“Who is the strongest Avenger?” is a popular question asked throughout…everything. The comics. The movies. The fandom. We are constantly want to know who’s the strongest, and why, and this discussion basically can’t even happen without bringing up the Hulk.
But I am less interested in the Hulk’s physical strength for this character analysis—don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Hulk’s ludicrous feats of strength, and in the comics there are some amazing examples of how much he can do (like catching and holding up a 150-billion-ton mountain range, holding together a planet, and holding up Proxima Midnight’s spear that channels the weight of a freaking star). That, however, isn’t the kind of strength I’m going to be talking about here, or throughout the rest of this series.
I want to talk about the strength of character.
Because all of our Avengers are strong people, no doubt. Pick any of the MCU’s core six and I can summon up multiple instances where they overcame all sorts of external and internal obstacles to do what needed to be done. That’s kinda the point. They’re heroes.
And all the Avengers are angry in their own ways. But unlike Bruce, the rest seem far more comfortable with it. Clint and Natasha signed up and trained to be super spy-assassins, Steve joined the military and is always ready for a fight, Tony was a weapons manufacturer with a rebellious streak, and Thor is part of a proud warrior lineage… but Bruce? He really never had any desire to fight.
Bruce is a gentle soul. He likes to learn. He likes to explore and discover. He’s the kind of person who could sit quietly for hours just watching data roll in, genuinely amazed at his findings. He’s a scientist. His mind is curious and inquisitive. And his goals are always to help.
Like how, when his life fell apart, he ran off to India to serve as a doctor. Because in his heart, he’s a giver.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dr. Banner as quietly vulnerability and tinged with sadness. He didn’t want this life, he didn’t want “the other guy”, but all he can do now is endure.
And he does. Amazingly.
I think often about what it would be like to have an alter-ego who was my complete opposite. I imagine it would be a nightmare. How can you ever fully relax when you know there’s someone else in your mind who can take over if you get too emotional and have a wildly different reaction to the situation than you’d want.
And worse, to know that sometimes, you do actually need that other person, and their strength, and their reactions. It is both frustrating and comforting. It makes you feel both capable and inadequate. It creates such intense cognitive dissonance that you can easily start spiraling downward into the very darkest corners of your mind.
Hulk is a very extreme representation of emotions being suppressed, and how everything ultimately needs an outlet. If something gets suppressed so much that it has no escape, it will explode out of you somehow. Most of us don’t get gamma ray exposure and turn into giant green rage-monsters, but if that does happen to you, well…yeah, then things are going to get extreme.
I know it’s not the most unique perspective, but I find it fascinating how Bruce is dealing with, essentially, a comic-book version of disassociation. And let me tell you, that isn’t a fun thing to have. Dissociative identity disorder is hard to live with, and I think that’s one of the things I appreciate most about Ruffalo’s performance; he plays it like someone genuinely dealing with a serious mental health issue. He’s tired and sad and trying his best but he really…doesn’t want to be a hero, because he doesn’t feel like one, he just feels tired. The rest of his team, the government, and the whole world might look at Bruce and see a powerful hero, but he’s stuck in his head, where he feels exhausted and robbed of the life he actually wanted. He loves his friends but that’s also part of why he withdraws—because he’s afraid he’ll hurt them. He’s afraid of becoming a burden (even though none of them see him that way, and he is, in fact, an asset).
This feels so raw, so real, so honest for anyone dealing with a mental health condition that can’t be cured, only managed. It makes him a very relatable and complex character. It makes me feel protective of him, like I just want to scoop him up and assure him that his friends value him and want him around.
When he leaves at the end of Age of Ultron, he does so because he thinks it’s the right thing for everyone. He does what so many other struggling with their inner demons do—he convinces himself that the people he loves, and who love him, would be better off without him.
We don’t get a lot of info in the movies on Bruce’s personal history, but even if you haven’t read one comic, I think it’d be easy to look at Bruce and realize that he went through some dark stuff in his early years. Ruffalo plays him with such subtle complexity, hinting at a rich and tragic history that has shaped him into the man he is today. I wish we could get a little more of this in the movies if only to see how Ruffalo portrays it, because I think he’d do an amazing job.
In a weird way, the guy who turns into a giant green monster when he’s angry is the most relatable guy in the Avengers, because he’s just doing his best to cope with a situation he never asked to be in, he’s got too much on his plate, so he keeps doing what he knows how to do and hoping that he can do more good than bad in the world.
And that is where Bruce shows his true strength. Hold up all the mountain ranges you want, Hulk, but anyone dealing with depression and other such conditions knows what a battle every day can be. How hard it is to get up and be a person, let alone to go be a hero on top of all that. He still does his scientific research. He still works to better the world every day. He still does as much as he can to support his friends and be there for them. This isn’t a power he got from an accident that he has little control over; this is something he had to build for himself, little by little, day by day. He had to earn this power, and fight for it, and create it basically out of nothing.
That is some next-level strength.
That is an every-day hero, one we can all draw inspiration from, even if we’re not facing down invading alien armies, robots trying to wipe out humanity, or arenas full of gladiator battles. Maybe we are just getting up and going to work or school or running some errands, but if Bruce can face down all his inner turmoil and still do groundbreaking research, then we can draw the inspiration to finish that report or give that presentation. And that’s what heroes are all about; showing us how we can be strong, too.
So yeah, Banner is the strongest Avenger. And I’m pretty sure Tony knew exactly what he was talking about when he coded that into the Quinjet.
He’s just hoping that someday, his science-bro will see it, too.