This week I continue my look at the early TV based forays into the live-action Marvel universe in the lead up to the release of The Avengers. The TV Movie / backdoor pilot film of The Incredible Hulk (1977) has an interesting distinction of being the version of the character that most people remember, and would even be referenced in later theatrical outings, an honour that cannot be bestowed on any of the others we will be looking at.
I had the pleasure of speaking to writer/producer Kenneth Johnson about his work on The Incredible Hulk when I interviewed him for Chinstroker VS Punter and it became clear that after his work on the two very successful ‘bionic’ shows earlier in the decade he was not particularly eager to work on another genre show. However, he was offered the choice of a number of the Marvel characters, in an attempt to replicate the TV and merchandising success of the two blockbusters he had shepherded previously. Seeing the most literary potential in The Hulk he started to take the offer more seriously. He added a spin to the show that had not existed in the comics or the previous animated TV versions, based on elements from les Miserables and the TV series The Fugitive, which would find our hero alienated from the world traveling from town to town seeking a cure for his condition whilst being pursued by an obsessed reporter. Each week he would help those in need before moving on to the next town.
This conceit drove the show and was influenced by, and contributed to, the then fashionable idea of the stranger/angel character that would appear in and positively affect the lives of strangers whilst seeking an answer, a truth or redemption. Few of these elements are present in Kenneth Johnson’s backdoor pilot (they would be developed in the weekly series that followed), but we are introduced to the only recurring performers in Bill Bixby as David (not Bruce) Banner, Lou Ferrigno as his green alter-ego and Jack Colvin as the psychotically persistent McGee (whose character would forever be immortalised in the iconic opening credits, with the line ‘Don’t make me angry Mr McGee. You won’t like me when I’m angry’)
The pilot features Banner grieving for his wife who died in a car accident after he impotently tried to free her from the burning wreckage. This is of course after we get a very post- Love Story hazy montage of them walking through fields of blossoms, playfully splashing each other with water and eating ice-creams with knitted jumpers tied around their necks. Bixby puts in a very human, surprisingly believable and solemn performance of a man obsessed, as he interviews people who have experienced preternatural moments of strength in moments of heightened panic. Deciding to strap himself into the iconic lab chair (a moment recreated in the 2008 film) he is exposed to gamma rays and realises in a moment of rage (trying to change a tyre on his car, what is it with this guy and cars) that it has worked, albeit with a bit of a catch.
This scene is the centrepiece of the film, a fact exacerbated by its inclusion in five seasons of television, and is very effective and actually quite unsettling. In fact, along with kid-horror mainstays like Doctor Who, this scene (I can personally vouch for this) was responsible for an entire generation of children hiding behind the sofa. The rage Bixby plays as his eyes turn white, along with the completion of the transformation framed with lightning, not only reinforces that Frankenstein was one of the literary influences on Johnson but introduces a genuine horror element that has been missing from all subsequent adaptations.
And here lies the problem with adapting the Hulk to the theatrical screen; he is not a conventional superhero. For starters he is pure Id, completely uncontrollable and closer to Mr Hyde than a heroic Dr Jekyll. Johnson pointed out to me when we spoke that the disconnect he experienced due to the computer generated nature of the Hulk in the movies meant he never felt that the narrative stakes Banner was experiencing carried-over to the beast. They were very separate and the green giant was simply an effect. This is not an issue for the show as the viewer relates the two together due to the limitations over all effects being practical, and the verisimilitude of Bixby’s performance. I have a strong suspicion and hope that in The Avengers they will solve this problem by featuring the Hulk as at most a supporting character, and at least as a weapon that the heroes unleash when needed.
The pacing of the TV movie is very of its time. We spend a lot of pages of script with Banner researching, interviewing and studying in an attempt to solve the riddle of his inability to save his wife, and the plot is less dynamic than it might have been if it had been a legitimate feature. But between Bixby’s excellent performance, some very dramatic, theatrical staging and Johnsons tastefulness in his approach, The Incredible Hulk is a surprising recommend from this era.
Next week, I will be looking at Captain America (1979)