Long story short: Marvel Studios can make a solo Hulk movie if they want to.
During the Avengers: Age of Ultron press junket, Mark Ruffalo told Collider he thought a standalone Hulk movie was being held up because “That’s still Universal’s property, so there’s that issue.” Now, Forbes has dug deep and come up with the particulars: Marvel has owned the film production rights to the Hulk since 2005 after Universal declined to move forward with a sequel to Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk starring Eric Bana and thus allowed their license on the character to lapse. However, Universal still retains the right of first refusal for the distribution of any future Hulk movie, which is how they ended up distributing The Incredible Hulk in 2008. Theoretically, Marvel Studios could start making a Hulk movie tomorrow with no involvement from Universal, and Disney could negotiate to buy Universal out or come to a mutually beneficial deal. That is, after all, exactly what Disney did with Paramount Pictures, who were still on tap to distribute The Avengers and Iron Man 3 when Disney purchased Marvel Studios.
So, if Marvel Studios can make their own Hulk movie why aren’t they? Because The Incredible Hulk is their lowest-grossing film, and The Avengers showed he might be better off as part of a team.
Fine. Whatever. But remember how cool it was when Captain America told him, “Hulk, smash!” and then he went and smashed the Chautari. That was cool, right? That was just one scene, though. Couldn’t they give us a whole movie of that? Shouldn’t they make a standalone Hulk movie? Give the people what they want! Well, who would they have around to tell him to “smash”?
You can make a pretty compelling argument that despite Forbes’ report nothing has changed. Whether or not Marvel is holding back on the Hulk because of Universal or by choice doesn’t matter because it’s likely the right move. In fact, I hope nothing becomes of the back-and-forth Ruffalo has been having with the press as of late about Robert Downey, Jr. apparently giving him the heads up that he might be needed for Captain America: Civil War. No, do not put him in Civil War. The Hulk should remain an Avengers-only character, even if his absence from the other movies results in Joss Whedon somewhat forcing a Bruce Banner-Black Widow romance in Age of Ultron. The Hulk is one of the few things that makes the Avengers movies feel extra special, along with the novelty of seeing the solo characters (and Hawkeye and Black Widow) grouped together.
In truth, I largely do not know what story you would really tell in a standalone Hulk movie at this point. The most popular option is Planet Hulk. The Hulk is deemed too dangerous for Earth and shot into space by a group of friends who trick him, landing on an alien planet where he basically becomes Russell Crowe in Gladiator, forced into slavery and fighting in an arena for the entertainment of all. In the sequel, World War Hulk, he returns to Earth and gives The Avengers a taste of their own medicine. Many would kill to see Planet Hulk on film, and early reports indicated Whedon’s Age of Ultron script ended with Hulk in space thus setting up Planet Hulk, although clearly things changed at some point along the way. However, I’ve never really been a fan of the Gladiator storyline in sci-fi. Not when it was a vampire with a soul on Angel. Not when it was Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager. And not when it’s the Hulk.
With Mark Ruffalo, Marvel has finally cast the perfect Bruce Banner, and the CGI has really come a long way meaning a new Hulk movie would look amazing. I just don’t want story there is to tell since Hulk and The Incredible Hulk sort of covered the basics.
You can make it a very human story – a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale – in which a mild-mannered intellectual grapples with a very real internal monster, or you can go big and put the Hulk up against foes who are almost a match for him, ie “Planet Hulk” or “World War Hulk.” In the first instance, we’ve already seen those storylines in previous films; they didn’t connect with audiences for a number of reasons. That’s not to say that the right story with the right actor at the right time wouldn’t work, but Marvel is likely not willing to take that gamble when the existing Avengers movies provide just enough of that plot to be rewarding to audiences in small doses.
As for the big-budget Hulk stories, if Marvel isn’t willing to spend the money on a more down-to-Earth tale, then they’re probably even more reluctant when it comes going to the other extreme. Putting an entirely CG character on screen for 90 minutes against an arena or world populated with hundreds of similar CG characters instantly starts to raise the budget while reducing any semblance of humanity in the film.
I mostly only know The Hulk from the movies. I’m only vaguely aware of the current animated series, Hulk and The Agents of SMASH, in which Hulk never seems to revert back to Bruce Banner and is joined by similar Hulk-like partners. There’s also She-Hulk, who is actually quite intelligent in her Hulk form, working as a lawyer! There’s an animated movie in which Loki uses magic to actually separate The Hulk from Bruce Banner, unleashing the former as a mindless monster tearing through Asgard.
In the live-action movies, at this point The Hulk is a supporting character, and maybe that’s for the best. He’s a really cool rage monster, and maybe Age of Ultron actually offers a perfect segue into a story with Bruce Banner on the run from both the law and anywhere he might hurt people. However, isn’t that also the basic story of The Incredible Hulk?
Maybe I’m showing my ignorance about the character’s long comic book history here, but is there anything more to The Hulk which demands its own solo movie at this point?