Marvel Cinematic Universe actors: William Hurt

Marvel's Captain America: Civil War..General Thuderbolt Ross (William Hurt)..Photo Credit: Film Frame..© Marvel 2016
Marvel's Captain America: Civil War..General Thuderbolt Ross (William Hurt)..Photo Credit: Film Frame..© Marvel 2016 /

Veteran actor William Hurt lends his expertise to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s second feature, The Incredible Hulk. He later reprises his role as Thunderbolt Ross – his eight-year gap between appearances is an MCU record.

Superhero movies have been attracting high-caliber veteran actors going all the way back to the original Superman, when Marlon Brando was cast as Jor-El. Even Lex Luthor’s Gene Hackman already had an Oscar under his belt by the time Richard Donner was dreaming up the groundbreaking live-action movie.

There are many notable examples throughout the decades – Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the X-Men franchise or Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman in the Dark Knight trilogy – and the MCU made sure to entice similarly talented individuals when it began in 2008. Jeff Bridges is the guy in Iron Man, and William Hurt brought his decades of experience to The Incredible Hulk.

As General Thunderbolt Ross in The Incredible Hulk, Hurt’s motivations are split between containing the Hulk and protecting his daughter, Betty, Bruce Banner’s love interest. He is a headstrong military type, who will stop at nothing to reach his goals, and eventually takes it too far, weaponizing a dangerous modern-day warrior in order to neutralize the “enemy.”

Hurt is careful not to take Ross into full villain mode. His scenes opposite Tim Roth are particularly telling, as Blonsky emerges as the dominant Hulk antagonist. Ross’ sub arc is an important aspect of the movie, as he comes to realize that he has created a monster while Hulk has become a hero. Hurt consistently expresses a harsh attitude toward Banner while maintaining a tough compassionate streak for Liv Tyler’s Betty. His presence truly rounds out the film, as he interacts with all the essential cast members.

Hurt’s re-emergence as Ross is one of the most surprising and welcoming in the MCU when he turns up as Secretary Ross in Captain America: Civil War. He is the only member of the core Incredible Hulk cast to appear in another MCU film – since Mark Ruffalo replaces Edward Norton as Bruce. Still a hardened government man, he is now writing laws rather than fighting wars and is a major proponent behind the Sokovia Accords. In that vein, Ross acts as a catalyst for splitting up the Avengers into the for and against factions of the superhero registration act.

His scene in Avengers: Infinity War indicates how his stubbornness continues to dwarf his sense of morality. After forcing Captain America underground with his Secret Avengers, the team steps back into the light in order to defend the Earth from an invasion. Despite Iron Man’s disappearance and the beginnings of a global panic, Ross is sticking to his guns and orders Rhodey to arrest Cap (Rhodey promptly ignores the orders). It is to be determined whether Ross has survived Thanos’ decimation event, so we just may see William Hurt again in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame.

Genre film fans may only recognize Hurt outside of the MCU in sci-fi cult hits like Dark City and Artificial Intelligence (or even the 1990’s Lost in Space remake). However, his dramatic turns throughout the years have been the highlights of his career. One cannot overstate the mark he made in the 1980s; he starred in ten films and five of them were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Not to mention, Hurt himself was nominated for Best Actor three years in a row, winning one.

After collaborating in the perfect ensemble of The Big Chill, along with fellow MCU actors Glenn Close and Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt delivers a tour de force in Kiss of the Spider Woman. He plays a transgendered woman who is imprisoned in Brazil and whose aching romanticism is luminously contagious at a time of political turmoil. Hurt’s progression toward reluctant heroism, while never abandoning his character’s fundamental raison d’être, is both inspiring and tragic.

He continues to display fervent compassion as Marlee Matlin’s speech teacher in Children of a Lesser God. Both are extraordinary playing off of each other as are the trio of Hurt, Holly Hunter, and Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. In James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment follow-up, Hurt plays the pretty boy anchor who is out to prove that he deserves his place as a respectable newsman. Encroaching into romance territory, Hurt is equally as compelling as the irritable travel writer who resists falling for Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist.

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A few stand-outs in the 1990’s are in Woody Allen’s Alice and the family drama One True Thing. In Alice, Hurt’s character is comedically caught having an affair by his invisible wife, Mia Farrow as the titular Alice, which validates her own extra-marital feelings. In One True Thing, Hurt portrays a different type of disconnected spouse – one whose tidy life as a dutiful university professor is on the brink of falling apart when his wife is diagnosed with cancer. He paints a realistic picture of a father who selfishly pressures his daughter into helping her mother because he vulnerably doesn’t know how to deal with the situation on his own.

Over the years, Hurt has been acting in more of a supporting capacity – just like in The Incredible Hulk, Hurt makes an impact in other 2000s movies. He has a transitory presence as a CIA liaison in both Syriana and The Good Shepherd. He lovingly plays the father of primary characters in two captivating but very different films; M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. Most emphatically, Hurt expands on his repertoire in A History of Violence where his understated intimidation of his ex-gangster brother is exquisitely commanding.

More contemporarily, Hurt received praise for portraying Henry Paulson in the HBO financial crisis story Too Big to Fail. He still turns out fine dramatic performances in theatrical releases such as in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby where he struggles to console his daughter, delivering the memorable line “tragedy is a foreign country… we don’t know how to talk to the natives”. Hurt also recently played the admirable Olympic committee member who fought for inclusivity in the Jesse Owen’s biopic Race.

William Hurt’s Top 10 Movie Roles

1. Luis Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman
2. James Leeds in Children of a Lesser God
3. Tom Grunick in Broadcast News
4. Nick Carlton in The Big Chill
5. George Gulden in One True Thing
6. Macon Leary in The Accidental Tourist
7. Richie Cusack in A History of Violence
8. Julian Rigby in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
9. Walt McCandless in Into the Wild
10. Stan Goff in Syriana

William Hurt’s MCU role doesn’t make it into the actor’s top 10, and his veteran status has a lot to do with it. When an actor has racked up decades of filmography, tiers within his oeuvre become more apparent and Thunderbolt Ross simply is not top-tier William Hurt.

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All things considered, Hurt is a great fit for the part, and it is so much fun to watch him chew through Ross’ lines, often with pointed disdain toward particular Avengers. Here’s hoping for a William Hurt appearance in Avengers: Endgame or other future Marvel Cinematic Universe features.