The MCU’s portrayal of Hulk had a major flaw until Thanos came into the picture. Eric Bana played the Hulk in the 2003 film of the same name, before being replaced by Edward Norton in 2008, and finally by Mark Ruffalo for The Avengers. There are going to be a few bumps in the road when it comes to implementing the big, green hero into the MCU.
Ahead of the first Avengers movie, Hulk’s MCU ties were less strong than many of his teammates. For instance, Tony Stark does not interact with him in The Incredible Hulk’s post-credits scene. Thor meets Agent Coulson in his solo film. Meanwhile, Black Widow makes an appearance in Iron Man 2, and Hawkeye makes an appearance in Thor. These ties bind the original Avengers, but the Hulk is conspicuously absent. This resulted in him being largely absent from the MCU until his most prominent role in Thor: Ragnarok several years later. As a result, until Thanos was shown to be stronger than Hulk, the hero had no real villains to deal with.
Each previous villain hero faced was easily defeated due to his strength, but Thanos broke the mold. The Hulk had personal stakes in the Mad Titan. This intensified the fight, and, most importantly, Thanos was physically comparable to the Hulk. Additionally, Thanos possessed intelligence, which the Hulk lacked, presenting a worthy adversary for the Hulk. Overcoming Hulk’s previously unrivaled physicality enabled the Mad Titan to address a fundamental flaw in previous on-screen portrayals of the character: that he is potentially too strong to have villains.
Hulk had appeared in a handful of MCU films prior to Avengers: Infinity War. He had fought adversaries with no stakes and had a personal feud with Loki that was mostly played for laughs. With the Hulk being so immensely powerful, there was an impression that the MCU was at a loss for what to do with him.
Even in The Incredible Hulk’s climactic showdown with Abomination, supposedly against a foe with greater physical strength, Hulk prevailed. Unlike previous antagonists, Thanos significantly increased the stakes by combining strength, intelligence, and persona; involvement in a way that no previous villain had accomplished. This proved critical to his victory, demonstrating that the Hulk was not as invincible as previously believed.
With his appearance in the Shang-Chi post-credits scene and the Hulk’s future in She-Hulk, the MCU is clearly continuing to work on the character. The MCU has only grown in size since Thanos was defeated and eliminated. The hero’s conflict with Thanos has paved the way for even larger characters to manifest in the multiverse. This ultimate poses new challenges for the Hulk. However, the franchise now has a blueprint for how to make such a conflict compelling. This is all thanks to the battle with the Mad Titan.