For many moviegoers watching the opening scene in Avengers: Infinity War, a number of lines from Mobb Deep's 1995 single "Shook Ones, Pt. II" came to mind after seeing the Hulk refuse to spring into action against the MCU’s GOAT villain Thanos. Namely: "Scared to death, scared to look, they shook" and "Cowardly hearts and straight-up shook ones, shook ones."
That's right, The Mad Titan (who, if you watch carefully, wasn't even using the Power Stone in his possession) mopped the floor with The Incredible One. And based on Bruce Banner downright demanding his big green alter ego step up and join the fight, Hulk legit shouted, "NOOOOO!" The exchange was comical, but it also made Hulk look like the biggest of punks for the duration of the film, and that's how most fans read it.
It would look like the fans had it wrong, though. The Hulk's lack of motivation to battle Thanos had nothing to do with being shook; there was something deeper afoot with him. Could he and Banner be separating for good?
In the commentary from the Blu-ray release of Avengers: Infinity War, Joe Russo (co-director of Infinity War) explained that, in approaching this film, he and his brother Anthony embarked on "an interesting journey we went on with Banner, trying to decide how we move him forward in the Marvel Universe. What makes him unique as a character is that there is a host body that is being fought over by two distinct personalities who hate each other. And both want control of the host body."
That makes sense. Folks love the Hulk because he's a walking wrecking ball, but that internal struggle between Banner and the Hulk is what has kept fans invested. It's what Russo said next that piqued our interest.
"So we thought an interesting direction to take him in is, what if Banner, who typically uses the Hulk to solve crisis situations—what if the Hulk were no longer interested in solving those problems for Banner, so that the relationship is becoming increasingly dysfunctional? That's what's going on here."
Russo further laid down the law. While he is aware that "people have speculated whether there was some fear on the Hulk's part about having to face Thanos again,” the director says that "ultimately, what it is, is that [Hulk’s] tired of playing hero to Bruce Banner."
For fans of the comic books, this story is very familiar. Throughout the Hulk's almost six-decade existence, one of the biggest shifts in the character has been Bruce Banner and the Hulk—who share the same body due to a radioactive explosion that turns Banner into a practically indestructible green giant whenever he gets pissed off—actually splitting into two different beings. In fact, there have been over a dozen instances of Hulk and Bruce splitting up. In the comics, the results (and reasons) for their splits vary; one of the more recent instances involved Doctor Doom doing brain surgery to separate the Banner and Hulk portions of their brain, then throwing Banner’s consciousness into a clone. Others, like the 2006 "Planet Hulk" saga, involve the Hulk taking complete control over the body. If you follow the MCU, that should sound familiar, right? That’s literally what happened in Thor: Ragnarok, where we found out that Hulk had spent over two years without changing back into Banner while he was fighting on Sakaar.
What does any of this mean for future films, though? Well, as we explained before Thor: Ragnarok dropped, Marvel can't do a solo Hulk film due to Universal still holding the distribution rights to The Incredible Hulk character. Basically, while Marvel has film production rights to the Hulk and can use him in any of its films, Universal still has first refusal rights on ANY solo Hulk film. As a result, Marvel has had to walk a tightrope in developing the story arch of a central Avengers character without his own film (technically, 2008's The Incredible Hulk is part of the MCU but the film's plot has little connection to the character we know today). Now, based on what Russo's saying we saw during Infinity War, it looks like Hulk, who tasted two years of freedom and life in the driver's seat in Ragnarok, is "tired of playing hero to Bruce Banner." Could this be the true beginning of Bruce Banner and the Hulk becoming separate entities? According to Mark Ruffalo, who plays both characters, it could be.
Speaking to Collider in the fall of 2017, Ruffalo said that Ragnarok is where they "start to build out the separation between the Hulk and Banner. Now the Hulk can be his own character, and Banner can now start to be the person that he would be without having to be afraid of being excited all the time."
The question is, how the hell do they show this on-screen? Assuming that Angela Bassett is correct and Shuri survived Thanos' snap, she might be the smartest person in the MCU and the one person who could pull it off. After all, she was the one tasked with figuring out a way to safely remove the Mind Stone from Vision's skull in Infinity War. Maybe part of Avengers 4 is Banner and Hulk having a heart-to-heart conversation, realizing that they could be better off alone (no Alice Deejay), and being separated for good. Hell, with Disney copping Fox, that means the Fantastic Four could be hitting the MCU sooner than later. The patriarch of that squad, Reed Richards, has separated Hulk and the Bruce in the comics before. Even if it doesn't happen in Avengers 4, maybe Reed is the key to giving Bruce and the Hulk separate lives at somewhere down the line.
However it happens, whenever it happens, it feels like the Hulk and Bruce Banner could soon be two separate entities. If that goes down, we hope Hulk gets a Round 2 with Thanos and, at the very least, is over being shook.