Black Widow was a moving farewell to one of the original Avengers. On top of that, it introduced a new hero to the MCU: Florence Pugh’s Yelena. But the film might have also served as an unexpected origin story for another infamous comic book character. A curious moment with Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross points to his eventual transformation into Red Hulk.
In Captain America: Civil War, the General-turned-Secretary of State tells the Avengers that five years earlier he had triple bypass surgery following a heart attack. You wouldn’t know from looking at him, though. In that film, he seems fit for a man his age. Especially one with such a demanding job. The same is true during his next appearance in the MCU. In Avengers: Infinity War, Ross appears as a hologram projection. At one point during his conversation with Colonel Rhodes, Ross springs out of his seat and dashes around a table. Nothing like a man dealing with major health issues.
But he is dealing with health issues in Black Widow, which takes place shortly after the events of Civil War (in canon 2016), and prior to Infinity War. In Black Widow, Ross leads an unsuccessful raid to find Natasha Romanoff, who is on the lam for violating the Sokovia Accords. Even though he was healthy a few months ago, he looks much frailer during the raid. He also walks with a cane, which he does not have or need in Infinity War when he’s moving with ease just a year or two later. Natasha knows what happened to him. “From my vantage point, you look like you could use some bed rest,” she says, “What is this, your second triple bypass?”
“I wouldn’t worry about me,” he says. But were it not for Infinity War, we’d think he’d have plenty to worry about. Evidently, the stress of hunting down fugitive Avengers won’t prevent him from making an unusually speedy recovery from a second triple bypass.
But if Ross is fine almost immediately, and his major health issues only sustain for a very small time during a prequel, why would Marvel mention them at all? They have nothing to do with the plot. Natasha doesn’t take it easy on him because he is weak. And his problems don’t play a role later in the film. Nor do they reveal anything about his character we didn’t already know. (He’s a decorated solider who has always been tough and driven.)
That leaves us with two options to explain its inclusion. The first is that it’s meaningless. The second is that it means a whole lot. And considering we’re talking about a highly connected cinematic universe, we’re betting on the latter. This is exactly the type of foreshadowing the MCU has always used.
How could a man of Ross’ age (William Hurt is 71) recover so quickly from a second major heart operation without taking any time off to rest? How could he quickly bounce back while having one of the most stressful jobs in the world? By turning to the same technology he helped create. The same serum that brought another soldier back from the brink and led to a monster.
General Ross made his MCU debut in The Incredible Hulk. In the film, Ross’ program to replicate Dr. Abraham Erskine’s Super Soldier Serum, which transformed Steve Rogers, inadvertently led to Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk thanks to massive gamma ray exposure. Ross did create one working vial of serum, which he gave to Captain Emil Blonsky. Unfortunately it was an inferior to Erskine’s, and Blonksy became the Hulk-like monster Abomination.
This forgotten character is inexplicably about to return with a cameo in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings. Shortly before She-Hulk also joins the franchise. After being a one-Hulk operation for years, the MCU is about to have a lot more smashing. This trend may involve the person who hates The Hulk more than anyone, “Thunderbolt” Ross.
Ross’ comic book history is intertwined with Hulk. The General was obsessed with defeating the green rage monster. (Though sometimes the two found common cause.) Ross’ story eventually took an ironic twist. He died, but since no one stays dead in comic books for long, he returned to the world of the living. And after some more classic comic twists, Ross became the very thing he hated most. He became Red Hulk, a fearsome monster maybe even more dangerous than the one he had always hated.
While it would be unlikely to adapt the complex story of comic book Ross to the MCU, that doesn’t mean Marvel can’t still adapt certain elements of his comic past for the screen. The franchise has always borrowed or modified certain idea, characters, and storylines to create something new. In the comics, Ross’ death eventually led to him becoming Red Hulk. In the MCU, it might be his near death that leads him to that fate.
A powerful man with access to incredible technology may have been desperate when facing his own mortality for a second time. Even knowing the risks, he may have turned to something that saved another soldier’s life before. Ross’ seemingly impossible bounce back from Black Widow to Infinity War could be explained by him taking small doses of his Super Soldier Serum. Or even exposing himself to small amounts of gamma rays. (Hulk smash. Hulk keep Banner safe, too.)
But if the arrogant Ross takes too much, or becomes too dependent on his super treatment, he might very well become the thing he spent his life fighting. And then he won’t be the only one seeing red when a new Hulk joins the MCU.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike, and also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.