Aside from “Who would win in a fight?” nothing gets comic fans more heated than the question of whether or not superheroes should marry. In this mini-feature, Bride-to-Be Rebecca Henely and her Maid of Honor Kayleigh Hearn take a trip down memory lane to the most significant times comic companies took the plunge and got their characters hitched! Did we like the couple? Did we like the dress? And more importantly… why did (or didn’t) the marriage last? Today we look at the wedding of Bruce Banner and Betty Ross…
The Couple: Bruce Banner and Betty Ross
The Issue: The Incredible Hulk #319
Published: May 1986
Today: Bruce became a widower with Betty Ross’s death by gamma radiation poisoning. Betty was later resurrected and became the Red She-Hulk, but Bruce died before any serious reconciliation could occur. Better luck next time?
Rebecca: This month’s Wedding Issue goes out to my future brother-in-law. I’m not the Hulk fanatic that he is, but I don’t think you can be a longtime Marvel reader without running into the jolly green giant at one point, if only so other Marvel heroes and heroines can take their shot at fighting him. That being said, while I watched the two … mixed movies and watched some of the 90s cartoon, I haven’t read too much solo stuff with the guy, despite Peter David’s run with the character being legendary. Given that, I was kind of surprised it was actually John Byrne who married Betty and Bruce.
Kayleigh: John Byrne’s run on The Incredible Hulk was a scant six issues (plus an annual and an issue of Marvel Fanfare) but he left an indelible mark on the Hulk by having Betty and Bruce finally tie the knot. The first time they walked down the aisle, Rhino attacked and Bruce hulked out, ruining the ceremony, so maybe the Father of the Bride shooting the Best Man isn’t the worst thing that could happen, really (more on that later). I’ve read some scattered comics appearances, but I mainly know Hulk from the ’70s Bill Bixby television series (I’m not that old, I swear!) and Ang Lee’s misguided Hulk film. The Incredible Hulk is the only MCU flick I’ve never bothered to watch, which probably sums up my enthusiasm for the character.
Rebecca: At this point in Hulk History, Bruce Banner and his green other half were split into two separate beings. While it’s not as bad as actually getting married to your wife without telling her you’re a superhero, Bruce takes his de-powering as the opportunity to marry Betty. They have what has to be the smallest superhero wedding ever, with Rick Jones and Hideko Takata (she’s a geophysicist and part of the Hulkbuster program—don’t worry, I had to look her up, too) as the only guests. The Hulk is off fighting Doc Samson and the Hulkbusters but the actual wedding crasher turns out to be Betty’s father Thunderbolt Ross, who runs in with a gun in an attempt to stop the wedding. He ends up actually shooting Rick instead of Bruce, which leads to Betty screaming at father for years of being an abusive, patriarchal scumbag and daring him to shoot her. Ross relents, and Rick insists on Betty and Bruce finishing the ceremony quickly before he bleeds out onto the floor.
What I like about this issue is it actually tells us something about who Bruce is, who Betty is, and why they’re together—she loves him because he’s gentle and kind, unlike her father, and she’s strong enough to make that known. From the little Hulk stories I have read, Betty went through a “starts off as a weepy sweet girl, becomes a tough woman” arc similar to many Stan Lee co-created heroines, and I’d like to think this was one of the culminating moments of that transformation.
Kayleigh: This issue juggles three balls in the air: Hulk vs. Samson, Bruce reconnecting with Rick Jones, and the wedding where Betty confronts her father. When Rick shows up and we get the Spark Notes version of his life as a perpetual hanger-on with the likes of Captain Mar-vell and Rom the Space Knight (oops, I mean [REDACTED] the Space [REDACTED]), I thought, oh no, this is going to be another Wedding Issue where the bride is an afterthought. So I was pleasantly surprised by the ending where Betty stands up to her raving father—with no intercession from Bruce—and actually points his gun at her chest in a totally badass “You’ll have to kill me too!” staredown. “You called him a milksop” is also a direct reference to their first appearances in The Incredible Hulk #1, which is a nice acknowledgment of their long, complicated history.
Rebecca: While I think is one of the better (mostly) self-contained stories we’ve read for this column, a part of me feels like it’s a bit too light for its heavy familial strife and abuse themes. It’s hard to see how Thunderbolt Ross became a superhero, even an anti-hero, after this, especially since his breakdown comes after he just shot someone. I guess it’s the soap opera nature of comics. But I wonder if this issue is a bit simultaneously too heavy and too light to end up on a lot of “superhero wedding” compilation lists. This probably plays really well if you’re reading Hulk for the long haul, but the happy ending still feels awkward.
Kayleigh: This is a really dark take on Thunderbolt Ross, painting him as an abusive, controlling (and ultimately pathetic) parent, so it’s a bit queasy to think, “oh yeah, he’s a superhero and an Avenger now.” That’s the nature of the beast, though, to push aside the things that damage superhero comic characters so you can keep churning out stories for decades—that’s why Hank Pym still gets to play the tortured hero years after he struck his wife. On a lighter note, I did love the melodrama of Rick Jones lying on the floor, bleeding to death, and insisting that Bruce and Betty finish their vows. That’s entertainment, baby.
Rebecca: Given that there aren’t many wedding guests this time around and thus no fun cameos, I guess it’s um, time to talk about the suits. The guy’s suits are OK. White bow-ties are a classic look. I don’t necessarily like the differently-colored pants on the guys, but at least they aren’t wearing the same thing …
But that dress? What the hell is that dress? Betty says it’s her grandmother’s dress—was her grandmother a nun? Because it looks like a literal nun’s habit lined with pink flowers. Not to channel the never-missed RuPaul’s Drag Race judge Santino Rice but I think this is the worst dress we’ve seen in all eight installments of this column.
Kayleigh: Betty Ross serving Deborah Kerr in Black Narcissus realness! (Hey, if Byrne can name this issue after a Carson McCullers novel, I can namedrop Powell and Pressburger.) Just stop and think for a moment about how musty and yellowed that grandma gown must be; I bet it smells like mothballs, hard candy, and death. I appreciate that Byrne clearly put thought into the design of the gown instead of sticking her in something featureless, boring, and white, but it’s pretty ridiculous.
Rebecca: So, I find the legacy of Bruce and Betty’s marriage interesting for a few reasons. One is I’m surprised John Byrne got Bruce married considering that he was vocally against Spider-Man and Mary Jane’s marriage. Then again, Byrne’s original intention was to take the Hulk “back to basics” and he apparently left the book over issues with Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, so who knows if he ever intended for this to be a long-term thing. Peter David featured them as a married couple for a long time, in large part because she was his then-wife’s favorite character, but after his divorce he agreed with an editorial suggestion to kill Betty.
So in some ways what may have kept Betty and Bruce together and then split them up were outside forces rather than even authorial intent. I think this issue makes a fairly strong argument for why they work as a couple on a Watsonian level and Betty could theoretically keep up with him even more as a Hulk, but … on the other hand it makes sense for Bruce’s life to be chaos. Plus, Betty had the misfortune not to get Bruce’s third chance at the movies and their romance was pushed aside for an unpopular one with Black Widow. Do you think they could have a chance again if Bruce comes back? Should they?
Kayleigh: Turning Betty into Red She-Hulk gave her a nice dose of indestructability after many years as the fragile love interest plagued by mental breakdowns, monstrous transformations, and “is she dead, or just cryogenically frozen?” retcons. In that sense, she’s an interesting precursor to Jane Foster as Thor. I wouldn’t mind seeing them together as a literal power couple, as it would be one way to scrap the tired and often sexist “but my loved one will be hurt!” hand-wringing from male superheroes. But the big gray alien in the room is Caiera, Hulk’s second wife and mother to his children. She’s dead now too (sigh), but the life of a superhero is so mutable and unstable that maybe Bruce and Betty’s love has moved permanently beyond their reach. Still, their wedding here is genuinely sweet, and for a little while they were able to seize a bit a happiness amidst the chaos.
Oh, and fuck Hulk/Black Widow forever. The end.