How Hollywood is Slowly Transforming the Hulk Back into Bruce Banner
Ever since his massive dose of gamma radiation turned Bruce Banner into the Hulk in the 1962 comic, the big guy's appearance has changed quite dramatically with each passing decade. In fact, Stan Lee's first look concept of the Hulk was grey may have been because he didn't want the character to resemble any one ethnic group. Other theories suggest the high cost of color prints at the time. Nevertheless, the iconic green skin coloring was eventually added later.
In conceiving of the Hulk's character, Lee is reported to have been influence by The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Frankenstein's monster. You can see the influence of Frankenstein's Hollywood persona on the Hulk's appearance on the cover of the first issue (below).
The similarity to Frankenstein makes sense given that both he and the Hulk are considered dangerous and "freakish" monsters by their communities. Yet both also retain a certain likability and sweetness. These personality contrasting personality quirks have certainly been retained within the comic series while his physical appearance has made some quite dramatic changes.
There is also a similar evolution of the Hulk's physical appearance within his relatively short lifespan on the silver screen. Beginning in 2003 with Marvel's film Hulk and moving into the next Avengers installment, you can see a progressive move to creating a closer physical resemblance to his alter ego, Bruce Banner. The Hulk has come to look more and more like Mark Ruffalo, the actor who now portrays Bruce Banner.
Interestingly, this move seems to directly connect Banner with the Hulk in a much more emotional and appealing way. The Hulk and Banner have always had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of relationship. However, their vastly different physiques and facial structures have always helped separate the two characters within the minds of audience members. Even the television show of the 70's didn't seem to worry much about the facial resemblance between Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, despite their attempts to do so through split screen graphics like in the image below.
This was certainly the path that early film adaptations like Hulk and, later, The Incredible Hulk took with respect to the resemblance of the two characters. However, this type of facial incongruity has never seemed to be an issue for many fans. Of course, these are also fans who must also suspend their belief that Banner can still wear the same size pants after the Hulk has flexed his gluts in them. Why, then would we care about such a relatively small matter? I mean they are supposed to be two different characters. It makes sense that their faces look differently. Right? Then again it may make all the difference in the world. Let's take a quick look back at the evolution of the Hulk and his resemblance to Banner.
In 2003, Eric Bana was slotted to play Banner while director Ang Lee's art department decided to portray the Hulk in a more stylized way similar to his comic book persona. Little resemblance is evident between Eric Bana and the 3D generated Hulk, although some attempts were made to recreate Bana's eyebrows and eye spacing. A much more strict one-to-one correspondence would have given this Hulk much larger ears, for example. These are familiar facial features that the film's CG artists seem to substantially play down instead of up. It should also be pointed out that the Hulk's eyes are at this point the familiar neon green coloring. which will eventually become more subdued.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
When Marvel launched a re-boot with The Incredible Hulk, they cast Ed Norton to play Banner. Norton's inclusion suggests the film makers were looking for a stronger contrast between the physical appearance of Banner and the Hulk. This difference between Norton's slender physique is even amplified through the film's promotional poster, which joins each character through an back-to-back, overlay comparison heightening their differences (below, center).
A closer inspection between Norton and his green doppelgänger shows even less correspondence between facial features. In the image below, you can see that Norton's slender pointed jaw looks nothing like the Hulk's now overly-squarish head and face. The two characters even have very different forehead wrinkles. Again, this Hulk seems to resemble the comic book images of the late 2000's rather than to Norton's own visage.
The Avengers (2012)
With the Avengers series, we now have Ruffalo taking on the role of Banner. In addition, Marvel and Joss Whedon have taken a unique approach to depicting the Hulk, modeling his face structure after Ruffalo so closely that it becomes obvious they're different versions of the same person. However, there are still important differences. In the first Avengers film, Ruffalo's round chin, heavy eyebrows, and brown eyes closely correspond to the Avengers Hulk. Also, the Hulk's eye color is slightly played down and darkened enough to seem like Ruffalo's natural hazel color. It's obvious that this time around, Marvel doesn't want the audience to lose Banner underneath all of that green-skinned muscle.
Maintaining this similarity helps connect the characters closer for the audience. It's true that we tend to immediately like someone we've just met if they bear a resemble to someone we already like (the opposite is also true). The producers may have been planning on this same human tendency by betting on Banner's/Ruffalo's likability to carry over after his transformation. The approach may be because in these movies, Banner seems to have a little more control of his inner green demon. Being called upon to "Smash!" is an action that is looked upon as more a helpful feature rather than as a threat to the nation's infrastructure.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Three years has seen quite a change in Mark Ruffalo's face, which shows some signs of aging and deeper wrinkles. In response, Marvel's animators seem to have actually aged the next Hulk a bit as well. There's slightly more of a brooding look that matches the film's theme apocalyptic theme. The Hulk in Age of Ultron now has deeper furrows in his brows and even crow's feet. These added details and finer details can also be attributed to the advancements in facial scanning techniques and better rendering software.
Certainly these types of actor-to-animated character resemblance aren't a new approach in Hollywood. Disney is one studio that consistently matches voice actors/celebrities to their characters. You might think of Robin Williams and the Genie from Aladdin, for example. However, the Avengers' Hulk seems more complicated, and it's partially due to this physical connection to Banner.
This familiarity between the two lets us more easily see the struggles Banner goes through in keeping his destructive side at bay. Even when the Hulk eventually makes an appearance, whether called upon or not, we can still see Banner 's humanity within the Hulk's face and eyes. We see him floating just beneath the surface of green rage. This nearness and resemblance makes the Hulk's actions and Banner's character much more complimentary, complicated and interesting.