A Smashing Good Time: How Avengers: Endgame star Mark Ruffalo crushed it as the Hulk
That's how Mark Ruffalo — the most notorious accidental leaker in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — began our conversation during the making of 2012's original The Avengers.
"There was an air-quality guy who was Twittering from set. He's like, 'Oh, Thor just kicked the sh— out of an alien, I guess there are aliens…,' and literally in 15 minutes the guy went from like 20 followers to like 150,000 followers," Ruffalo said. "It just blasted into the blogosphere. Our security detail scans the internet for leaks, and in half an hour they had him totally clamped up. Basically we fired him and let him out."
He shook his head. "It was crazy. Studios probably spend a million dollars trying to keep all this secret."
With Avengers: Endgame finally arriving this week, promising closure to a decade of interlocked superfilms, all the secrets will finally be out. Ruffalo can breathe easy.
As we look back at the decade of movies that have built to this climax, it's hard not to see the three-time Oscar nominee (for The Kids Are All Right, Foxcatcher, and Spotlight) as the big green heart of the Marvel movies.
When he talked about Bruce Banner and his monstrous alter ego, Ruffalo spoke about them with warmth, like a parent who only wishes his warring kids would get along. He found insights into the mean, green brawler through his son, watching the old Bill Bixby TV series, and he talked about the Hulk as a big kid, always getting yelled at, never knowing his own strength, trying to find a way to be himself.
The only problem, his costars joked, was that Ruffalo sometimes talked too much.
Like all teasing between friends, the jokes about leaking are a little exaggerated. The actor actually hasn't been that bad about letting things slip, although he notoriously live-streamed the opening of Thor: Ragnarok in 2017, which caused a panic before the powers that be realized it had only supercharged fans to want to see more.
More often, Ruffalo just told it like it is. He rarely gave away deep, dark secrets, but he was generous and unguarded — exactly what people love about him.
"I was like, 'Oh, no…'"
When they were making the first Avengers, Ruffalo said he was daunted when a veteran actor he respected visited: Would he think all this was silly?
"I haven't done anything like this yet, so it's a whole new kind of world for me," Ruffalo said. "Sean Penn came one day to visit, he watched a scene and I was like, 'Oh, no…' because I admire him so much." Then he learned Penn was there to consider doing a comic book movie himself (although it never happened.)
"I was like, 'Any insights?' and he was like, 'I think what really works about these movies is when they see the actors really enjoying themselves. I think that's really what you should be going for,'" Ruffalo said. "And I took that to heart. I think he was really smart."
Especially since Penn was known for his intensity. "If he's like, enjoy yourself, then you know you have license to enjoy yourself," Ruffalo said.
Often when we spoke, Ruffalo would be dressed in tight-fitting black-and-white "pajamas," capped with an awkward helmet ringed by satellites of miniature cameras. This was the gear visual-effects artists would use to transform his movements and expressions into the Incredible Hulk.
While the other Avengers suited up in leather or armor, Ruffalo acknowledged that he often felt ridiculous. "The little motion-capture suit is not my favorite thing," he said in 2011. "It's a cross between a child's pajamas, a test dummy, and a Chinese checkerboard. I'm getting used to that. And everyone has a comment when you walk by, 'Ooh, those look tight on you!' or, 'That's a new look!' People make fun of you constantly."
During a set visit for Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, which shot simultaneously, I asked him about the velvety green loincloth he'd added to the ensemble. Was that to get a lighting reference for the Hulk's skin?
Ruffalo burst out laughing and said it was for "modesty." "It's so you can't see my d—!" Another time, on the set of Age of Ultron, we couldn't stop laughing about a set of fake Avengers sex toys that someone had Photoshopped as a joke.
Replacing Ed Norton
Ruffalo was even forthright about the touchy subject of taking over the role from Edward Norton, who played Banner in 2008's The Incredible Hulk but was recast because Marvel Studios executives clashed with Norton so much and felt he wasn't a good collaborator. (They even put out a statement saying so.)
"Norton and I are actually friends. I called him, he was like, 'You've gotta do it, buddy.' He basically bequeathed it to me," Ruffalo said. "It was very cool and very generous of him. I have a deep loyalty to actors, so I wanted to get his blessing before I moved forward on it. I don't know the whole history or presume to know; obviously there were many different clashes."
He's been telling the same joke now for eight years: "It's our generation's Hamlet," he said in 2011. "We're all going to get a shot at it before it's said and done." He made the same crack just two weeks ago as part of EW's roundtable with the original six Avengers (seen in the video above.) Chris Evans joked that he would do his best to pretend he was hearing it for the first time.
Ruffalo also always praised Eric Bana, who played the part in Ang Lee's Hulk in 2003, which isn't connected to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. "Two great actors, I think [the Hulk] is built on those," Ruffalo said. "First [with Bana's movie] it was like, trying to find a cure. Then [with Norton's film] it was basically fighting proliferation and the powers that want to manipulate it."
The MCU looked for ways to not retread the same story. "Now I think it's about a kind of a maturity that comes to the character," Ruffalo said. "'Okay, it is what it is, so how do I live next to this in a way that I can still have a life? Maybe this monster is equally a part of me, and I can never really get rid of it.'"
The big green kid
His young son helped Ruffalo figure out how to capture the Hulk.
"He told me that he's so misunderstood," Ruffalo said on the set of Age of Ultron in 2014.
He said he wanted to revisit previous versions of the character, so he and his son watched DVDs of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series The Incredible Hulk, which ran from 1978 to 1982.
"It's all impulse. There's no impulse control," Ruffalo said of the creature. "Kids relate to him because they're being asked to behave themselves when all inside of them, all they have is roiling emotion. And everyone around them is like, 'You're not supposed to be acting this way,' and 'That's unacceptable.' All they really want to do is Hulk out. And when they see a character that actually Hulks out, they're like, 'Yes, that's me! I want to do that! I totally understand.'
"They also have their Bruce Banner version of themselves, when they're in control and everybody likes them," he added. "And then out comes the Hulk, and everyone's like 'What's wrong with you?'"
From the beginning, Ruffalo found a way to make this a part of Banner's core. "There's a world-weariness to him, but also this kind of ironic sense of humor about it, and in a strange way, an acceptance of it," the actor said in 2011. "We all have our curses, but we sort of learn to live with them."
As generous as he was toward the previous Hulk actors, Ruffalo is also shrewd about why those movies sometimes didn't work. Banner was perhaps too miserable, and everyone in those movies fought against the big green guy emerging.
"It's tough to watch a character who doesn't want to be there, and so I've been finding that Banner in a lot of ways really wants to join the group," Ruffalo said. The key was that the scientist was thrilled to help the Avengers, but just didn't want his clumsy green brother to ruin things with his new friends.
"His past and the group's sort of overall fear of him means he's the loose cannon of the group, in a weird way," Ruffalo said. "No one wants to set him off."
He paused. "Except for Iron Man, except for Downey," the actor added, "who just wants to see him pop."
The wild man meets Iron Man
Ruffalo loved that part of it, the shy Banner befriending the provocateur Iron Man.
"There's a really cool dynamic between Tony Stark and Banner," he said. "Banner actually finds it really refreshing. They're a lot alike, in a strange way. They're both these scientists who are mavericks, kind of renegades. Banner, for all his mild-mannered mythology, was still the dude who was testing some pretty crazy sh— on himself, so he has that rebel streak in him. That's kind of what we've been playing with."
Ruffalo talked about his real life friendship with Robert Downey Jr., who previously worked with him on 2007's Zodiac. "I love Robert, man," he said. "For me, he's been kind of a guide through this whole thing, he really does it well."
That's what Iron Man does for Bruce Banner, too. "Tony Stark is really who Banner wished he could have been," Ruffalo said. "He's a successful version of him. He's in control, he created this thing, he does have it under his will, and he's able to use it however he sees fit. And he's celebrated for it; he's a billionaire for it, and he's not shunned, and he's not hated and despised and haunted and hunted like Banner is. So there's a cool dynamic there."
Black Widow likes him, Cap doesn't
Ruffalo also discussed his first scene in The Avengers, hiding out and being discovered and recruited by Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow. "She's the most human, her and [Jeremy] Renner are the most straight, black-ops type of agents. She's sent to Banner, and there's a nice little, in a strange way, romantic tension between the two of them. And if there isn't, then I'm putting it in."
It worked. In Age of Ultron, Banner and Natasha Romanoff do strike up a romantic bond, partly because she's the one who knows how to soothe the Hulk back to human form. She sees and can speak to Banner even when he is lost within his monstrous form.
"In their relationship, she protects him," Ruffalo said in 2014 on the set of Age of Ultron. "She kind of becomes his bodyguard, in a weird way. And he goes with it. I mean, Bruce, he's a pacifist, man."
Ruffalo did think there was a character who didn't like Banner: Chris Evans' Steve Rogers.
"Captain probably is the most reticent. He's also from a whole other time," Ruffalo said in 2011. "He sees where the problem could be." Also, Hulk is the twisted version of what Rogers might have become when he took the super-soldier serum.
"There's a recognition there," Ruffalo said.
There but for the grace of God goes Cap.
The biggest hater
Ultimately, the character who has the biggest conflict with the Hulk is Banner himself.
"He hates the Hulk, he really resents him, and the Hulk really resents him, too." Ruffalo said on the set of Infinity War and Endgame. "There's so much bad blood now between the two of them, and they both express it. Banner's been expressing it since the beginning, but Hulk finally gets to express it in Thor: Ragnarok."
That's why Hulk refused to emerge in Infinity War. Still the petulant child, the monster stormed off to his room rather than help save the day.
"I always imagine there's going to be a final showdown between the two of them, and that may or may not happen in these next two movies," Ruffalo said. "I always imagined they would meet in some alternative space, where they could both exist at the same time, like another dimension, which we're doing some dimensional traveling in this."
It gave him an idea for a solo Hulk film, if Universal Studios, which partially controls the rights, and Marvel could ever strike a deal.
"What I've always pitched to them as the ultimate standalone film is, eventually Hulk and Banner would face down," Ruffalo said.
It's time for them each to confront their greatest foe. Banner is what makes the Hulk go away. He's the puny human that the monster fears becoming as much as Banner dreads morphing into the beast.
"The only creature in the universe that Hulk is afraid of," Ruffalo said, "is Banner."
What makes Hulk afraid?
"It's himself. It's a version of himself that's weak," Ruffalo said. "It's a version of himself that's vulnerable."
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