Since the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we've had three Iron Man movies, two Thor movies, and two Captain America movies, but only one Hulk movie. Why? Why aren't we getting more Hulk movies? Any official words?
I was surprised to learn that there actually is some official word on this.
Why no Hulk sequels?
CinemaBlend.com reports on some commentary made by Joss Whedon on the set of Age of Ultron. According to Whedon, it was a decision made by Marvel Studios to keep Hulk an Avengers-exclusive character:
The writer/director was discussing the use of Hulk in the movie and the fact that he didn't have his own Phase 2 solo film, and he remembered a conversation he had with Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. Whedon quoted the executive, saying that he was told, "We think right now it’s good to have somebody who we could only have in The Avengers"
Okay, but why Hulk, specifically?
In principle any character could be an Avengers-exclusive, and some of them sort of are: neither Black Widow nor Hawkeye have had solo films, and there doesn't seem to be any plans to make them.
In an article on Forbes.com, former film writer Mark Hughes reports that the distribution rights for the Hulk character are owned by Universal, not Marvel:
But despite obtaining the cinematic rights to make Hulk movies, Marvel did not obtain distribution rights. Universal held those rights, and today I can confirm the exact situation is that Universal currently retains the right of first refusal to distribute any Hulk films in the future. If for some reason Universal chose to forgo distribution, then Disney would immediately pick up the distribution rights for the Hulk movie.
This is clearly not an insurmountable obstacle; Marvel and Universal managed to come to an arrangement to release The Incredible Hulk, so in theory they could do so again.
However, Marvel has no good motivation to do this; of all their solo characters, Hulk has proven to be the worst box office draw. I made a graph comparing the budget of each MCU film (at time of posting, so no Age of Ultron) to total box office revenue. I also threw Ang Lee's Hulk on the end, because that film's performance is very relevant when talking about a Hulk solo film. The blue bar is the budget (in unadjusted millions), and the orange is global box office revenue (also unadjusted millions):
If I'm a studio executive looking to evaluate how smart of an investment a movie is, what I'm looking at is how big the orange bar is compared to the blue bar. If they're exactly the same height, I broke even; no profit1.
Hulk just about doubled its budget; it was made for $137 million, and box office revenue was only $245 million. The Incredible Hulk actually did slightly worse: it made $263 million at the box office, but cost Marvel Studios $150 million to make.
In comparison, the next-lowest performing MCU movie was Captain America: The First Avenger, which made back well more than twice its budget: Marvel Studios spent $140 million on it, and it made $371 million at the box office.
Meanwhile we have The Avengers sitting proudly on top, having earned a whopping nine times its budget at the box office.
As a studio executive, what do I take away from this? Hulk solo movies are an incredibly risky investment.
Just for giggles (and because today is a holiday and I literally have nothing better to occupy my time with), I decided to do a similar analysis for other films based on Marvel properties - I limited myself to movies made on or after the year 2000, since that's about when they started becoming, you know, somewhat reliably good. The titles are ordered by how good of an investment they were2, so I added release year after the movie title:
Once again, numbers from BoxOfficeMojo: Punisher: War Zone, Elektra, Fantastic Four (2015), The Punisher, The Incredible Hulk, Hulk, Blade: Trinity, Ghost Rider, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: First Class, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Daredevil, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Captain America, Blade II, Thor, X-Men: Apocalypse, Iron Man 2, The Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four (2005), Spider-Man 3, The Wolverine, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X2: X-Men United, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Thor: The Dark World, Spider-Man 2, X-Men, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, Age of Ultron, Spider-Man, Iron Man 3, The Avengers, Logan, Deadpool.
As you can see, Hulk is one of the least bankable Marvel properties of the last twenty years. Only Elektra (who was probably as harmed by horrible reputation of the 2003 Daredevil film as anything else), Punisher (who, despite his tragic backstory, is one of the least sympathetic Marvel protagonists3, 4), and the Fantastic Four (whose latest outing was just so freaking bad) have made worse movies than Hulk.
1 This is a vast oversimplification, but it serves well enough as a first approximation. These numbers only consider production budgets and box office earnings; in reality, there are many other sources of both revenue and costs that would go into deciding whether a particular movie was a good investment, including but not limited to:
- Marketing budgets, which in 2014 were allegedly hovering around $200 million per movie, according to the Hollywood Reporter
- Home media sales
- Cross-promotional effects5
- Intellectual property concerns; as that link notes, it's occasionally considered worthwhile to make a movie solely as a means to hold onto the rights
- Actor royalties
- Distribution costs, which ties into the earlier discussion about Universal's ownership of the Hulk distribution rights
- Profit-sharing with theatres
Accurately calculating all of this would be way too much research, but The Week magazine estimated in 2016 that about 4% of American box office revenue can be considered studio profit, and every $1 of box office revenue will earn an additional $1.75 over the next ten years through alternative distributions (like DVD sales)
This is also a simplified model (and doesn't get into the notoriously bizarre practice of Hollywood accounting, where technically almost no movie actually profits), but does help to explain why film studios are so risk-averse, even when the raw numbers are so outrageous
2 Literally, by rate of return, or how much profit they made as a percentage of budget
3 Note that I didn't use the word "hero." Yeah, that was on purpose.
4 That being said, kudos to Daredevil's second season for simultaneously making Punisher into both a frothing lunatic and a sympathetic, quasi-heroic figure
5 By which I basically mean: the effect that releasing a movie has on the products of other divisions; does releasing a new Avengers movie affect the ratings on the Marvel television shows, or the sales of Marvel comic books?
Aside from the financial reasons, which should be pretty obvious by now, there is a problem with the character himself. I should start off by saying that the following answer is based on what we have seen so far in the first two Hulk movies, not the comic books. The comics do a much better job of keeping the character interesting and unpredictable. The movies, on the other hand, have failed to make him even slightly interesting or unpredictable.
Unfortunately, the Hulk, as he has been portrayed in the two recent movies, is not very interesting. He is too one-dimensional. You can only watch a big green rage monster punching tanks for so long before it becomes boring. He never grows up or learns anything or improves himself. Bruce might do all these things, but the Hulk is still just punching tanks all day. If we take a marginally more successful franchise like Spider-man, we see a more interesting, dynamic character. He's fun to watch - even the way he moves around is visually interesting. The Hulk? Not so much.
Other characters find innovative ways to solve problems. The Hulk is almost incapable of innovation. If a problem can't be solved by punching things, then the Hulk won't solve it. If the conflict can't be resolved by throwing trucks into the air and knocking holes in buildings, then the Hulk won't resolve the conflict. If any degree of intellect is needed to fix things, then you better hope that Bruce Banner is available rather than the Hulk, because intellect isn't his forte.
Ever wonder why movie fights involve so much chatter? It's because no one can sit through 2 hours of guys hitting each other in near silence. That's why action movie heroes have an endless supply of witty (or witless) banter and one liners, like "Yippee Kai Ai, Mother------!" Spider-man is especially prone to witty repartee during his fights.
Now let's look at the Hulk. What is the dialogue during his fight scenes like? Absolute silence, or a few grunts and groans, and occasionally, he says "Hulk smash!" or calls his opponent a "puny" something or other. Not particularly exciting, let alone engaging.
Other superhero movies feature conflict- not merely conflict with the bad guys, but inner conflict, self doubt, and uncertainty. Spider-man doesn't want to be Spider-man anymore, but then something happens to make him realize how important Spider-man is, and how much good he can do.
This doesn't happen with the Hulk. Yes, Bruce hates being the Hulk, but he can't do anything about it, so his only alternative is to go somewhere so remote that he can't hurt anyone else. Peter Parker can hang up his costume and call it quits, however temporarily; Bruce has no costume to hang up. He has no choice in the matter. He will Hulk out whenever he gets mad, whether he wants to or not.
Spider-man actually does good things. The best that the Hulk can do is hope he doesn't kill innocent people while he is a huge green rage monster. If his tantrums end up producing good results, it is almost accidental, because the Hulk is just punching stuff and yelling. The fact that Tony Stark needs to build a special suit to fight the Hulk with shows that even his allies can't trust him.
We've been comparing the Hulk to the marginally successful Spider-man reboot. Now let's compare him to the wildly successful Iron Man franchise. What makes Iron Man movies so popular- and so entertaining and enjoyable? The superhero part of the character is interesting, dynamic, and adaptable, for starters. And on top of that, the "alter ego" part of the character is incredibly entertaining, funny, and engaging as well. The bad guys actually stand a chance of beating him. He solves problems in a wide variety of very different ways, and uses his brain at least as much as his thrusters and missiles and other paraphernalia. He is multifaceted and complex - even his flaws are multifaceted and complex. He is always a human being with doubts, failings, weaknesses, and shortcomings.
The Hulk? He's not dynamic at all. The superhero part of the character is totally flat and predictable. The alter ego part of the character is slightly more compelling, but not by much, and he comes across as kind of whiny and morose. He doesn't just have self doubts and insecurities - he is absolutely consumed by them. We pity him without actually being sympathetic to his situation. It is hard to avoid thinking that he might be better off dead.
Whereas Iron Man, in spite of all his flaws, always ends up doing the right thing and finding a way to save the day, the Hulk kind of blunders into doing the right thing- inadvertently- and saving the day- despite the fact that he is just punching tanks, throwing trucks into the air, and knocking holes in buildings. He never makes a plan, follows through with it, and achieves his goals in the manner he anticipated. He just manages to punch the right tanks, throw the right trucks, and knock holes in the right buildings, totally unintentionally.
One of the most memorable and hilarious moments from the first Avengers movie was when Thor and the Hulk take down the huge flying caterpillar monster. How does the Hulk react to their success? He punches Thor through the wall of Grand Central Terminal. The only scene that really tops that one is the legendary Hulk/Loki showdown. How does the Hulk handle this confrontation? While Loki is ridiculing him, Hulk cuts him off mid-sentence and repeatedly smashes him into the floor like a rag doll.
These scenes show us the strengths and weaknesses of this character. The strengths: he is awesome in small doses, especially when he can be used as comic relief, and he can muscle his way through almost any opponent, even a god. The weaknesses: he can't do much else. His whole modus operandi is being a guy who tries to avoid getting mad, until he- wait for it- gets mad. Then he punches stuff until he isn't mad anymore. It just isn't enough to build a movie franchise around. We're too familiar with the premise, and it doesn't hold up for an hour and a half of screen time. We need more story, and less smashing.
The villains in other movies can be pretty diverse and have very different strengths and specialties. Iron Man fought a bigger version of Iron Man, then a crazed Russian scientist bent on revenge, then an army of supersoldiers who can melt steel with their hands, and are almost impossible to kill. Spidey fought the Green Goblin, then Doc Octopus, then Venom and Sandman and Green Goblin II, then a weird lizard guy... Some of these villains are smart, some are strong, some are resilient, some are fast, some have powerful weapons.
What kind of villains does the Hulk face? Strong guys. That's about it. In fact, in both of the Hulk movies, the climactic battle was between the Hulk and people who tried to become Hulks themselves. This is not compelling conflict we're seeing. It is predictable and tired and, quite frankly, boring as all hell. An opponent who isn't incredibly strong stands no chance of beating the Hulk, and the Hulk can't really handle anything other than strong guys.
And on top of the fact that audiences expect more from a movie, the Hulk is the kind of character that writers hate. They want a hero who they can flesh out and give some depth to. There is some room for that sort of writing in the Bruce Banner character, but no room whatsoever in the Hulk character. I wouldn't be surprised if many of the most sought after writers in Hollywood would refuse to take on the job of writing another Hulk movie, especially considering the utter failure of the first two films.