With the premiere of Avengers: Age of Ultron just over a week away, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the four primary Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk, and compile a list of their greatest adversaries. In addition to giving a rundown of their powers and backstory, I’m also going to give a reading recommendation for each villain. My hope is that this list will let those who are only familiar with the characters through the Marvel movies get a more in-depth look at these characters. For those already well-versed in Marvel lore, this will hopefully be fodder for you guys to dissect, debate, and express outrage over my rankings.
This week, we’ll start with the biggest and baddest member of our team – the Hulk.
5) The Leader
Samuel Sterns was working in a chemical research plant when gamma ray cylinder unexpectedly exploded. Sterns was caught in the blast, giving him the ability to absorb knowledge at a rapid rate, eventually causing his head to grow to incredible proportions. He soon dubbed himself “The Leader” In addition to a seemingly unlimited intellect, Leader is also able to control others through his psionic powers, which he often uses to force others to fight the Hulk on his behalf. He becomes obsessed with defeating the Hulk after the Hulk foils his plan to take over the U.S. government. Over the years, the Leader hatched several schemes in order to take down the Hulk with very little success.
Okay, so the Leader isn’t that great of a villain. He’s really on the list due to the frequency of his run-ins with the Hulk than the actual threat he poses. He did do some crazy stuff, though. He crashed Bruce Banner’s wedding, he tried to revive the deceased Gen. Thaddeus Ross only to create a mindless shell of a man, and he detonates a gamma bomb that kills over 5,000 people…so, he does have a little bit of villain cred.
Recommended Reading – Incredible Hulk #223-227, Incredible Hulk #397-399
Sometimes, a person can be their own worst enemy, which is (sort of) the case with Maestro, an alternate-future version of the Hulk that combines Bruce Banner’s genius intellect with the power and rage of Hulk…also he’s been driven insane by absorbing massive amounts of radiation – not the most stable of combinations, to say the least. A century in the future, Maestro controls the earth after superheroes have been wiped out by a nuclear war. Maestro meets the Hulk when a group of rebels use a time machine to bring Hulk forward in time to defeat him. Maestro and Hulk engage in battle, with Maestro clearly having the upper hand as he is a future version of the Hulk and has deep knowledge of the Hulk’s fighting style. The fight ends when Maestro snaps Hulk’s neck. He then tries to convince Hulk to ally with him, but Hulk manages to send Maestro back in time to the moment Hulk was created. Maestro is killed in the nuclear explosion. Maestro makes the list not only because he is able to harness both the Hulk’s strength and Bruce Banner’s mind, but because the thought that Banner could one day turn into someone so maniacal and despotic has to be especially troubling to him.
Recommended Reading – The Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect #1-2
3) Brian Banner
Not a villain in the traditional sense, Brian Banner is responsible for perhaps more damage to the Hulk’s psyche than anyone else. His origins are tragic – he and his sisters were abused verbally and physically by his father. In an attempt to escape the memories of abuse, he cuts off all communication with his family and vows to never have children of his own. He unwittingly breaks this vow, however, when he conceives a child with his wife Rebecca. Brian names the child Robert Bruce Banner after his abusive father due to the fact that he believes he has passed on the same “devil gene” that his father had on to his son. For this reason, in addition to the fact that he feels Rebecca favors their child over him, Brian ignores his son completely. Things take an even darker turn one Christmas morning, when a young Bruce assembles a model he receives with ease, convincing Brian that he was right about his corrupted genetics. Brian then begins to beat Bruce and Rebecca, which continues for several years. Eventually, Rebecca attempts to escape with Bruce, but Brian discovers her plan and murders her in front of Bruce. After that, Brian bullies Bruce into not testifying against him at trial by telling him he will go to Hell if he does. Although Brian is not convicted, he is later arrested and committed to a mental institution for fifteen years after drunkenly confessing his crimes.
After he is released, Brian is sent to live with his son which, as you may expect, does not turn out well. Brian continues to be insane, and he and Bruce engage in a fight at Rebecca’s grave on the anniversary of her death, ending with Bruce killing his father. Even after his death, Brian haunts Bruce from beyond the grave. Enemies use his image to try and weaken Bruce. This continues until the Hulk journeys to Hell, where he confronts his father and strangles him. We last saw Brian Banner in the Chaos War storyline, where he was resurrected by the Chaos King, took the form of a Devil Hulk and battled with Bruce.
Recommended Reading – The Incredible Hulk #-1, Incredible Hulks #619 (Chaos War)
Emil Blonsky was a member of the KGB and a Yugoslavian spy that had infiltrated an Air Force base in New Mexico when he decided to expose himself to a larger dose of gamma radiation that Bruce Banner had been exposed to when he became the Hulk. Blonsky uses a machine which Banner had built in order to commit suicide, and the radiation turns him into a giant monster whose strength surpasses that of the Hulk, called Abomination. In his first battle with Hulk, Abomination is victorious. However, Gen. Ross revives the Hulk, who then turns into Banner, lures Abomination into a trap and drains his power. Banner then turns back into the Hulk and defeats Abomination. Abomination is then taken by The Stranger to study.
Later, Abomination is revived from a coma by General Ross, and the two join forces to defeat the Hulk. Abomination is once again defeated by Hulk, and Gen. Ross orders a bomb to be placed in his skull. Abomination is then given the ultimatum to defeat the Hulk or die. Abomination tries to hold the Kennedy Space Center hostage, but is once again, you guessed it, defeated by the Hulk. After that, Abomination is found by the Galaxy Master, who enhances Abomination’s powers and uses him to enslave entire planets. The Hulk is recruited by the Sagitarrians to defeat Abomination, which he does after the Galaxy Master steals Abomination’s enhanced powers in order to save itself. Abomination is then revived by Gen. Ross and M.O.D.O.K., tortured, and forced to fight the Hulk again…a fight he loses.
Even though Abomination generally comes out on the losing end of his scuffles with the Hulk, he comes in near the top of this list for two reasons. First, his abilities are comparable and in some ways greater than those of the Hulk – he is perhaps even stronger than the Hulk, he has almost limitless endurance, and also has heightened senses. This attributes allow him to be a physical threat to the Hulk, a feat few can claim. Secondly, Abomination was responsible for the death of Betty Ross, Bruce Banner’s then-wife, by switching a blood sample from Bruce meant to cure Betty’s radiation poisoning with his own blood. Taking the life of the woman Hulk loved allowed Abomination to deliver a psychological and emotional defeat to the Hulk, which most of the time have more lasting scars than their physical counterparts.
Recommended Reading – Hulk: Destruction #1-4, Incredible Hulk (Vol. 3) #24-25
1) General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross
Even before he became the Hulk, Bruce Banner found himself at odds with Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross. Ross was in charge of the Gamma Bomb Project that Banner was working on. Ross viewed him as weak because of his love of science and lack of physicality. His dislike for Banner grew deeper when Banner and Ross’s daughter, Betty, became close. Upon Banner’s transformation into the Hulk, Ross becomes obsessed with capturing him, even going so far as to ally himself with supervillains such as the Leader, Abomination, and M.O.D.O.K. to do so. In order to make himself a more formidable foe for the Hulk, Ross merges with Zzzax, a creature made of electricity, a process which grants Ross superpowers. Ross’s opinion of the Hulk changes when he sees him fighting a mutant that attacked Gamma Base. In an act of self-sacrifice, Ross engages the mutant and hits him with all the electrical energy he had left from Zzzax. Ross dies in Betty’s arms, but not before giving her his blessing to be with Bruce.
Ross’s body is stolen by the Leader, who resurrects him. However, Ross and the Hulk actually become friends until they both become convinced that Hulk’s irradiated DNA is slowly killing Betty, causing Ross to renew his pursuit of the Hulk. Ross also commands U.S. forces in New York City during World War Hulk, when Hulk returned from space to exact revenge on the superheroes that he feels betrayed him by sending him to space.
Perhaps the most ironic part of Ross’s story occurs during World War Hulks, where it is revealed that the Red Hulk, who it had been believed killed Ross, in fact was Ross himself. (The Ross that was killed by the Red Hulk was a life model decoy). As Red Hulk, Ross has taken on the roll of more of anti-hero than a villain, serving as both a member of the Avengers and the Thunderbolts.
Ross takes the top spot on our countdown not only because of his dogged, relentless pursuit of the Hulk, but because their lives are so inextricably linked. Ross has been with the Hulk since his creation in one role or another. To complicate matters further, Ross was, for a time, the Hulk’s father-in-law. The two men both loved and wanted to protect the same woman, although their approaches to doing so were vastly different. It is no small accomplishment to make an almost invulnerable, all-powerful monster the prey to your predator, but Thunderbolt Ross was able to do so on more than one occasion.
Recommended Reading – World War Hulk, Hulk: Gray