Civil War trailers have already revealed one of the film’s more interesting call backs to previous Marvel movies. I don’t think any of us really expected to see William Hurt reprise his role as General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (from 2008’s The Incredible Hulk), but the character sets the stage in the trailers for the film. We see Ross going over the collateral damage caused by the Avengers while a dour Captain America listens on.
Most casual Marvel fans know “Thunderbolt” Ross as the antagonist from the Hulk’s first appearance way back in 1962. He was present at the gamma explosion that irradiated Dr. Bruce Banner, and before that even happened the two men had a strenuous relationship. Ross railed against his daughter Betty’s interest in the nuclear physicist, and once Banner became the monster known as the Hulk, Ross devoted his life to taking the Hulk down.
The General has been a mainstay of Hulk’s supporting characters across almost all forms of mass media. Paul Kligman first voiced Ross in the crudely animated 1966 cartoon The Marvel Super Heroes, but famous character actors have filled the role since then.
In the 1982 Hulk cartoon, Ross was voiced by Robert Ridgely (who played the director who recognized the value of the video market in Boogie Nights) and then John Vernon (Animal House, Dirty Harry) in the 90’s cartoon. The most recent actor to lend their voice to the character is Clancy Brown (The Shawshank Redemption, Highlander) on Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.
Ross’s most notable absence was in the popular 1970s Hulk TV show. A decorated General certainly would’ve worked in the confines of a television budget at the time, but the character was sidelined in favor of an original recurring antagonist, reporter Jack McGee. Sam Elliott and his mustache became the first person and mustache to play the General and his mustache in Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk.
As Marvel began to build their own cinematic universe post-Iron Man, they reset the cast from Hulk with an all-new one in The Incredible Hulk, which is how William Hurt ended up playing “Thunderbolt” Ross.
Hurt’s approach there was perhaps more over-the-top than what we’ll see in Civil War. “I loved playing Ross the first time because I was able to try and create an ego as big as the monster he was chasing,” Hurt told IGN last summer. For the third Captain America movie, Hurt acknowledges his approach has been very different, to accommodate Ross’s apparent role as less a villain and more of a expositional tool that us audiences have some small emotional connection to.
Ross in the comics went virtually unchanged for decades, and it wasn’t until Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuiness’s “Red Hulk” storyline that the old General found some new lifeblood. Ross was reinvented in a lengthy murder mystery plot that eventually revealed the General had become a Hulk-like creature of his own, a red-skinned behemoth who maintained all of Ross’s military brain and ruthlessness. Despite his beef with the “green” Hulk, the Red Hulk assisted the Avengers and a black ops team known as the Thunderbolts before his gamma powers were removed by Banner and Deadpool (who shot Ross with a serum Banner came up with).
While we won’t be getting the Red Hulk in Civil War (nor Deadpool, unfortunately), it’s great that Marvel strengthens the ties in their universe with smart character callbacks. We’d assumed we’d seen the last of all of the original cast of The Incredible Hulk since Mark Ruffalo replaced Edward Norton in the title role, but just like his comic book counterpart, Thaddeus Ross pops up when you least expect him.
For now, Hulk fans may be missing the Green Goliath after Age of Ultron, but “Thunderbolt” Ross is an unexpected consolation prize. We’ll take him.