In 1962 Marvel’s creative giants Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought the world The Incredible Hulk a story owing much to Lee’s love of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and as Ben Grimm’s orange monstrous form in Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four comic was so very popular why not make a comic starring a monster? Thus we get the story of scientist Bruce Banner caught in the blast of a gamma bomb of his own invention and now tormented by the raging beast within. A lot has happened to everyone’s favorite gamma-irradiated emerald giant since he first appeared in the pages of Marvel comics, hell he wasn’t even always green, and he’s seen many incarnations from the small screen to the big screen, so let us take a brief stroll through the many versions of The Incredible Hulk.
In the Hulk’s first appearance he was a gray-skinned behemoth but due to quality of the paper at the time as well as the inks used the Hulk’s pigment varied too much from panel to panel, so after seeing the first issue, Lee decided to make Hulk’s skin green. Years later the gray skin would return when in a run of comics by Peter David where the Hulk took on the name Joe Fixit. As Las Vegas enforcer he was a more intelligent version of the Hulk but definitely more morally ambiguous and more in keeping with the Mr. Hyde personality type than his earlier savage Frankenstein persona.
Marvel was quick to capitalize on the popularity of the character and so licensed the Hulk to a Canadian/American co-production for a television show called “The Marvel Super Heroes” (1966) where each half-hour show was broken into 7 minute segments dealing with either Captain America, The Sub Mariner, Iron Man, The Mighty Thor, and the ever lovin’ Hulk! The animation for this show was extremely limited even for television cartoons of the time.
“David Banner is believed to be dead, and he must let the world think that he is dead, until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him.” This opening narration for the live action television series set the tone for this show that was a huge ratings hit for CBS and would run for five years as well as a few made for TV movies.
Limited by what a live-action television budget could allow we never got to see this Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) tossing tanks around or leaping hundreds of miles in a single bound but what we did get was an hour-long drama much in the vein of The Fugitive with David Banner (Bill Bixby) on the run from a hounding reporter and a death he was not responsible for. Seeing green painted Ferrigno take on protection racketeers and abusive husbands may have been a bit of a letdown for the fans of the comic but the pathos and warmth of the late great Bill Bixby are what made this show such a hit. Note: Producers nixed the name Bruce Banner in favor of David Banner because Bruce seemed too gay at the time. *sigh*
From the 80s to 2010 the Hulk appeared in various animated forms; The Incredible Hulk (1982) only ran 13 episodes and was aired as part of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, in 1996 The Incredible Hulk was voiced by Lou Ferrigno with Neal McDonough voicing Doctor Banner. Then in 1997, they changed the shows name to The Incredible Hulk and She-Hulk which added Hulk’s cousin and also had the Hulk appear in his gray incarnation and was voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson. Then in 2010 The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes aired which gave us one of the better versions of the Hulk (Fred Tatasciore) but that show was too good so it was canceled after just two seasons.
Of course, Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno were not going to be the only live-action attempt at this Marvel character so in 2003 director Ang Lee brought the world his interpretation of the…HULK. Artfully done and with the great style, Ang Lee created a Hulk that would divide audiences and fans of the Hulk alike.
The problem in this film was that Ang Lee thought we needed an hour origin story before seeing any cool Hulk action, he was wrong. Now he isn’t the only director guilty of wasting screen time on hero origins stories when most of the world knows them by heart, but in his case it was just so ponderously slow going that at times I started to lose interest, and I personally just didn’t care much for Eric Bana’s David Banner (Note: Apparently still hiding from the name Bruce) and as lovely as Jennifer Connelly is her Betty Ross was your standard damsel in distress but compounded with the fact that she kept ratting her boyfriend out to the military thus making her poor girlfriend material. Speaking of the military we at least have one good thing to say about this movie and that is Sam Elliot, his Thunderbolt Ross pretty much nailed the character from the comic while also giving a bit more humanity to him.
Memo to Producers of Hulk Movies: Do not end your comic book action blockbuster with the Hulk having an existential battle with a cloud. It’s one thing to saddle us with an overlong origin story but to have the final showdown be an almost unintelligible mess is just a dick move. I love Ang Lee but he may have been the wrong choice for this project, then again there are worse choices
Enter Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk (2008) which starred an angst-ridden Edward Norton as Bruce Banner who must do battle with Tim Roth who will turn into The Abomination and help tear up Harlem/Toronto.
This film was kind of a reboot as it didn’t waste time giving as another long origin story, we just find out how he became the Hulk in a quick flashback sequence, sadly that is the only real positive thing I can say about this version of the Hulk. I think Edward Norton is a fine actor, but he was terribly miscast as Banner here, and the CGI for his green alter ego wasn’t anything to write home about. We did get a better smackdown action finale this time out but the whole thing seemed as if it was done on the cheap. The worst offense was in the casting of William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross as he was just terrrribbbble! The producers should have taken a page from the Bond movies which kept the same actor for M over multiple movies, even if the actor playing Bond kept changing, and brought back Sam Elliot as General Ross. As this films Betty Ross we get Liv Tyler whose portrayal of the torn girlfriend is so forgettable that it verges on coma-inducing. It’s a shame that this film has the Robert Downey Jr.. cameo thus making it part of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) finally brings us a big screen Hulk we can all get behind, director and uber-nerd Joss Whedon’s casting of Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner was inspired for he brought back some of warmth and humor we got back in the 70s with Bill Bixby. The CGI motion capture work in this film was incredibly well down and the fights Hulk gets into were brilliantly orchestrated and fun. Practically everyone in the audience bust a gut laughing when Hulk growled, “Puny god” after giving Loki the beating of his life.
There are apparently no plans to give this incarnation of The Incredible Hulk his own standalone movie, which is a shame because any film that could give us more screen time with Ruffalo’s Banner is something I’d be all for, but until then I’ll be happy with him taking on Hulkbuster armored foes and cosmic threats with his Avenger pals.