With “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” revealing more and more about the mythology surrounding the supersoldier serum, fans attention once again has returned to the mysterious drug treatment that gave Captain America his powers in the MCU. It has been a decade since “Captain America: First Avenger” was released, when we saw Steve Rogers grow from a skinny New Yorker to the apex of human physical ability. It has been even longer since 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk,” where Bruce Banner and Thunderbolt Ross attempted to recreate the lost, perfected serum to disastrous results.
While Norton’s Hulk – the actor helped write the film as well as starred in it – can seem somewhat disconnected from the current MCU, the film remains in canon. Fans continue to reach back to it for clues about contemporary storylines. One reddit user posited a fan theory about the super-soldier serum, as reported by CBR.com. The theory goes that while Banner’s transformation – abetted as it was by gamma radiation as opposed to the vita rays used in Cap’s – was not the failure it appeared. Rather, the transformation was a success in that it amplified the most fundamental characteristics of its subject. While Steve’s general purity of heart played out in myriad physical changes – admittedly mostly in the upper body – Bruce became a veritable avatar of his most dominant quality, his rage.
About “The Incredible Hulk”
The Louis Leterrier-directed Hulk can seem like a hazy affair in the MCU canon. After Iron Man it was only the second film of the continuity and came at a time when most fans could barely imagine the narrative behemoth that would be birthed by the characters coming together in 2012 “Marvel’s The Avengers.” By the time that happened, Ed Norton would be replaced by Mark Ruffalo, who despite being the third Hulk in a major motion picture in a decade would define the character over the following one. The change of actors (and the absence of one’s demanding rewrites) isn’t all that can make the 2008 film seem disconnected. While it has been included in two MCU boxed DVD boxed sets, The Incredible Hulk is conspicuously absent on Disney Plus (likely due to the film’s distribution deal with Universal) where most of the MCU is streamed.
The Incredible Hulk introduced the concept of the super-soldier serum for the very first time in the MCU. Bruce Banner receives an experimental redux of the World War Two era drug with the aforementioned gamma-ray substitution and is transformed into the titular hero whenever he grows angry or his heart rate gets high enough. A dose of yet another distinct recreation of the serum gets injected in Emil Blonsky in the same film, creating Hulk’s nemesis, The Abomination. Unlike Banner, Blonsky retains much of his intellect during metamorphosis, but it is alluded in the film that certain personality defects – specifically the character’s ambition for power – are amplified.
In the Comics
While their continuities remain distinct, nearly all the MCU finds its source material in the comics, including recent super-soldiers in Falcon and the Winter Soldier like John Walker and Isaiah Bradley. In the comics, some characters have long been aware of distinct parallel universes that exist with different versions of the company’s superheroes. The different universes that form the multiverse have been given numbers for ease of reference. While the heroes of the MCU exist in the films within universe 199999, the original mainstream continuity of Marvel Comics is 616. In that universe, the Hulk’s origin is unrelated to Cap’s as he is not part of a super-soldier project at all but the accidental victim of an experimental gamma bomb. Since then much narrative has been devoted to Banner’s history and relationship to his big and (more often than not) green alter-ego.
It was in the 1980s that the Hulk of 616 and his relationship with Banner began to be reimagined. By then, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s most fearsome hero had passed through many writers but it was during Bill Mantlo’s epic run on the title that the idea of Banner’s childhood trauma was introduced. During this period it became clear that it wasn’t just the gamma rays that created the Hulk but also the abuse Banner had suffered as a child. This was what distinguished him for instance from his cousin, Jennifer who would become She-Hulk after a blood transfusion exposed her to gamma. The stability of her personality allowed her to maintain her intelligence and control during her transformation.
In 2000, the Ultimate Marvel comic line began to introduce updated, edgier versions of classic characters in a brand new continuity (Universe 1610.) “The Ultimates” reimagined the classic Avengers, this time penned by Mark Millar (of “Kick-Ass” fame) and drawn by Bryan Hitch. Millar would later pen the 616 crossover event “Civil War,” which would directly inspire the Captain America film of the same name, but it was in the Ultimate continuity that a connection between the super-soldier serum and the Hulk was first introduced. In that version, Banner injects himself (twice) with the serum after being unable to crack its code completely. The Ultimates would have an overt influence on the MCU, from narrative style to character design (including a Samuel Jackson-inspired Nick Fury long before the actor was cast.)
What’s Next in the MCU
“Falcon and the Winter Soldier” has once again brought the attention of the MCU back from its cosmic and mystic concerns of late to the mysterious super-soldier serum perfected by one Dr. Erskine nearly a century ago. Adding to the likes of Bruce Banner and Buckey Barnes (who was given another version of the serum by Hydra), the show has introduced us to a smattering of new super-soldiers, created from different versions of the serum. We’ve met Isaiah Bradley, who was dosed with an apparently stable version of it as early as the 1950s, as well as newer recipients including John Walker, our new Captain America, and the terrorist group known as Flag Smashers.
If the fan theory is on the nose and all of the serums were more or less already perfected, we can expect to see each dosed character distinguished by the amplification of their own fundamental traits and experience. This would likely further contrast John Walker and Steve Rogers, as well as complicate the question of how Sam Wilson navigates a world filled with characters who not only have super strength but out-sized psychological baggage to match. It also raises questions about Bucky’s past as an assassin and what role the serum had in it. Is it possible it amplified his impressionability, turning a submissive sidekick into a Hydra murder zombie?
Lastly, no one knows where Bruce Banner is post-“Endgame.” The theory would help explain the character’s off-screen ability to finally seize control of his alter-ego in that film, where it certainly seemed that the psychological was more important than the chemical. The future of Banner (and Mark Ruffalo’s contract) in the MCU remains unclear. It Is possible we meet him again before, but at the very least we’re likely to gain some insight in 2022’s upcoming Disney Plus series, She-Hulk, where Tim Roth is already slated to reprise his role as the Abomination.