''The Avengers'' smashed records with its $207 million haul. It also (finally!) gave fans a Hulk worth cheering for

By Anthony Breznican
May 11, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

It took a whole squadron of superheroes, but The Avengers easily soared off with the record for biggest movie opening of all time, hauling in $207.4 million to dethrone last year’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2. And while he had plenty of help, certainly some of the credit must go to the scene-stealing Hulk — who, after two somewhat disappointing turns on the big screen, is indeed incredible this time around.

Special-effects house Industrial Light & Magic was responsible for filling Lou Ferrigno‘s purple pants for this film, as they were for Ang Lee‘s The Hulk in 2003. ”CG characters have progressed quite a bit in that time,” says ILM’s Jeff White, who served as a visual-effects supervisor on The Avengers. ”There are much more accurate ways to represent hair and skin and eyes, and details like sweat. There’s also a lot of new technology for how they move.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the need for a human heart to counterbalance the creature’s rage. Enter Mark Ruffalo, who took over the role from Eric Bana, star of 2003’s The Hulk, and Edward Norton, who appeared in the 2008 reboot The Incredible Hulk. Ruffalo said his main alteration was to make the Hulk’s alter ego, Bruce Banner, less of an angry loner and more of a guy who desperately wishes to belong, but fears his own dark side. ”There’s a world-weariness to him, but also this kind of ironic sense of humor about it,” the actor told EW during a visit to Avengers‘ New Mexico set. ”He’s starting to see [the Hulk] as what he originally intended it to be, something that could be positive.”

Ruffalo performed all the monster’s scenes in a motion-capture suit, which he described as ”not my favorite thing.” ”It’s a cross between a child’s pajamas, a test dummy, and a Chinese checkerboard,” he said. ”And everyone has a comment when you walk by.”

He wasn’t the only one inspiring wisecracks. Steve Romm — a shirtless muscleman who worked as the Hulk’s skin-tone stand-in — got his share too, while walking around the set painted the color of a slightly dried-out lawn. ”Man, we sure are saving a lot of money on this Hulk!” writer-director Joss Whedon joked during EW’s set visit, jerking his thumb at the man nicknamed ”Green Steve.” (Whedon took to singing a parody of ”Greensleeves” when the two crossed paths.)

To help animators build the creature, the crew also recorded several other kinds of stand-in shots. Among the strangest was the ”Platter Hulk,” a life-size model of the superhero’s head and shoulders, which sat on a huge plate so workers could parade it through scenes to record size and color reference. ”It was so heavy carrying that head around,” recalls White, sounding like what the Hulk would call a ”puny human.”

For scenes where a freaked-out Hulk brawls with his fellow Avengers (including Chris Hemsworth as Thor), massive foam arms were created for realistic sparring. And for some of the fight scenes, a stuntman donned a giant foam torso — resembling a very sad Shrek costume — so the human-size costars would have something to battle. Then ILM digitally painted over those fake Hulk parts in postproduction.

Before shooting even began, ILM raided every detail they could from Ruffalo’s body, right down to the gray in his hair. ”We did high-resolution photo shoots, getting him to open his lips so we could get his gums, and the corners of his eyeballs,” White says. ”Even the fingerprints on Hulk’s hand are Mark’s fingerprints.”

Marvel had previously greenlit Iron Man 3, Thor 2, and Captain America 2. So far, they haven’t revealed plans to give the green guy his own feature. But after a $200 million opening, we bet they’re keeping those fingerprints on file.

For the Record

And the films with the biggest regular-weekend openings in Hollywood history are…

1. The Avengers (2012): $207.4M
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 (2011): $169.2M
3. The Dark Knight (2008): $158.4M
4. The Hunger Games (2012): $152.5M
5. Spider-Man 3 (2007): $151.1M