We’ve gotten a lot of fun and enjoyment from the many Marvel superhero movies of the past decade; starting with Iron Man in 2008 it seems that Marvel can do no wrong with its movie characters. Yet, there is one movie superhero that so far has seen more love and popularity generated by its appearance in a television series.
We’re talking, of course, about The Incredible Hulk. The TV version of the Hulk is a very different one than its movie incarnation, being much less comic-book-y and over-the-top; the series was hardly must-watch TV, being painfully formulaic and predictable; but the TV version of the character remains so popular that the movie versions have been retconned to be more like the TV version.
So what was the TV Hulk’s secret? A much more human premise.
The original, comic book Hulk was created from mild-mannered Bruce Banner, a scientist about to witness the test-explosion of a gamma bomb (early 1960s, people)… when he noticed a clueless bystander in the test area. When he rushed out to push the boy to safety, Banner was caught in the gamma bomb’s blast, and the gamma radiation changed him into the Hulk. The Hulk was the most powerful thing in the Marvel Universe for a time… also the dumbest… and it often roamed around, just trying to stay out of trouble, until someone would attack it and set it into a destructive rampage… mostly tearing up the weapons used against it.
When it was decided to bring the Hulk to TV in 1976, the producers decided on a lot of changes to deal with a weekly format and TV budget. Their best decision was to update the premise, and this one element was a major part of the show’s success.
Renamed Dr. David Banner, he was no longer a mild-mannered milquetoast. He was a nice, desireable guy, played by the popular and handsome Bill Bixby, and at the very beginning of the series, the audience saw a wife and an adoring relationship. But as fast as the audience is shown this, the car David and his wife are driving suffers a blowout that results in a rollover and crash. David is thrown free in the roll, but his wife is trapped inside the car. And as the car catches fire, we see a horrified David, struggling with the stuck door from the side, using every ounce of energy he has, fighting desperately to save his doomed wife…
This is the David Banner we’re introduced to: Some time later, still traumatized by the death of his wife, and now obsessed with the stories he’s heard of other people in similarly dire situations who seemed to draw on incredible levels of strength to save themselves or loved ones. Why couldn’t he summon that strength to save his wife? He must know the secret.
So he experiments, to excess according to some of his co-researchers. And one day, when he thinks he’s worked out the formula that will ignite that strength, using a specially-tuned gamma-ray beam in the lab, he tests it on himself… not knowing that the gamma machine has been re-tuned itself, giving him a much higher dose than he intended. Frustrated when the test seems to have failed, he leaves the lab. But on the way home in miserable weather, he has a flat tire. Angry from his failure, angered by the tire, angered by the rain and slippery tools, he cries out in pain and rage, and inadvertently triggers the first dramatic transformation from man to monster.
This further triggers a series of events, from a reporter showing up to investigate sightings of a dangerous creature, to the destruction of the lab and the death of two of his co-workers; the reporter seeing the Hulk and concluding the monster killed Banner and his co-workers, and the beginning of the ongoing pursuit of the creature.
And so the show became a remake of the ever-popular Fugitive format, with Banner on the run for a crime he didn’t (intentionally) commit, trying to lay low until he can figure out how to prevent his changing into the Hulk… but continually falling into dicey situations (hey, it’s tough in the no-collar sector) and being triggered into “Hulking out” by bad operators all around him.
The hokey-ness and predictability of the Fugitive premise is balanced by its production versatility, which enables new locations, settings and guest stars every week. It also depends on the charismatic draw of the main character, and actor Bill Bixby had that in spades, being utterly magnetic and sympathetic on screen as the haunted man on the run.
Against Bixby’s Banner, his hulking alter ego had quite a set of shoes to fill. Professional bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno was given the role of the Hulk, with little more than a wig, facial prosthetics and green body paint as a costume… but that allowed his fantastic build to be highlighted, and with a little bit of forced perspective camera work, he looked appropriately massive. The producers also made a good decision in not trying to make the Hulk comic-book powerful, instead going for a level of strength that TV special effects could pull off with reasonable effort. Hulk wasn’t invulnerable, he could be hurt, so a lot of the things he did to attackers could be legitimately considered self-defense or retaliation for an injury. But the Hulk never intentionally killed anyone, and more often than not disarmed and disabled them long enough to free their victims or for the police to capture the bad guys.
But the ultimate tragedy of the series was never forgotten. Every episode ended with Banner shouldering his meager possessions and heading off on foot to find his next haven, as a solo piano played The Lonely Man theme, a reminder of the ongoing pain of this tortured hero.
Hamlet, it wasn’t; though to me it did evoke a bit of West Side Story, and the ultimate hell of star-crossed characters whose world would conspire to give them no peace, except maybe in death. Tugging on similar heartstrings, the TV Hulk endeared itself to a generation of viewers. The series managed to last five seasons, plus some made-for-TV movies after its regular run. The last movie finally killed the Hulk, and the audience got the payoff of seeing the monster morph back into David Banner, who died with a smile on his face… finally free of his nightmare.
And when the first movie version of the Hulk, in 2003, didn’t do well at the box office, Marvel tweaked the second movie in 2008 to include more of the familiar elements of the TV series, to bring the audience back. Banner was again the victim of self-experimenting, on the run, hiding out in a Brazilian town while trying to collaborate with a distant scientist on a cure, and when bullies at his workplace attack him and threaten a girl he likes, he… well, does what he did in every episode of the TV series. And at the end of the movie, he’s gone into hiding again, still trying to control his inner monster before he is again found.
In Marvel’s The Avengers, Banner’s alter ego seems to be in slightly better control at times, but he is still dangerous, even to his friends. Director Joss Whedon smartly played Banner as a tragic character, a man deathly afraid of hurting anyone, distrusting of the military, having tried to kill himself at least once, and still struggling to control his rage. The qualities that audiences loved about TV’s David Banner were still there, and it served the movie Banner to great effect. Even when the Hulk is at its worst, we remember that this is an unintentional monster, a man out of control, and we sympathize with the horrors he commits through no fault of his own.
Sure, it’s fun to watch the movie Hulk jump miles at a time and throw tanks, and for moviegoers his deeds are impressive and exciting to watch. But for a die-hard generation, the Incredible Hulk is still a traumatized, lonely, cursed man who only wants to be normal again. And that will always be the essential part of his character.