The Incredible Hulk is Marvel’s most smashing superhero, and here’s every actor who’s played Bruce Banner and his green alter ego in live-action. In most instances, the Hulk is born after gamma radiation experiments conducted by brilliant scientist Bruce Banner end up unleashing his inner beast, leading a transformation from human to rampaging monster. Thankfully, the Hulk’s fury is most often directed at villains, but any Marvel Comics veteran knows that sometimes the creature snaps and decimates anyone in its path too.
In the live-action adaptations of the Incredible Hulk character made so far, the uglier side of the Hulk is only rarely seen, and usually as a result of a villainous plot. That’s probably well and good, as it would be hard for audiences to root for an Avenger who had ripped another superhero in half in a prior film. The real letdown for Hulk fans is that due to a rights divide between Disney/Marvel Studios and Universal Pictures, it seems unlikely another Hulk solo film will ever be released.
In the meantime, at least the Hulk continues to make appearances in new MCU movies and TV shows, keeping the big green bruiser alive in the pop culture consciousness. Five actors have played either Bruce Banner or the Hulk in live-action to date, and here’s the rundown.
The first introduction that those who didn’t read Marvel Comics got to The Incredible Hulk was his self-titled TV series, which began in 1977, and also spawned several follow-up TV movies that incorporated other Marvel characters like Thor and Daredevil. Two different actors played Dr. Banner – named David instead of Bruce in this version – and the Hulk, with Banner being portrayed by the late Bill Bixby.
Bixby had previously gained fame on shows like My Favorite Martian and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and turned out to be an excellent choice to lead The Incredible Hulk. He imbued David Banner with both an affable likability and a solemn sadness, which helped convey his compassion for others and heroic qualities, while also getting across the unwilling nature of his powers. Sadly, Bixby’s Hulk suffered a tragic final fate in the appropriately titled Death of the Incredible Hulk.
In the Incredible Hulk TV series and its follow-up TV movies, Lou Ferrigno portrayed the Hulk, while Bixby played Banner. Switching out between actors was about the only way to accomplish the character realistically on a 1970s TV budget and without the advances of CGI effects. A muscle-bound mountain of a man, Ferrigno proved just as perfect a choice for Hulk as Bixby was for Banner, as he’d been a championship-winning professional bodybuilder prior to getting into acting.
Ferrigno certainly isn’t a Daniel Day Lewis type, but he brings a brutal physicality to his performance that helps sell the Hulk as an imposing figure that no one should ever want to mess with. When Banner transforms into the Hulk, his foes are usually left both confused and terrified, and that reaction is justified by how ready to rip someone apart Ferrigno’s Hulk looks, even if the lack of CGI doesn’t allow the character to be as towering and enormous as he’s usually depicted. Ferrigno later voiced the Hulk in the 2003 and 2008 movies.
Directed by Ang Lee, 2003’s Hulk starred Australian actor Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, with the Hulk being a fully CGI character for the first time, at least visually. Hulk is a complex film, and has its strong points, but has quickly been overshadowed in the years since by Hulk’s appearances within the MCU. Critics gave it decent enough reviews at the time, but box office totals weren’t very impressive when accounting for the film’s hefty budget.
As for Bana’s performance, it’s actually pretty good, and makes Bruce’s plight easy to sympathize with. If anything, the issues many have with Hulk 2003 are more on the script than the actors, as a common complaint is that Hulk is too much of a talky, introspective drama and doesn’t feature nearly enough smashing things. Still, Bana does well, and the film is definitely worth checking out for oneself.
When the recently created Marvel Studios decided to make The Incredible Hulk early in phase 1 of the MCU, they cast Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. That was a sensible move from an acting standpoint, as Norton’s work has been widely acclaimed. Unfortunately, Norton also has a reputation in Hollywood for being a bit of a control freak, whether deserved or not. Norton was reported to have engaged in multiple disputes with Kevin Feige and other Marvel producers over the final cut, although he’s disputed the validity of those claims.
As for Norton’s actual performance, it’s his usual quality work, and it certainly would’ve been interesting to see him perform alongside Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and the rest of the gang in The Avengers. Alas that wasn’t to be, as Norton wasn’t brought back for any further MCU films, reportedly due to the aforementioned claims that he was hard to work with.
Mark Ruffalo of course took over for Edward Norton beginning in 2012’s The Avengers, and has went on to appear in sequels Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame. He also played a vital role in Thor: Ragnarok, leading to the closest thing to another Hulk-focused movie that fans have gotten since 2008. Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner also made post-credits cameos in Iron Man 3 and Captain Marvel.
Ruffalo has come to be seen as the definitive screen Hulk and Banner, which makes sense, as he’s a part of one of the biggest movie franchises ever made. Ruffalo definitely brings a different feel to Banner, making the character less intense and more socially awkward. Still, he also gets across Banner’s brilliance, even if said brilliance doesn’t extend to operating the Hulkbuster armor well. Ruffalo’s performance also extended to The Incredible Hulk himself in Avengers: Endgame, with the birth of Smart Hulk.