider-Woman, Wolverine, No-Varr, and Spider-Man — must stop the Hood from assembling the Infinity Gauntlet.

A storyline that sees the super-secret Illuminati discovered by the rest of the Avengers, it finds heroes and villains alike fighting for the control of the Infinity Gems. It's also not the last time that Red Hulk would fight as a member of the Avengers, as he'd continue on and off with them during the "Fear Itself" story arc as well.

Code Red and the Thunderbolts

In the time before his true identity had been made public, Red Hulk was tasked with a dangerous mission to hunt down and eliminate the mutant called Domino. To do it, he recruited a team of anti-heroes he dubbed "Code Red," which consisted of Deadpool, the Punisher, Crimson Dynamo, Thundra, and the assassin Elektra. Together they tracked down Domino and faced off against her own team of allies, X-Force, which at that point was led by Wolverine and also included X-23, Archangel, and Warpath.

Years later, Red Hulk assembled another similar group of anti-heroes in an effort to create a team that could take on the most dangerous villains that other heroes couldn't handle. Calling his collection of heroes the Thunderbolts — like the team once assembled by Baron Zemo that actually boasted Ross's name — Red Hulk was joined by the likes of Agent Venom, Deadpool, Elektra, Ghost Rider, and the Punisher. Together, they operated as a hit squad of sorts, adventuring in the darkest corners of the Marvel Universe. 

In their first mission, however, a misguided attempt to recruit the Leader mutates the villain into a new form called the Red Leader. In an elaborate ruse, this newly mutated madman sets out to destroy Red Hulk's Thunderbolts by pitting the Punisher against the team.

Red Hulk hunted Venom

As the star of his own title, it's easy to think of Red Hulk as a solo character who worked alone. But Ross is a commander of soldiers after all, and between working with the Avengers, and leading a black ops team of superheroes, Red Hulk had become a kind of super-powered soldier-of-fortune himself. So it should come as no surprise that over in the pages of "Venom," Red Hulk was once again brought in to lead a new mission. 

For a second time, Captain America approaches Red Hulk with new orders: track down the Venom symbiote, which is on the loose and at this point is bonded to Flash Thompson. Red Hulk finds the one-time Spidey villain in Las Vegas, and the two battle it out in the desert. At the same time, both Ghost Rider and X-23 are in the area, and soon all four converge.

Together, the heroes must join forces to fend off the Antitheses, a group of beings who are each heroes' exact opposites created by the demon known as Blackheart. When all is said and done, Red Hulk successfully curries favor with Captain America and gets Flash off the hook with the Avengers. But as noted by Daimon Hellstrom, the adventure leaves Red Hulk, X-23, and Venom each with a demonic mark that only he can see.

Red Hulk was depowered

Following an encounter with the Eternals that left him at odds with Marvel's immortal race of cosmic watchdogs, the Red Hulk would face his greatest trial yet. His on-again/off-again rival Bruce Banner — aka the Hulk — develops a deadly new alternate personality known as Doc Green, whose mission in life is to destroy every gamma-powered being on the planet. He even comes up with a way of removing the Hulk-like powers from the likes of A-Bomb (Rick Jones) Skaar (his son), and Red She-Hulk (Betty Ross) with the use of a special serum.

Red Hulk works on a plan to stop Doc Green from taking away his gamma-based powers, but Doc Green has a secret ally in Deadpool, and together they lay a trap for him. Ross tries to fight back, and after a knockdown, drag 'em out battle, Doc Green is able to inject Red Hulk, forcing him back into his human persona. With no more powers, this leaves Thaddeus Ross as an ordinary mortal for the first time in nearly a decade (in real-world time, that is).  

Still, you can't keep a good Hulk down. And knowing how nothing is ever permanent in comics, it was just a matter of time before Ross came roaring back as the Red Hulk.

Ross' apparent death and Red Hulk's return

Ross losing his powers doesn't mean he can't do good. After all, he does have a career as a military general to fall back on. After fighting Hydra, he joins a clandestine group called the Power Elite to help balance the scales in the aftermath of the villainous group's takeover of the United States. He then helps secure SHIELD technology after the agency's collapse, persisting in his do-gooding efforts in secret after the death of a recently-activated Life Model Decoy of himself is killed, which leaves the Marvel Universe believing him to be gone forever.

But after Ross leaves the Power Elite, learning that their goals are not as righteous as he'd been led to believe, he begins aiding their enemies the Daughters of Liberty, a group of women warriors. Once discovered though, he's captured by the Power Elite, and is forced to endure a brutal smackdown at the hands of Crossbones. 

Just as Ross seems on the verge of death, he surprises everyone when he unexpectedly transforms into the Red Hulk, awakening the beast within. Back in his crimson-coated persona, Red Hulk returns in full force, and while we're not quite sure initially whose side he's on, he delivers a heartfelt salute to Captain America as he sets off for more adventures.

An all-new, all-different Red Hulk

Believe it or not, General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross isn't the only Red Hulk there is. More recently, we've met another mustachioed military general named Robert Maverick, who's part of a secret government-sponsored program that developed organic assets for military use — in  other words, superhumans. But when the superhero group Avengers Idea Mechanics and SHIELD merge into one government collective, it leads to the creation of a new super-team, the U.S. Avengers, and Maverick wants on their roster. 

Thankfully for him, there's a SHIELD-made, AIM-improved device called a Hulk Plug-In, which grants its owner the temporary powers of the Hulk. Using it on himself, he turns into a new version of the Red Hulk, and joins this new off-shoot Avengers team. But Maverick isn't content to have a time limit on his powers, and secretly has nanites injected into his blood that grant him permanent Red Hulk status. This unfortunately also leaves him susceptible to Hydra control, and he ultimately has to give it up.

But every now and then, Maverick still activates his Red Hulk powers, and even augments them with an enhanced Iron Patriot armor exoskeleton.

Red Hulk's powers

You'd be forgiven for assuming that the Red Hulk possesses all the same powers as Bruce Banner's green alter ego, just in a different color. But the truth is, General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross — in his monstrous Red Hulk form — actually possesses quite a different array of abilities.

Sure, the Red Hulk is super-strong and boasts an accelerated healing power, slowed aging, superhuman stamina, speed, and durability — just like the Hulk. But it doesn't end there. For starters, Ross had for a time the unique ability to change from his human form into his Red Hulk form at will. Plus, whereas the angrier Hulk gets, the stronger he gets, the angrier Red Hulk gets, the deadlier he gets — quite literally — as his increase in emotional volatility increases the amount of radiation he gives off.

Another unique power Red Hulk possesses is his ability to absorb vast amounts of energy. This includes everything from gamma radiation to Galactus' Power Cosmic, which is how he was able to defeat the Silver Surfer.

Red Hulks we've seen onscreen

Red Hulk hasn't been limited to appearances in comics. A few years after his debut, in 2012, Red Hulk popped up in an episode of "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes." He also played a main role in the Hulk team-up series, "Hulk and the Agents of SMASH." alongside fellow Hulks Bruce Banner, A-Bomb, She-Hulk, and Skaar. This same version of Red Hulk, voiced by the inimitable Clancy Brown, also appears in fellow animated shows "Ultimate Spider-Man," and "Avengers Assemble."

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, General Ross is one of the first major supporting players we meet, played by William Hurt in "The Incredible Hulk" in 2008. He returned in "Captain America: Civil War" and "Black Widow," where he is later shown to have been elevated to Secretary of Defense. After the sudden passing of Hurt in 2022, the part was recast, with none other than Harrison Ford stepping into the role of Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross for "Captain America: New World Order." Rumor has it that Ross is due to transform into Red Hulk in that film, bringing the anti-hero lovingly referred to as "Rulk" into the MCU for the first time.