The Marvel Cinematic Universe is built around the idea of bringing decades worth of comic book characters and storylines into the movies and reinventing them into one cinematic story. I’ve already taken a look at the good and bad (but mostly good) ways that the MCU has adapted the comic books over the years in another post. But another way that the MCU has had to use reinvention with its characters is not just from the comic books, but from previous movies.
It hasn’t happened much, due to licence issues and Marvel taking second-tier characters and making them into the most popular, but there are a few, and one very notable case, where the MCU has had to completely overhaul a character that we’d met in big blockbuster action movies only a few years before their MCU debut.
Now obviously the Incredible Hulk holds a bit of a weird place in the MCU as the kind of forgotten or shunned, – well it definitely is a part of the universe, but it’s a universal and marvel studios movie because universal own the Hulk solo film rights, which means he can show up in other movies, but not star in one himself without Universal’s approval, but is a little thematically different and of course stars Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, rather than our beloved Mark Ruffalo (who has since appeared in several MCU movies).
But it is the earliest example of the MCU having to reinvent something audiences were already familiar with.
Released in 2008, only a few months after Iron Man, which didn’t have this problem in fact it had the total opposite problem. Where Hulk had to reinvent Bruce Banner and Hulk after the now-dated but still iconic Lou Ferrigno seventies show, and the 2003 Ang Lee movie starring Eric Banna.
Was I the only one that was like – how cool is it that a guy with the same surname (even though it’s spelt differently) is playing Bruce?
Probably – but I stand by that being the only good thing about that movie – remember the scene transitions were actually going from one comic book panel to another and didn’t he fight a giant hulked out dog?
But anyway, where Hulk had to deal with this, Iron Man had the advantage of being able to show people what to expect from an Iron Man movie, rather than go up against any preconceived notions (which I’ll admit can be a problem in its own right – but when the star is RDJ, I think you’ll be okay…)
Edward Norton’s version of the Hulk had to reinvent the character – and yet it had the advantage of audiences being familiar enough with the character and concept, so it started with Hulk already on the run and in hiding and managed to briefly show his origins with the opening credits montage.
From there onwards the movie played with expectations of what people may think they’d be getting in a Hulk movie, like the purple pants joke
As well as several Hulk tropes, all while laying some more solid groundwork for the wider MCU, such as the idea that Banner was trying to recreate the serum that made Captain America using Gamma Radiation, Stark Tech is everywhere, and it’s the first appearance of William’ Hurt’s General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, who returns in Captain America Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War.
Norton’s take on Bruce Banner drivers the tortured soul who hates the Hulk but can’t escape him that we’d expect, but while he’s on the run, so it’s not an origin story like we see in the 2003 movie. He also carries the weight and guilt of what he has done, and what he is.
Overall Norton was a good Bruce Banner, and given more time and movies could have been great, I’m not sure the charm and chemistry with Tony Stark throughout the Avengers movies, or with Thor would have been as good in Ragnarok (or if that movie would have even happened).
And although the MCU is hard to imagine without Ruffalo’s Hulk popping up here and there, there is no denying that Norton’s turn introduced us to this darker, more serious version of the character that helped boost the early MCU, and establish its more grounded tone.
Transitioning into Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and Hulk, as he also does the motion capture, facial and visual performance for the Hulk too.
The second actor to take on the role in the MCU brings in that unstoppable Ruffalo charm. He’s more of a cute bumbling version that we’ve seen before, and yet still has that dark edge, the side of him that hates Hulk.
Ruffalo’s banner could be seen as the product of each movie he is in, in some, he is more of a side character and then in others, he’s much more important. And as a result of that, he maybe hasn’t always had the development that other characters have had – unlike Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, he doesn’t have his own movies to supplement his character arc in-between the bigger team-ups.
And yet the through-line of Ruffalo’s Banner and Hulk is definitely there and shows how the MCU is continuously adding to the character, making him the most likeable and fun Banner and Hulk respectively.
The Hulk we see in Ragnarok or Avengers Endgame for example is hugely different from both the earlier MCU and previous adaptations, and yet they feel earned, and make sense inside the on-screen universe.
Although there is no denying getting Hulk right was key to the early success of the MCU, the biggest challenge the MCU has faced, at least in terms of reinventing a character that audiences were already familiar with, and had a pre-conceived notion of, was the worlds most popular superhero: Spider-Man.
By the time of Tom Holland’s introduction as Peter Parker in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, the past fourteen years had already given audiences two spider-men over five different movies. So to more casual, and even some dedicated Marvel and MCU fans, the feeling of “oh another Spider-Man” was definitely a worry.
Thankfully, the MCU nailed a modern take on Spider-Man, by combining elements of the more modern Miles Morales Ultimate Spider-Man comics with that familiar Peter Parker storyline, and of course an amazing performance from Tom Holland.
And you know actually casting actors in their teens, who look like they could be in high school – and not people who look like 45 and older than the people that are supposed to be their teachers…. That definitely helps.
The MCU’s Peter Parker is the perfect example of reinventing something, not just for a modern audience, but in making sure it sits apart from the previous versions.
Instead of taking pictures of himself, Spider-Man has videos on YouTube, instead of keeping his identity a secret, this sweet innocent and a little stupid Peter Parker accidentally reveals his identity to both his best friend and Aunt May in one movie.
Oh, and talking about reinventing characters – Marsa Tomei as Aunt May may be the best decision in the MCU – that and whatever contract they got her to sign that means that she has to be in high waisted pants in every single one of her scenes.
This Spider-Man is a bumbling kid, who’s a bad liar, who of course does a terrible job at keeping his identity a secret, setting up a very different Spidey story, getting away from the version we’ve seen time again where a superhero is trying to hide their identity.
Taking that event further MJ finds out in the next one, so again the MCU is going out of its way to show us a different Spider-Man story. If this version of Peter Parker was able to keep his superheat antics a secret, it just wouldn’t gel with how useless he is at most other social interactions, so revealing his identity, and how that plays into the story is amazingly refreshing.
On top of that, his supporting cast is different and really adds to how different this version is from what we’ve seen before – his best friend Ned, Peter’s “Man in the Char”.
gives Peter for the first time in the movies a sort of confidant/side-kick type character to talk to, and confide in. Even characters like Flash Thomson are reinvented to not just be the typical jock bully, instead as Peter attends a special science school – because of course, he would – here Flash is just the spoiled rich kid who hates Peter because secretly he knows Peter is better than him.
The MCU’s version of MJ, who they kind of confusingly at first said no this isn’t really MJ, but like yeah she’s called Michelle and not Mary Jane – but she’s clearly the MCU version of MJ – what are she and Peter going to break up and then in a few years Peter meets a redhead also called MJ at college – that would be weird.
But Zendeya’s MJ is something completely new, she doesn’t really take from Gwen Stacy or Felica Hardy, or Mary Jane Watson, three of Spider-Man’s main love interests from the comics and different parts of his life.
Instead, she perfectly matches this awkward Peter, and of course, the chemistry between Zendaya and Tom Holland is just one of the amazing dynamics in these movies.
Even with all these changes, Holland’s Peter Parker feels the most comic accurate version of the character, he’s young, quippy, insecure, extremely powerful, and almost everything he does is wrapped up in the Spider-Man mantra of “with great power comes great responsibility” – without actually saying it – and ultimately sets himself apart as a new, fresh, different take on Spider-Man, which even without the MCU elements to his movies and storyline, would be the best we’ve seen on screen.
In related character, and what may be the best casting in any superhero movie ever, yes better than RDJ, better than Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, is J.K Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson and his return at the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home.
In only one scene (and some extras released online) the Daily Bugle and Jameson are updated into a rogue info wars type conspiracy website and online show.
Not only is it amazing to see Simmons return as Jameson, but like with Spider-Man, this is an updated, realistic, more believable approach, but one that keeps the spirit of the original character.
It establishes Jameson, and sets him up to be the crazy, Spider-Man hating reporter we all know and love, and yet contextualises him for a modern audience – not unlike the Spider-Man PS4 game where Jameson was fired from the Bugle and now runs a Spider-Man bashing podcast…
And yet also explains why we haven’t heard of the Bugle or Jameson before in the MCU – instead of being a world-famous newspaper, it’s an obscure conspiracy theory website – something that will likely help with the believability of its story on exposing Peter as Spider-Man.
It’s a small, but great example of how the MCU is able to redefine, reimagine, and play with expectations, delivering what fans want, in a way they didn’t expect.
For characters like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, the MCU showed us what a good movie with those characters at the centre looks like.
but for characters like Spider-Man audiences already had a preconceived idea of what makes a good (and bad) Spidey movie.
And it’s the MCU’s ability to not just alter and adapt the source material, but make their versions of characters stand out from previous versions we’ve seen, which will make sure the MCU can continually evolve and adapt, and remain the huge success it has been for many more years to come.
Thanks to anyone who has made it this far into my ramblings on The MCU and Reinventing Previous Adaptations – if you liked my look at The MCU and Reinventing The Comic Books and subscribe to the channel for lots more MCU, superhero, and pop culture content, and let me know your thoughts favourite MCU character in the comments below… (if you didn’t guess from the video… mine is Spider-Man).