Is it just me, or has the Hulk been getting hotter with each movie?
I know that sentence sounds strange, but hear me out; if you've been feeling like the Hulk has gotten more and more attractive with each MCU appearance, you'd be right. The reason for that isn't just because Mark Ruffalo himself is good-looking; it's because the Hulk has steadily become more relatable. The character is at his most relatable in Thor: Ragnarok, which not only has the Hulk acting as Thor's partner-in-crime, but it also features the Hulk talking, something we've never seen before in the MCU.
Marvel's head of visual development Ryan Meinerding spoke with SYFY WIRE and answered some rather serious questions about character development and artistic vision that stemmed from a rather shallow premise — what does it take to make the Hulk hot? The answers are much more revealing than you'd think, providing an inside look into the amount of work that actually goes into making a burly, menacing character like the Hulk relatable, fun, easy to root for, and yes, attractive.
You've worked on Hulk since the first Avengers movie. What's it been like developing his look for film?
Ryan Meinerding: Hulk is a lot of fun because he's one of the few all-digital hero characters that we have to design for. Most of the time when we're designing a hero or villain, it's how to make a new costume or translate the costume from the comic book into something that will work for the story [and the] world, but with the Hulk, it's about trying to figure out how to take Mark Ruffalo and turn him into something that represents what we think of as the Hulk in the comics.
When we got started on The Avengers, the last time anyone had seen the Hulk onscreen was The Incredible Hulk. My pitch, which [Avengers director] Joss [Whedon] responded to, was to make him into a monster. He's essentially a take on Jekyll and Hyde. I think previously, they struggled with trying to make the Hulk into a hero; they always wanted to find a way to make him heroic. I thought the pitch should be that he doesn't necessarily have to look heroic, but he can become a hero in the end.
What are some of the challenges in making the Hulk resonate visually with audiences?
There's always a few touchstones for every character we work on. With the Hulk, clearly, [it's] trying to find a green that works on screen for the different lighting conditions. Most of the time, it's the digital effects companies that are solving that for the productions. We're always trying to do the things, at least with the face, that harken back to the original Hulk, which [includes] a snarled upper lip, a heavy brow, kind-of small eyes, and a little bit of a wide mouth and chiseling his features in certain ways.
A lot of the challenges that have come from doing it on-screen are about trying to find ways that all of those things can work with or play off of Mark Ruffalo's face. In Avengers, we were trying to bring enough Mark so you could see that this was Hulk that was unique to this movie because of Mark's performance, but also because of [us] trying to combine his features with enough classic Hulk elements that would feel like a pretty complete marriage of the two, but still feeling slightly on the monster side of things.
Aa lot of the challenge comes from how much Mark do the directors and producers want to put into the character, and how much Hulk they want to put in. I think early on, as the amount he was having to act wasn't [as Hulk] that much — in Avengers, he was really still a monster, and there was enough Mark in there to feel like the character came from Bruce Banner, but still had quite a bit of monster.
As we've gone on, Hulk's performance gets more and more nuanced as he's asked to do more and more less monstrous things. As a result, it becomes that [we] try to incorporate a little more Mark so that they have the touchstones in the face that can be directly motion-captured from Mark's face. The more closely he looks like Mark, the easier it becomes to take Mark's performance and put it into the digital model.
The Hulk now talks, and we've seen a progression of his personality from the first Avengers. I also just happen to like green characters or characters who represent an "other"; they are usually the most interesting to me. What do you think makes the Hulk one of the more interesting Marvel characters?
For me, the Marvel characters are always interesting because, contrasting their strengths with their flaws, they're usually aspirational characters, meaning we all would like to be them in some ways. They also have tremendous flaws which make them very relatable. I think the idea of a character that's split between a scientist and a monster allows us to see ourselves — we're trying to do things to help the world, help ourselves, our families, our friends. But in some way, we can all relate to having not-great parts of ourselves.
There's also just a real freedom in the Hulk, when he's let loose and able to just go out and smash things. I think we all can relate to wanting a wanton sense of freedom and to do whatever we want. That makes the Hulk very relatable to me — [he's] reflecting our dark sides, but through the combination of Banner and Hulk, we're all trying to struggle through our lives and come out the other side as some version of a hero.
How important is attractiveness in your character development for someone like the Hulk or any Marvel film character, particularly when it comes to how you hope the audience perceives a character?
We're always trying to create characters that are appealing in one way or another. With digital characters, there's always the chance to veer quite far from attractiveness or come back towards it. I think the Hulk sort-of started in Avengers as a monster, just to distinguish himself from The Incredible Hulk and to set up Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner as a bit of the hero against the villain of the Hulk and to allow the Hulk to come back to being the hero at the end.
When we are doing digital characters, we are worried about trying to create something that's appealing. I think we're also trying to think about how the character's meant to be relatable. In that first context that I was explaining, you're supposed to relate to the Hulk at first through Banner, then come around to the Hulk when he actually ends up doing heroic things.
As we get into the second and third appearances in the MCU for the Hulk, I think filmmakers are looking for places for him to grow and feel like a more human character. Part of that means he's going to be more relatable. Because the basis for the visual character is Mark Ruffalo, the idea of merging them slightly as we've gone on does make a lot of sense as well. I think how attractive [a character is made] is in some ways related to how relatable a character is meant to be… It's really about what the filmmakers want and how they want to achieve it.
So how did you convey that?
We did work on the face a bit [and] try to chisel him in different ways than we had in the past. ILM and a few other companies worked on him to make him feel more like Mark, and I think some of proportions were played with on his face.
One of the things I was most excited to bring back — which doesn't fit into your paradigm of attractiveness — is that one of the hallmarks of the Hulk is that the space between his mouth the bottom of his nose is quite large, and one of the ways I had tried to achieve that in Avengers is to make him a mouth-breather, so his mouth was always open a little bit. It allows for that space to be large without it feeling that large. We brought that back in this one.
We also did a few different variations of a haircut for the Hulk, and one that [Thor: Ragnarok director] Taika [Waititi] and the producers landed on was a pretty cool update. I always like the Hulk from the comics, with the really short hair on the sides and short hair on top. That more closely-shaved look is a fun look, and we've got an approximation in Ragnarok.
With CGI work, it's becoming more and more apparent that if the eyes don't work, then everything else falls apart. How important are the eyes for a character like the Hulk?
They're really important. There are things that are also important with the Hulk just because his eyes are fairly inset; his brow is pretty large so sometimes the eyes go back in shadow. Sometimes shots like that really work in bright sunlight or a bright light where his eyes get lost; those graphic shadow shapes are what people think of when they think of the Hulk as well. But in terms of actually feeling a character's got some life behind their eyes and feels like a real person, the eyes are essential.
The technology just keeps getting better and better and the performances that they can pull from the actors and the animation just keep getting better and better. Specifically with the Hulk, I think the eyes are important because of what we think of with the Hulk from the comics is anger and rage, and a lot of that does come from the eyes.