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The entire Hulk MCU timeline finally explained

Few heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been as entertaining to follow over the years as the Hulk. The Jade Giant has one of the most interesting, albeit confusing, stories in the entire history of the MCU. From perpetual inner conflict — until more recent times, at least — to his temper, nearly limitless strength, and near invincibility, the character has plotted a uniquely absorbing story that few of his fellow heroes can match.

Of course, one extremely unique factor that complicates the big green guy's story is the fact that the overpowered hero shares a body with mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner. The two characters remained locked in a running contest for literal self-control throughout nearly the entire Infinity Saga

At this point, the twofer superhero's adventure has gone through the fires of personal discovery, stretched across the galaxy and back again, and built to an incredible crescendo that few people could have predicted when he came galumphing onto the screen over a decade ago. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here — let's pick up the story at the beginning. This is the Hulk's MCU timeline, finally explained

A murky start

While "the beginning" for most MCU heroes simply requires a quick trip back to their origin film, the earliest moments of Hulk's timeline are a bit harder to pin down. The problem is, Hulk technically doesn't have an MCU origin story. Not in detail, anyway. In fact, his story begins several years after the "Other Guy" already came into existence. 

However, over time and through hints, exposition, and flashbacks, it's become known that Banner originally volunteered to test his own gamma radiation experiment on himself, and things quickly went very wrong (or as General "Thunderbolt" Ross, the head of the project would say, "very right"). The experiment leads to the creation of the Hulk, a being that, in simplistic terms, shares a body and mind with Bruce Banner — although for many years, only one can express themselves at a time. 

Not long after the accident, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde duo find themselves on the lam. These early years are rough for our hero, as Banner is continually tracked by the U.S. Army and struggles to contain the Hulk in order to stay quiet and out of sight. After several years of moving around, the scientist finds himself living a secret life as a fugitive in Brazil, where he focuses on anger management — anger being the trigger that unleashes the Hulk — and looks for ways to reverse his "condition."

Getting nowhere fast

By 2008, Banner has spent nearly half a year hiding in Brazil, where he works in a bottling factory. However, his tenuous situation is upended when General "Thunderbolt" Ross finally tracks him down. When this happens, he transforms into the Hulk, blows his cover, and goes back on the run. The ensuing adventure sees Banner return to America, where he reunites with his sweetheart, the general's daughter Betty Ross, and continues his quest to "heal" himself from the threat of turning into the Other Guy. 

Throughout these events, he's closely dogged by General Ross' forces, and even meets them head-on in front of Culver University — where he is directly confronted by a new antagonist, Emil Blonsky, a British special-ops commando injected with a Super Soldier Serum that allows him to survive his first encounter with the Hulk. After that, he escalates the threat by having the Hulk's blood transfused into his own body, an event that turns him into the Hulk-sized villain Abomination.

Meanwhile, Banner realizes the futility of trying to heal his condition and is finally taken into custody by General Ross, just in time for Abomination to appear on the scene. The revelation of the new threat forces the general to release Banner, as it quickly becomes apparent that Hulk is the only hope they have to contain the transformed Blonsky. This leads to a catastrophic showdown in Harlem, where Abomination is subdued and Hulk flees the scene.

An Avenger

After the events in Harlem, Banner and Hulk show some initial promise, as it appears that the scientist may finally be gaining a level of control over his angrier other half. However, by the time he re-enters the larger MCU story, much of that progress has been lost, and the scientist is once again living a quiet life of solitude, this time hiding in India and helping the local population.

It's there that Black Widow pays him a visit in 2012, asking him to lend his impressive scientific knowledge to help find the Tesseract and protect the world from a global threat. Banner reluctantly agrees, and soon finds himself working alongside the crew that will soon be known to the world as the Avengers.

While Banner begins with good intentions, it doesn't take long for the Hulk to show up and threaten the entire operation. After a tussle with Thor that destructively progresses through S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Helicarrier, Hulk ends up falling out of the sky before turning back into Banner on the ground. From there, he's given a helpful hand from a security guard, who lends him his motorcycle so he can reunite with the team.

The hero and the therapist

When Banner reunites with the Avengers, they're in the early stages of fending off an invasion of Chitauri soldiers in the streets of New York City. As he heads into battle, he reveals that one thing he's learned over the years is how to willingly transform into Hulk when needed, quipping that his secret sauce is the simple fact that he's "always angry." Switching to the "Other Guy," the hero fully participates in the Battle of New York, smashing Chitauri, stopping a leviathan or two, and even gives Loki a particularly brutal smackdown in Stark Tower.

As one of the Avengers, Banner finds that he no longer needs to live perpetually in fear of arrest, and he settles into a new phase of his superhero career. At one point, he even attempts to help Tony Stark process some of the reformed playboy's own traumatic experiences, although he finds Tony's stories put him to sleep, and even confesses that he doesn't have the temperament to play the part of a therapist. Fortunately, he still has many other ways to provide a meaningful contribution.

Two stories

Over the next few years, Banner and Hulk continue to work with the Avengers, albeit in two very different capacities — Banner as the brains and Hulk as the brawn. By the time the war with Ultron rolls around in 2015, the two alter egos go through a dramatic character arc that changes their trajectory dramatically.

On one hand, Banner continues to offer his incredible intellect as a scientist. He helps Tony Stark work on combining Von Strucker's work with the Ultron program — inadvertently creating Ultron in the process. He also helps create Vision, and even strikes up a bit of a romantic spark with Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow.

Hulk, on the other hand, is repeatedly brought out to "save the day" when the team is in a tight spot. This begins with the retrieval of Loki's Scepter from Von Strucker's base in Sokovia and ends with the world-saving showdown with Ultron in the same location. In the interim, he also duels Iron Man directly in Johannesburg, reinforcing the troubling truth that the Green Machine is little more than an unwieldy tool in the hands of his fellow Avengers. Once Ultron is defeated, the Hulk refuses to surrender control back to Banner, instead taking the Avengers' Quinjet and flying it off into space on his own.

Off-earth adventures

After the events in Sokovia, the story takes a rather dramatic turn. Hulk encounters a wormhole while flying through space and suddenly finds himself crash-landing on the strange garbage planet known as Sakaar. Once there, his powerful physique and fighting prowess naturally guarantee that he eventually finds his way to the leader of the planet, the Grandmaster, who recruits him as one of his gladiators, a position uniquely suited to Hulk's violence-prone temperament. Hulk remains in the driver's seat for the next two Earth years. It isn't until 2017 that the cover is finally blown on his self-imposed exile when he finds himself confronted in gladiatorial combat by none other than his fellow Avenger, Thor.

After a duel between the two very evenly matched opponents, the pair retire to Hulk's private quarters where they discuss what to do next, a conversation that reveals that Hulk has learned quite a few new words over the last couple of years. While Hulk has no desire to leave his comfy situation, he does show Thor where the Quinjet landed, which inadvertently exposes him to a recording of Black Widow that allows Banner to regain control.

Coming to a head

Once Banner is back, he and Thor join with others to form the Revengers and head back to Asgard. There, Banner and Hulk help Thor stop his villainous sister Hela by unleashing Ragnarok. During the fighting, Hulk fearlessly dispatches Hela's giant wolf Fenris and then jumps right into the maw of the fiery Surtur while the monster is in the middle of destroying Asgard.

Afterward, Hulk joins the surviving Asgardians as they evacuate onto a spaceship just in the nick of time. With Asgard reduced to atoms behind them, they set a course for Earth, only to be intercepted by Thanos, who destroys the ship and kills most of the passengers. When Hulk attempts to stop him, the Mad Titan decisively wins their fight with a few well-placed blows. The event is so lopsided that Hulk is only saved from death when Heimdall summons the Bifrost and sends him speeding back to Earth.

The disastrous results of this first confrontation are the final straw for Hulk, who refuses to help the Avengers in the ensuing conflict with Thanos and his armies. Instead, Banner is left to do his level best with a hefty suit of Hulkbusting Iron Man armor. While Hulk's absence comes across as cowardice on the surface, his motivation is at least partly fueled by the fact that he refuses to be taken advantage of by the Avengers all over again.

Reconciliation

Hulk's absence from the first round of the war against Thanos serves as a crisis point for the hero. While it initially has catastrophic consequences, it ultimately leads the temperamental science experiment to the next step in his story's evolution. During the five years after Thanos snaps away half of the universe, Banner and Hulk finally confront one another in an attempt to find some kind of middle ground. The results: Smart Hulk.

Realizing that he needs to stop seeing Hulk as a problem, Banner decides to embrace his alter ego as "the cure" to his maladies. He dives back into his long-dormant gamma radiation research and spends 18 months in a lab, fusing his own consciousness and intellect with Hulk's physical prowess. 

The results of this new round of experiments officially bring the two-sided character together into one personality for the first time in the MCU. From there, "Smart Hulk" or "Professor Hulk," as he's commonly referred to, kickstarts a new career based on his newfound image. Over the next five years, he builds a new, positive persona as a popular hero. He helps local law enforcement, saves people from burning buildings, and does all those great things that normal heroes who aren't perpetually hung up on epic inner conflict typically do to help those in need.

So gratuitous

The arrival of Smart Hulk ends up transforming not only the character but also Hulk's role within the MCU. The cerebral yet musclebound hero finds a new lease on life by the time 2023 rolls around, and it's on full display as he helps the Avengers turn back the clock and undo the damage of Thanos' snap.

First, he's brought in by Captain America, Black Widow, and Ant-Man in order to help figure out time travel during the temporary absence of Tony Stark. While that experiment ends up being a flop, it doesn't change the fact that the green-skinned Avenger still knows enough to properly and concisely explain how time travel in the MCU works. All of this goes to show that by this point Hulk has become valued for his brain as much as his brawn. 

Next, he time travels back to New York City in 2012, where he describes his previous destructive behavior as gratuitous. From there, he's able to calmly find the Ancient One and then have a conversation with her in which he convinces her to surrender her most prized possession, the Time Stone.

Bring them back

While Smart Hulk's evolution from a conflicted, destructive, bipolar hero to a knowledgeable, caring, impactful member of the team is apparent throughout the events of 2023, there's one action he takes in particular that stands above all of the rest. 

After the team has traveled through time and gathered the Infinity Stones, they return to the Avengers Headquarters in Upstate New York in order to officially assemble Stark's version of the Infinity Gauntlet. Once that gauntlet is complete, though, the question is who will put it on and snap their fingers.

Thor makes a pretty good case that he should be the one to do it, but ultimately it's Hulk that steps up, declaring that his gamma radiation makes him the perfect candidate for the job. He dons the gauntlet and snaps his fingers, restoring half of the universe in an instant — and causing permanent damage to his arm in the process. The magnanimous action is indicative of how far the character has come since those early days of inner turmoil, hot tempers, and childish behavior. At the end of the day, it's Hulk that makes the sacrifice play and brings back half of the universe in the process.

What's next?

While his arm took some serious damage, that hardly means Hulk is down for the count. On the contrary, of the original Avengers, Hulk is one of the only ones post-Endgame that is still standing and ready to step up to a challenge or answer a need, which means his future in the MCU is wide open. 

Not only is he in an excellent place as far as his personal story arc goes, but he's also a character that has spent time on and off Earth, which means he could join with anyone from Spider-Man in the Big Apple to Captain Marvel on Hala or even the Guardians of the Galaxy as they search for Gamora.

According to CheatSheet, Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo is still under contract to appear in two more MCU films, although they likely won't be standalone outings due to Universal's claim on solo movies for the character. Regardless, we're likely to see more of the big green guy at some point down the road, which is good news for MCU fans everywhere.