Note: This article contains spoilers for Episode 2 of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, "Superhuman Law."
She-Hulk's second episode, "Superhuman Law," delivered quite a few surprises, such as a possible Wolverine Easter egg, a reference to the Eternals, a tease for a potential Hulk storyline, and a nod to The Incredible Hulk. While Mark Ruffalo has now become synonymous with Bruce Banner thanks to his tenure in the MCU, the first actor to play the Green Goliath in the shared franchise was Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk.
Following what seemed to be a contentious relationship between the actor and Marvel Studios, however, Norton was replaced by Ruffalo.
The Incredible Hulk has been referenced sparingly throughout the MCU, but no mention of Bruce Banner's recasting had been made until She-Hulk. The series' second episode featured a scene in which Jennifer Walters talked to Hulk about representing Abomination (Tim Roth) in court. Bruce told his cousin he had no problem with it, as he had forgiven Blonsky. As he put it, "That fight was so many years ago, I'm a completely different person now. Literally." The line was followed by Jennifer laughing sarcastically at the camera.
It was an unexpected moment, and now, we know how it came to be. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, She-Hulk head writer Jessica Gao revealed the reference was initially more subtle... until Ruffalo improvised the "literally" part of his dialogue:
"[The] line was written by Jacqueline Gailes, who's a very funny writer. She was like, 'You gotta have him say, "I'm a completely different person now,"' and Mark [Ruffalo] actually added the "literally." So, if the "literally" had been in there, I wonder if they would've flagged it, but I've been continually surprised by how willing they are to let us poke fun at things and really point out these things."
As Gao stated, Marvel Studios seems to be very open to its projects being self-referential, as evidenced by Thor: Ragnarok, Thor: Love and Thunder and the Spider-Man trilogy, which found different ways to poke fun at the MCU (e.g., Doctor Strange's beard dye in No Way Home).
Mark Ruffalo Responds To The Reference
Discussing his role in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law with Entertainment Weekly, Mark Ruffalo opened up about the show's The Incredible Hulk joke, revealing he is quite fond of it. The actor stated he understands the ever-evolving nature of the character, and revealed he would be okay with somebody else taking on Bruce Banner after him:
"I think it's really funny. It's just the reality that we all are often dancing around, but it's true. [...] I actually joked with Ed [Norton] about this. I was like, 'It's like our generation's Hamlet. Everyone's going to get a shot at it.' And there'll probably be another couple before it's all over. People will be like, 'Remember when the Hulk used to look like Mark Ruffalo? Now it looks like Timothée Chalamet.'"
While the canonicity of The Incredible Hulk in the MCU has been put into question over the years, the film has, as mentioned, been referenced by different installments in the franchise. The Avengers, for example, had Banner mentioning that he destroyed Harlem, while William Hurt reprised his role as General Ross from The Incredible Hulk in Civil War, Black Widow, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Lastly, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings featured Emil Blonsky, a.k.a. Abomination, fighting Wong in a clandestine fighting tournament run by Xu Xialing, Shang-Chi's sister.
Even though it is usually considered to be a "lesser" film in the series, The Incredible Hulk will continue to have a presence in the MCU through She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, as Emil Blonsky is expected to play a relatively important role in Jennifer Walters' freshman series given his new role as the hero's client.
She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is streaming on Disney+, with new episodes released every Thursday.