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Iron Man's ‘Hulkbuster’ armor is the biggest clue to Marvel's 5-year future

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Since the first Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer, the biggest tease has been Iron Man's enormous "Hulkbuster" suit and his very public fight with The Hulk. In the latest trailer, we finally see the reason why Iron Man and The Hulk are fighting, which has less to do with heroes infighting and more to do with external magic.

But it ultimately doesn't matter why the Hulk and Iron Man are fighting. What's more important is that Iron Man came prepared for the fight with a pre-built supersuit designed to take on his (former) best friend — and that says as much about Iron Man as it does the entire future of Marvel's cinematic universe.

Caution: While we'll avoid mentioning any Age of Ultron rumors, this piece will does talk at length about the trailer, the official synopsis, some comic book stories, and Robert Downey Jr.'s involvement with Captain America 3. Cool? Cool.

So let's answer the big question first: what is this suit?

It's a Hulkbuster... It busts Hulk

The popular term is "Hulkbuster," which means exactly what you think it'd means: a suit designed to bust the Hulk. From as far back as Ang Lee's take on the character, there is very little in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that can stand toe-to-toe with Hulk, the bestial alter-ego of Bruce Banner. And if the Hulk is enraged, he doesn't necessarily know the difference between good people and bad. He's gotten better over the years, but he's more mad berserker than tactician.

Iron Man 305 excerpt

Iron Man's Hulkbuster armor made its first appearance in the comic books in 1994 before getting a nice set of upgrades in 2003. Similar to what we saw in the trailer, it's an add-on that fits over Iron Man's traditional suit, providing extra power and weight at the expense of mobility. It's designed to take a heavy-duty beating and dish one out in kind, making it a match for Banner at his worst. In the world of comics, the term "hulkbuster" can apply to other contraptions or even organized groups, but let's keep the focus on Iron Man here.

The reasons why they fight are less crucial than they seem, but we shouldn't take this lightly. That the Avengers present a united front against galactic threats is a big deal, and to tear that asunder is to tear down one of the most powerful team-ups their universe has ever seen (and indeed our universe, as well: 2012's The Avengers is the third-largest box office success of all time, domestic and worldwide, behind only Avatar and Titanic — "breaking up the band" in some senses would be a huge financial risk).

Hulk vs Iron Man 660 60fps 256c

For all we know, someone accidentally stepped on his toe and he wasn't expecting it. How "in control" is Hulk in this scene? Is he just a force of destruction (like he was when he attacked Black Widow in The Avengers) or is he attacking the Hulkbuster suit for a conscious reason. Or maybe it's the suit itself being controlled, and the Hulk is trying to take it down. We don't know. In either case, Tony Stark is prepared. (Update April 13th: We now know the Hulk goes berserk because of Scarlet Witch's mind control powers, and that Tony is definitively in the armor — but remember: it's armor he built ahead of time just in case of a situation like this.)

Equal parts brilliant, narcissistic, and paranoid

Stark has had a long history in comics of developing whole new Iron Man armors depending on the task or threat. Thus, the Hulkbuster armor was designed to take down an enemy as powerful as Bruce Banner's bad side. (This isn't at all the first time the Hulk has gone on a rampage, so he'd be foolish not to.) The Tony Stark in Marvel's Cinematic Universe is every bit as paranoid as he is a narcissistic, workaholic genius. Iron Man 3 showed that he has a fleet of drone armors at his beck and call to handle any number of threats and situations. So what if the Hulk loses control again? What if Thor goes bad? Surely these risks need contingencies to resolve them, and Stark is arrogant enough to take them on.

This is especially important when we consider the report that Captain America 3 will involve Steve Rogers and Tony Stark feuding, inspired by the comics' Civil War plot line. If things go as bad as this trailer suggests — we're talking destruction on a global scale — then the world, at least in Tony's eyes, will need more protection. So what's the solution when superheroes and SHIELD can't be trusted? Steve Rogers, the idealist, believes in working with superpowered allies for the greater good, especially when the system is corruptible. Tony Stark, the egocentric pragmatist, would rather take over the system from the inside and handle every threat where it arises, even if they're former friends. It's an ideological divide that's also deeply personal, building off the palpable tension between both characters in the very first Avengers.

Hulkbuster GIF 660 12fps 256c

We also know that Tony is in some way responsible for what's happening in Age of Ultron. He's actively positioning himself at the center of it. Ultron is maybe some twisted creation of his; the official synopsis begins, "When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry" and in the early trailers Stark directly states, "This is the end of the path I put us all on." For someone like Stark, who answers to no one except himself, taking sole responsibility for keeping Earth safe seems like a natural progression for his character in the films.

And remember: in the comic book version of Civil War, Tony is appointed Director of SHIELD. Right now, Nick Fury is believed dead and SHIELD, since revealed to be the face of HYDRA, was dismantled. Current Director Phil Coulson is tasked with rebuilding the organization, but it's still unclear how equipped it is to handle threats like Ultron. Age of Ultron could be the reason Stark steps into the driver's seat.

If this happens (and we acknowledge that it's still a big if), Stark's new position and the conflict it creates could help pave the way for new characters to crop up, especially since rumors abound that Avengers 3 will star a largely new cast. One way would be for Steve Rogers to die, meaning either Bucky or Sam Wilson will need to step into the role of Captain America. (Worth noting: Chris Evans' contract has precious few films left.) Another, if we're still keen on conjecturing wildly, is for Tony to seek out Doctor Strange to help form the Illuminati (the Doctor Strange film, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular character, is set for release July 8th, 2016 — two months after Captain America 3.)

Hulk is sad wide

Back to the Age of Ultron trailer. This is where we get nitpicky about a few things (Update: some of this has since been clarified):

  1. We never see Hulk fight any other Avengers — in fact we see an oddly tender (yet equally tense) shot of Hulk's hand near Black Widow's face
  2. We never see Tony Stark enter the Iron Man suit, and as we saw in Iron Man 3, his armor can sometimes be remotely controlled. This is a good time to remind everyone that Ultron is a "no-strings" sentient killing machine, and internet capabilities are kind of a default power.
  3. There are plenty of scenes of Bruce Banner just hanging out in closed quarters — including a shot of him in "post-Hulk" mode (shirtless, bare feet, covered in a blanket, looking dejected) in an airplane while everyone stands around him nonchalantly (conspicuously absent from the shot: Stark himself). He doesn't seem like a risk.

But again, it's less about the catalyst and more the preparation. If the trailer revealed anything, it's just how little Tony trusts anyone — and how he's invested heavily in the event of betrayal. There's only one movie between Age of Ultron and Captain America 3, and we don't expect the seeds of discontent to be sewn during Paul Rudd's Ant-Man. And if Marvel keeps releasing a new tentpole Avengers film every three year (indeed, it sounds like they will), part three is going to look even more different.

Is there a chance we're over analyzing this trailer? Possibly. Have we overlooked the hauntingly bizarre (or is it bizarrely haunting) rendition of "I've Got No Strings"? Absolutely. The first Avengers stayed true to the idea of good vs. evil, and that simplicity has been hugely successful for Marvel. With Age of Ultron, we're entering very gray territory. Get ready, you might start disliking your favorite heroes.

Ed. Note: This article was originally posted on October 24th, 2014 and has been updated slightly throughout based on the latest trailer. Yes, The Avengers has been teased for a very, very long time.

Vox Video: Easter eggs in the Age of Ultron trailers