The Hulk is sitting in a half-full subway car on a Monday afternoon, wearing thick-rimmed glasses, not taking up too much space, definitely not smashing anything. Just another New Yorker — nothing to see here. He’s riding the 1 train up to Central Park in search of an early spring, and his fellow passengers don’t look up from their phones long enough to pay him any mind. It doesn’t hurt that Mark Ruffalo is not, at the moment, even slightly green-skinned — although that usually doesn’t stop people from yelling “Yo, Hulk!” at him on the street.
Not to mention that Ruffalo stands five feet eight, rather than eight feet tall, and today he’s opted for a blue hooded jacket, well-worn sweater and dark jeans in lieu of distressed purple shorts. He’s slim, too, having shed most of the bulk he put on to play an Olympic wrestler in last year’s Foxcatcher, where he couldn’t rely on CGI musculature. But there’s something intrinsically Hulk-y about the topography of Ruffalo’s face, always has been, long before the Avengers‘ visual-effects team scanned his every pore and scar to lend to their digital beast. “That was the funny thing,” says Ruffalo, who is 47, but looks a decade younger, save for some strands of gray hair that, surreally, are shared by the Hulk. “‘Hey, you want me for the Hulk? I kinda look like that!'” He also claims a resemblance to the actor who played Dr. Banner on the late-Seventies Incredible Hulk TV show: “Me and Bill Bixby kinda look alike too.”
Kind of, maybe. But the coarse black hair, the heavy brow, the bruiser’s nose — when Ruffalo posed for a photo with still-jacked, disco-era Hulk Lou Ferrigno at Comic-Con last year, the resemblance was, well, incredible. It runs in the family too. “I remember distinctly,” Ruffalo says, “when my dad used to get angry at me as a kid, I thought he was the Hulk, he just wasn’t green. He was red — a red Hulk. Because he had those heavy eyebrows, and the dark hair, and veins popping out of his neck, and his hands were like these fists, and I would be like, ‘He’s turning into the Hulk! Put a book in your pants!’ He wasn’t physical, but he was so fucking intense. So he’s in there. My understanding of rage has got a deep connection to that.”
The thing about Ruffalo is that you do like him when he’s angry. Onscreen, you pretty much can’t help loving him, no matter what. He’s more than capable of disappearing into roles, altering his body language and speech patterns almost beyond recognition, but he can never quite suppress a certain soulful charm, whether he’s playing a heroically abrasive AIDS activist in The Normal Heart or a dissolute A&R guy in Begin Again. In the Avengers movies, you actually welcome the long stretches where he’s Bruce Banner, which was never quite the case for, say, the unfortunate Eric Bana, star of 2003’s Ang Lee disaster.
In the new one, Avengers: Age of Ultron, due out May 1st, there’s a hushed, emotionally fraught scene between Banner and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, where the sight of Ruffalo’s quivering jaw is somehow as compelling as the spectacle of his alter ego destroying a building. “I never think, ‘Banner! Just get mad! Somebody hit him!’ ” says Avengers writer-director Joss Whedon. “Because Mark is just so engaging. He’s the guy you get a beer with. He’s the guy that makes the time to get a beer with you, rather, and that comes out.”
The Hulk is the breakout star of the Avengers movies, breaking stuff for all us sinners, hulking out for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe. Bruce Banner’s oft-quoted secret to controlling his transformations — “I’m always angry” — was deeply in tune with the national mood in 2012 (when The Avengers became the third-highest-grossing film of all time), and no less so in 2015. It felt like the entire point of every previous Marvel movie was to build to the deeply satisfying Avengers sequence where the Hulk swats swarms of aliens and pummels the duplicitous deity Loki, in scenes that were the closest onscreen equivalent to the kinetic, physics-defying visual poetry of late Hulk co-creator Jack Kirby.
“The storyboard people and the animators are suddenly cutting loose in a way they haven’t gotten to,” says Whedon, smiling at the memory, “and I’m like, ‘Oh, we’re going to go even farther.’ But the thing about the Hulk is it takes the most boring precision to create that kind of abandon.”
On the surface, the chilled-out Ruffalo, heavy and sincere user of the word “buddy,” seems a poor temperamental match for a living embodiment of rage, a walking, leaping id. The only vocation he seriously considered besides acting was “soul surfer,” where he’d build his life around wave-riding without the bummer of competition. Truth is, though, he knows plenty about anger, frustration and grief. There were the 600 or so failed auditions of his twenties, when he’d have to serve drinks to movie stars at the Chateau Marmont, while occasionally punching holes in the walls of his apartment. There were his struggles with undiagnosed dyslexia and ADD as a kid and young adult. “It was easy,” he says, “for people to think, ‘He’s not very smart’ or ‘He’s lazy.’ ” There was the overwhelming anxiety that led him to begin a daily meditation practice seven years ago. Around that time, his charismatic younger brother, a popular L.A. hairdresser, was murdered, in a still-unsolved crime.
Playing the scarred-by-experience Banner isn’t a stretch either. In the subway, Ruffalo directs me to sit to his right, so he can hear. “I’ve only got one good ear,” he says, cheerfully. “All I hear now in the other one is perfect A440. I could probably tune my guitar to it.” In 2001, just as his first child was about to be born, Ruffalo discovered he had a brain tumor. It turned out to be benign, but half of his face was paralyzed for a long, uncertain year, during which he lost the starring role in Signs to Joaquin Phoenix. “I literally begged M. Night Shyamalan to let me do the part anyway, even with the paralyzed face,” Ruffalo says.
The paralysis went away, but his left ear’s hearing vanished forever. “You start making deals: ‘OK, whoever, whatever — take my hearing, but don’t take me away from my kid,’ ” he says. “That’s a heavy moment to happen at 30 years old. But it was a blessing in disguise. I got a lesson in fallibility and mortality, you know, 10 years, 15 years ahead of my peers.”
Ruffalo trained with Stella Adler, the grande-dame acting teacher who also worked with Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. (“You have to develop size,” Adler wrote — a dictum Ruffalo apparently took to heart.) He studied the work of Strindberg and Ibsen, not Stan Lee and Kirby, and always found rage among his most accessible emotions. “I remember it was so hard for people to be angry onstage,” says Ruffalo. “But the frustration I was having with acting made me angry all the time. Stella Adler used to say, ‘Start a scene with people screaming, yelling, angry, and you’ll have the audience’s
attention immediately.’ ”
But what would his teacher make of a star pupil taking up semipermanent residence in the pulpy Marvel Universe? He ponders that question all the time, and he’s come up with some answers. “Stella would have just said, ‘Darling, no man is bigger than the time he lives in,’ ” Ruffalo says, breaking into her theatrical accent. “And she would have said, you know, ‘Just don’t be small, darling.’ ” He laughs. “Literally and figuratively.”
The Hulk was born in 1962, five years before Ruffalo. He was one of the very first Marvel Comics heroes of the Sixties, and bears the mark of the monster comics Lee and Kirby were pumping out just before returning to superheroes with the Fantastic Four. “I was getting tired of the normal superheroes,” says Stan Lee, now 92. “My publisher said, ‘What kind of new hero can we come up with?’ and I said, ‘How about a good monster?’ and he thought I was crazy. But I remembered Jekyll and Hyde, and the Frankenstein movie with Boris Karloff where it always seemed that the monster was really the good guy. So I thought, ‘Why not get a monster who really doesn’t want to cause any harm, but has to in self-defense, ’cause people are always attacking him?’ ”
Lee and Kirby had actually created a monstrous superhero just the year before — the Fantastic Four’s orange-rock-covered Thing, who was that team’s most popular character. Initially, some fans saw the Hulk as a lame rip-off of the Thing, and Lee and Kirby heavily reworked the character as they went along: He was, at first, gray-colored, spoke in full sentences (“Get out of my way, insect”), and transformed from Banner at sunset instead of from anger. His first comic-book series was canceled after just six issues, and it’s likely no coincidence that Marvel’s next characters — Thor, Spider-Man — were more traditional costumed superheroes. Soon, a hole in Marvel’s schedule opened up, so Lee and Kirby threw together a super-team called the Avengers, and briefly had the Hulk join. “The Avengers were thrown into the breach at the last second,” says former Marvel editor-in-chief and historian Roy Thomas (who co-created both Ultron and the Vision). “They used pretty much whoever was lying around.”
Hulk took years to find his definitive shape and character. It wasn’t until 1967 that he articulated his raison d’être: “Hulk smash.” “I thought after a while that a guy who looked like the Hulk wouldn’t exactly sound like Laurence Olivier,” says Lee. Hulk didn’t get his own comic book again until 1968. But Sixties college kids, in particular, warmed to the idea of a misunderstood, persecuted, unconventionally groomed antihero who spent much of his time pummeling the U.S. Army. By 1971, the Hulk was enough of a countercultural icon to appear in an illustration on the cover of Rolling Stone drawn by longtime Marvel artist Herb Trimpe (who died in mid-April, during the writing of this story). “What took ya so long to repeat it?” Lee asks.
But the Hulk’s real mainstream moment came with the Bixby-Ferrigno TV show, helmed by executive producer Kenneth Johnson, who had previously created The Bionic Woman, and later, V. Johnson had never even heard of the Hulk when he picked him from a list of available Marvel characters (rejecting Captain America and the Human Torch, among others). But after flipping through an issue, he came up with the “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” line, as well as the phrase “hulking out.” Johnson originally wanted the Hulk to be red, rather than green — he saw it as a more naturally angry color — and his first choice to play the character was Pumping Iron star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who instead recommended his friend Ferrigno.
The mood of TV’s Hulk was often downright melancholy. As the tragic Dr. David Banner (Johnson thought the lack of alliteration was more adult), Bixby was a hitchhiking exile, trapped in the darkness on the edge of town, unable to do much good with all of his might. It was the superheroic equivalent of Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech, leavened by campy gems like the time the Hulk had to land a plane.
Throughout the show’s run, the Hulk never spoke. Ferrigno was hearing-impaired and, Johnson notes, “had 14 years of speech therapy, but it was all in Brooklyn. And do we really need him to say, ‘Hulk smash?’ It’s like, hello, duh!” The show lasted five seasons, hinting at potential in Marvel’s characters that would take the movies more than 20 years to unlock.
Like Bruce Banner himself, Ruffalo was somewhat reluctant to join The Avengers. Whedon and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige both say he was their first choice for the Hulk, at least once it became clear that they wouldn’t be continuing with Ed Norton, star of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Ruffalo didn’t like the idea of signing on while Whedon was still writing the screenplay, and more to the point, “I was scared, a little bit,” he adds over lunch at a West Village coffeehouse not far from his Manhattan home. He was impressed with Robert Downey Jr.’s left-field Tony Stark, which “opened the way for this kind of indie character-actor approach, totally off the radar of what you would consider to be your classic movie star. And I thought, ‘Can I do that? Can I be as clever and charming and facile?’ It was like, ‘Downey!’ — you know?”
But as Ruffalo recalls, Downey told him, “Come on, don’t worry. I got you. We’re going to be OK.” The Banner-Stark scenes became highlights: “Watching the science brothers, as we call them, is such a delight,” says Whedon, “because probably everyone’s favorite romance in the Marvel Universe is Tony and Banner.”
Ruffalo and Whedon worked together to figure out their approach to the character, which led them both right back to the old TV show. “The first thing we both said right away is, ‘It’s all Bill Bixby,’ ” says Whedon. “Because even though Bixby was focused on curing himself, every week he’s somehow gotta help someone. Mark is like, ‘That’s who I want to be, I want to be the guy that went off helping people.’ So Banner’s made his peace with the Hulk, and then the Avengers mess that up, because that’s what they do.”
Ruffalo was improbably insecure on the set of both movies. “Mark spent the first week of both films coming up to me after each take going, ‘It’s not too late to recast,’ ” says Whedon, laughing. “He’s saying, ‘I know you’ve got Joaquin Phoenix on the phone.’ . . . I think Mark is maybe the best living American film actor, and part of that is for a reason that makes it harder for him in these movies: He’s incapable of an untruth. He just always is the person he’s playing. It’s dazzling. I can see why he would go, ‘Stepping into this is going to be hard,’ and to make him more insecure, we put him in ridiculous motion-capture pajamas standing on a platform in front of everybody with balls all over him, and a tiara made of balls, and then we’re like, ‘OK. Now be the Hulk.’ ”
In the Seventies, all it took for Lou Ferrigno to become the Hulk was hours worth of body-paint application (and reapplication, after it rubbed off on everything around him — including, in one memorable case, the fur of a real bear he had to wrestle). But for the Hulks of the 21st century, technology was a problem. The Ang Lee Hulk looked like Shrek with a glandular condition; the Hulk in the 2008 Ed Norton movie was more tolerably real, but still not quite convincing — and you never felt he had anything to do with Norton. Both movies underperformed, although Whedon also points to near-unavoidable structural problems. “The Hulk is really hard to build a movie around,” he says. “He’s kind of a hero and kind of a Universal monster, like he’s a werewolf. It’s the job of the hero to try and stop the reason you came to see the movie from showing up, and structurally that’s a hard job.”
“On the other films,” says Marvel’s Feige, who is perhaps the most super-empowered comic-book fan in the world, “we were thinking, ‘This actor is this actor, but the Hulk is the Hulk.’ ” But thanks to ever-advancing motion-capture technology, Ruffalo became the first actor ever to get to play both Bruce Banner and the Hulk.
For the first Avengers movie, however, the process was deeply unnatural: Ruffalo would have to act out the Hulk’s movements and facial expressions in separate sessions. “That was frustrating for me,” says Ruffalo, who ended up writing what Whedon calls “a very eloquent letter” to the Industrial Light
and Magic animators on the first film, telling them, “You have to be the Hulk too, you have to create him in ways that I can’t.”
This time, Ruffalo got to use his face and body together, and was able to see real-time, lag-free video of himself moving in the Hulk’s body. He also worked with mo-cap master Andy Serkis — whose portrayals of Gollum and the Planet of the Apes simian Caesar were so revelatory that they sparked Oscars talk — to perfect his technique. “It becomes a kind of puppetry,” says Ruffalo. “Eventually, you internalize it. I know how the Hulk moves now; I know what it’s like to have all that weight on my body and how that body moves with these huge lungs that are filling.”
In Age of Ultron, the Hulk accesses emotions beyond rage — he has some tender, borderline-flirty interactions with Johansson’s Black Widow, and there’s a striking moment when he snaps out of a tantrum and seems horrified by the destruction he caused. “All these questions started to come up while we were working on this one,” says Ruffalo, “because now, Hulk is doing some acting. He’s not just raging. He’s transitioning in and out of Banner, and that has its own inner life to it. We haven’t even started to get into who the Hulk really is, what makes him tick. What is he fighting? What is he struggling against? What is he afraid of? We’re only scratching the surface of it. Where we can go in the future with it is going to be incredible.”
Marvel has laid out the next few years of its projects, and there’s no solo Hulk movie among them. That said, both Ruffalo and the studio are cautiously interested. “We’ve announced movies for the foreseeable future, and Hulk is a part of a number of them,” says Feige. “But I would be curious to see what a solo Ruffalo movie would be.”
“If I’m still alive,” says Ruffalo, “and they don’t mind a gray-haired or white-haired Hulk, I could be in this universe for another 10 or 15 years.”
Joss Whedon is walking to lunch, looking a little dazed, on Disney’s campuslike studio lot in Burbank, where Mickey Mouse statues abound. Though he lives not far away with his wife and children, he’s spent the past three months holed up in a house on the lot, working nonstop on finishing Age of Ultron. It’s a month before release, and he just locked the movie a couple of days ago. “It was the hardest job I’ve ever done,” he says, walking by a bungalow with a small sign that reads, simply, “PIXAR.” “I’m just starting to ease back into some semblance of humanity.”
Whedon, balding with bright hazel eyes and a reddish beard, script-doctored movies like Toy Story and Speed before helming Buffy the Vampire Slayer, along with several of the kind of failed TV shows that prompt write-in campaigns, plus the excellent but money-losing sci-fi film Serenity. He is a veteran of years of bruising fights with network execs and studio heads, including batted-aside pitches for projects like Batman and Wonder Woman. There is, perhaps, no greater sign of the loser-now-will-be-later-to-win ascendance of geek culture than his radically changed status: Thanks to The Avengers, Whedon is one of the most bankable directors in the world. Disney wanted him to do the third movie, too, but he’s already rejected that. “It would set me for life,” says Whedon, who’s taking his daughter to see the live-action Cinderella later today. “And that life would be about five years long.”
Whedon is intent on trying to embed art, or at least personality, into the mass spectacle of the franchise. “There’s some weird choices in this movie,” he says. “I just wanted to make it as complex and interesting as possible and get inside these guys’ heads. At the same time, you know, ‘Oh, look, they’re fighting. Oh, look, the bad guy is threatening the world!’ There’s a huge climax. It’s not like I don’t follow the rhythms of an action film, but yeah, it’s different.” He offers a bit of Hulk dialect: “So, me nervous.”
Whedon gets out so little that he has trouble gauging his newfound power, though he took note when “a really famous actor” spontaneously struck up a conversation with him on a recent flight. He wants to dream up some characters and stories from scratch again: “It’s been over five years since I created something,” he says. “I feel like I need a different challenge than ‘Oh, my God, that’s huge.’ ”
After years of frustration, it’s not clear if the success will ever make it past his skin. A few months after the first Avengers movie came out, he realized where he got the “I’m always angry” idea: “I thought, ‘This feels psychologically true, like somebody could be like that,’ ” he says. “And then about four months after the movie came out, something happened and I just lost my shit. I was like, ‘Oh! It’s about me!’ — which I do a lot. It’s so pathetic to me that we made the entire film, and it had been in theaters for several months before I realized who I was talking about.”
Growing up in New York in the Seventies, Whedon was repeatedly mugged. So he doesn’t have to look far to understand the appeal of the Hulk. “It’s a power fantasy about a powerless person,” he says. “I remember a friend writing me this beautiful e-mail about his son who’s on the autism spectrum and has anger issues, seeing the Hulk and being like, ‘Oh, he’s going to help his friends.’ Like, the idea that my out-of-control self, the thing in me that is primal, is ultimately a good thing. As a kid, I had these fantasies: ‘What if every time somebody picked on me or mugged me or hit me, I became this insanely powerful thing right in front of them, and they were all terrified and wished that they hadn’t?’ ”
Marvel, too, is adjusting to its current clout, while grappling with accusations that the sudden dominance of superhero movies is, more or less, ruining Hollywood. “Well, I will say we’re in good company if you look through the decades of people who’ve been accused of that,” says Feige. “Star Wars ruined Hollywood; Steven Spielberg ruined Hollywood. I’ll be in that company every day of the week for the rest of my life and be very happy and proud of it. I haven’t been involved in a movie that’s been nominated for an Independent Spirit award, but I imagine those people put all their blood, sweat and tears and sleepless nights into their movies. That’s exactly what we do over here every single day.”
Whedon smiles. “But they don’t have the Hulk,” he interjects.
Feige laughs. “They don’t have the Hulk,” he repeats. “But I think it’s the same.”
“The Hulk wants to do more independent stuff,” Whedon adds. “You know, it’s just his agent . . . ”
When Mark Ruffalo played a Marine in a film, he nearly tried to join the Marines. After Foxcatcher, he nearly tried to be a senior-league wrestler. And after playing a superhero, he helped lead a successful movement to ban fracking in New York state (if you really want him to Hulk out, just mention the Koch brothers).
Ruffalo’s unabashedly left-leaning activism goes well beyond the usual bounds of movie-star do-goodism, and he protests perhaps a bit too much when he’s asked about running for office. “Conventional wisdom says, ‘Hey, shut up. You don’t want people to dislike you, or, you don’t want to hurt your finances,’ ” he says. “But, like, does everything come down to finances in our lives? It comes down to values: Are you who you say you are?”
Ruffalo says his activism is driven more by hope than frustration. “I’ve really mellowed over the years,” he says. “Anger has a lot to do with control and fear. So when we can’t control something, then anger comes quickly. Loss, not getting the job, rejection, money issues — all of these things that I was struggling with that made me angry forced me to have to find another way. If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. I had to broaden my toolbox. Sure, I get angry now, but it’s not outside of my control.”
But Ruffalo also has enough Hulk in him to recognize that, as John Lydon sang, “Anger is an energy.” “Just like every other emotion,” Ruffalo says. “There’s a lot of interesting things to learn from it. It is energy. And it accomplishes something. We need it.”