It wasn’t too long ago that fans questioned whether or not The Incredible Hulk was considered MCU canon but now, over the course of several projects, multiple characters from the film have returned. While the prominence of those roles has certainly varied, the sudden influx of Hulk-related characters at a time when a popular rumor that a World War Hulk/Hulks project is in the works continues to swirl is certainly a pleasant coincidence…if you subscribe to that sort of thing. With the return of Liv Tyler‘s Betty Ross to the MCU in Captain America: New World Order, the revival of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk is nearly complete. But after all these years, what would finally bring Betty Ross out of the shadows?
In early 2023, Marvel Studios One Above All Kevin Feige made it known that Betty’s father, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, will be the President of the United States in Captain America: New World Order. The easiest assumption is that Betty could return in a cameo to celebrate her father’s election. However, that would likely call for a very, very brief appearance by Tyler, one that would be very easy to keep secret, and given that she was spotted on set yesterday it seems that it’s unlikely that would be the ONLY reason she might return.
Thunderbolt Ross’s Presidency isn’t the only major change expected in the film, however, and it’s likely the other big development for the character, now played by Harrison Ford, may be more likely to lead to his daughter’s return. It’s roundly assumed that Thunderbolt Ross will, as he does in the comics, become Red Hulk in Captain America: New World Order. Though it’s unclear what role, if any, he’ll play in Ross’s transformation, it’s also widely believed that Tim Blake Nelson‘s Samuel Sterns will have some part in it just as he did in the comics. Marvel Studios isn’t much for one-to-one adaptations of arcs from Marvel Comics but this seems like one time when things line up pretty well for them to pull heavily from the source material. Once Ross becomes Red Hulk, however, things will have to diverge from that source material a bit.
For a significant amount of time in the comics, Ross went to great lengths to prevent the public from learning he was Red Hulk. A series of convenient stories were concocted, Life Model Decoys were deployed–general subterfuge to keep his secret. Captain America: New World Order co-writers Malcolm Spellman and Dalan Musson will undoubtedly have to work some of this into the film as having a rampaging Red Hulk as the President of the United States just won’t do. Life Model Decoys are certainly an option to explore, though it’s one that the MCU hasn’t really embraced in the past. Part of whatever story the do choose to pursue might be tied to exactly how Red Hulk’s powers are defined in the MCU.
As She-Hulk proved, not all Hulks are created equal and whatever method Sterns chooses to transform Ross into Red Hulk, it’ll probably result in him having similar powers to his comic book counterpart. Those include but are not limited to, a constant emission of gamma rays that make him a walking thermonuclear bomb and the ability to absorb all sorts of energy from his surroundings. Whether or not Ross is a willing participant in Sterns’s experiments that turn him into Red Hulk (smart money is that he totally is), he may not be thrilled with the results and may seek some help. Given that Betty is something of a scientist herself and one with a background in gamma radiation and Super Soldiers, it could be that her father will swallow his pride and seek out her expertise.
Of course, there’s one more option that may be a bit of a natural consequence of all the above that these recent set photos might strongly support: Thaddeus Ross is dead. Or perhaps he is “dead.” While being “dead” is more preferable to being dead, it’ll have to be Schrödinger’s Ross for now but being “dead” also provides much more flexibility for future stories…including that rumored World War Hulk/Hulks story. Tyler’s presence at a cemetery all but cements the death of the President in the film but what if, in a very comic book twist, Ross’s death–as far as the public knows–comes at the hands of a Hulk. This allows both for Ross’s identity as the Red Hulk to be kept secret and for the character to survive for another project where he can face off against Bruce Banner’s Hulk as Jeph Loeb intended.
After all, Hulks can’t really die and it would be an abject tragedy for Red Hulk to finally be introduced into the MCU only to die in his first appearance and never get to square off with his big, green nemesis. Could Betty be complicit in hiding her father following his “death”? That’s certainly an interesting possibility based on an already interesting albeit uncertain situation. If so, and given Red Hulk’s near-constant emission of gamma rays, could Captain America: New World Order be the beginning of Betty’s path to Hulk-hood? Fans likely won’t find confirmation of this or any theory easy to come by until the film hits theaters May 3, 2024.