"It must be said that Bill Bixby was my first and only choice for the role" -Kenneth Johnson in SciFiNow on the casting of Bill Bixby as The Incredible Hulk's Dr. David Banner-
In a summer filled with superheroes, it seems fitting they should all be green with envy.
The 1970s was a heyday of great programming and splendid science fiction writing and adventure from Space:1999 and The Six Million Dollar Man to Buck Rogers In The 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica. Don't forget UFO, Land Of The Lost, Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman. Never mind terrific children's programming like Banana Splits featuring The New Adventures Of Huck Finn and Danger Island. The list goes on and on and in the midst of it all Marvel was just beginning to establish a foothold inside the world of live action film and television. The Incredible Hulk [1977-1982] was one of the first to make it big. This was a landmark moment in comic book entertainment. Just a few months earlier The Amazing Spider-Man [1977-1979] was introduced and ultimately delivered a fourteen episode failed attempt at a lengthy run with the well-cast Nicholas Hammond [The Sound Of Music, The Brady Bunch] at the helm. It just never gained traction with the executives. The series was fairly expensive and was the third in the network's [CBS] superhero run.
One thing is certain Bill Bixby and Kenneth Johnson were largely responsible for the success of The Incredible Hulk. These men were the face of a hit.
Until the arrival of Marvel's The Incredible Hulk, DC's Batman [1966-1968] and Superman [1952-1958] reigned supreme in the 1950s and 60s.
Since those arid years of superhero filmmaking, summers have become a haven for the super film. Heck, even The Incredible Hulk Pilot saw its way into theatres once upon a time. There were grand, near cinematic aspirations inside of this series and the high degree of quality spent on the series showed. 2011 alone featured Thor, X-Men: First Class, Captain America: The First Avenger and Green Lantern. Speaking of amazing, these 70s programs arrived in an era when CGI simply didn't exist and miniature and model fans thank God for those small favors.
Let's turn to the more contemporary adaptations of the Hulk made for cinemagoers as prime examples in the radically different creative approaches taken toward the beloved character. One merely need look no further than director Ang Lee's bright green CGI monstrosity  and director Louis Leterrier's equally disturbing, darker CGI beast . Try as they may have, these films never did justice to the Marvel hero. The greatest injustice was the CGI employed in those films to create the Hulk. Neither film is perfect, but the second picture may be the more expressive and successful of the two pictures.
For decades, fans of the green man grew up reading the serial comic book and all have their favorite runs from Herbe Trimpe's renderings to Sal Buschema's work. Peter David's stories accented by Todd McFarlane, Dale Keown or Adam Kubert further added to the grand Hulk mythology. Artist John Byrne even offered us a sprinkling of wonderful classics including the wedding of Bruce Banner. Yes, the legacy lives on. The history is long. The mythology is sprawling, but fans treasure these interpretations. When one of those heroes makes it to the big screen, we expect it to be big. Okay, maybe not as big as the Hulk, but delivering on such a major event cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, Lee and Leterrier simply didn't have what it takes to deliver on a legend despite some fine techniques and some good ideas.
Fans understand the Hulk and expect their writers too as well. The fans know the Hulk like one of their flesh and blood family with real emotions.... er, lots of emotion. The full-on CGI thing simply doesn't cut the mustard. It's just too damn fast and never deceives the human eye. It's one thing for the mind to imagine something like this sprung to life from the frames of a comic book, but to present a comic book representation of the beast to the human eye in a live action scenario simply can't get one over on the brain.
I remember walking out at the end of the first film thinking it was one of the worst films I'd seen in quite some time. I was so heavy with disappointment. It was like someone assaulted our childhood with little regard or respect for the source material. This often happens to some degree, but this was woefully inept. It just didn't work. When it comes to the Hulk, creators should be taking a page from Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy if a reboot ever comes to pass. The Hulk deserves better. Grab the green paint and grab Ron Perlman before it's too late. Ang Lee's comic-styled attempt at film had some nice ideas, but it was goofy in its execution and the story undermined the Hulk we knew and loved compounded by bad CGI. It's as if all involved never fully understood or respected the same hero we grew to love.
Further, as good as Edward Norton or Eric Bana are as actors [especially the smart choice of Norton], they simply don't hold a candle to the mature and sensitive performance by Bill Bixby over Five Seasons of The Incredible Hulk. Bixby was that damn good. I realize the depth of character explored on television is an unfair comparison to film. I do believe Norton serves up the more complex performance in the preferred second Hulk film.
It's not often when a television rendition of a superhero has managed to transcend its source material, but I do believe writer/ producer/ director Kenneth Johnson's imagining of The Incredible Hulk managed to do just that. Folks can scoff at the series as overtly serious. They can see it as psychologically-heavy versus a villain-of-the-week approach, but Johnson grounded his Hulk inside of reality and that's probably what gave the series a a genuine sense of believability, its chance to survive and its ultimate longevity.
In the end, The Incredible Hulk, as guided by Johnson and Bixby, retains a special place in pop culture, enough so that Leterrier would allow the influence of the original TV Series into his film. There were several moments in the second motion picture that were impacted by that classic series.
David Banner flips through the television channels, a clear influence on our formative vision of the Hulk, and we witness pure homage in small clip of Bill Bixby from The Courtship Of Eddie's Father [1969-1972] signaling the film's inspiration. It made me realize just how much I miss the actor.
It was almost as if his cameo and the ghost of Bill Bixby was looking over Leterrier's film as a guiding presence. The second film definitely more closely resembles elements from the original TV Series than the comic book origins. Here, Leterrier pays tribute once again through the inclusion of the series' haunting, original theme music.
Norton's character, on the run, works hard at controlling anger and finding a cure for the gamma cell poisoning, two of the core operating themes that drove the TV Series, with some sequences offering a real allusion to the classic program. The emotional subtext of the series is also in place in Leterrier's film capturing some of the melodramatic, sweet and beautiful moments that worked so well in the Bixby run. The film simply can't replicate the strength of Johnson's work, but Leterrier's film offers a glimpse of respect to our TV past.
Banner's love for Betty Ross drives him and the beauty and the beast component is in full play.
The movie version of Banner alludes to the classic line from the '70s series in a factory scene when he tells an adversary in a play on words, "Don't make me... hungry. You wouldn't like me when I'm... hungry." Yes, all of these elements and suggestions in Leterrier's film are a reflection of the power and influence of Kenneth Johnson's series combined with elements of the comic book Hulk [violet purple stretchy pants and finally a "Hulk smash!"].
The Flash, a fairly strong DC adaptation, never pulled off the longevity of The Incredible Hulk series. Too expensive. The Tick resulted in a similar situation.
Incredibly, The Incredible Hulk was a phenomenal success story and in some ways propelled a desire for more Marvel creations to reach the small and big screens for decades to come.
Those who wanted to dismiss the tinkering of the origin story as not remaining true to the comic deliver a fair point. I, too, enjoy my hero stories to remain loyal to the source material. X-Men, like the Hulk films, didn't do it and neither have many others. Many have been disappointing on this level. But it's understandable why Johnson needed to make The Incredible Hulk, like others, for a more contemporary audience. Although, pulling off an atomic bomb test in the 1970s might have proved convincing and interesting if not viable financially. Nevertheless, I was willing to accept this alteration and move forward and to be honest the ride was worth it.
The Incredible Hulk leaped and leaped and leaped and landed on television screens for five seasons with some exceptional scripts. The success of the series can be attributed to Kenneth Johnson who lobbied for assurance that Bill Bixby would land the role of David Banner. Bill Bixby, in a tour de force performance, was supported capably by his rampaging alter ego in the form of Lou Ferrigno. Apart from geting easily caught up in the action, I've often overlooked Ferigno's animated, physical performance, but he does deliver genuine, monstrous believability. I'm not sure just anyone could have done it. After a time, he clearly embodied The Hulk. I grew to accept The Hulk and Ferrigno as one. This may explain to some degree my intense aversion or bias against CGI Hulk when Ferigno delivered a truly emotional, believable performance for so many years. I was spoiled by the flesh and blood nature of even The Hulk. As a result, the fans deserved better. The box office failures of the feature films do speak to the resistant nature of true comic book and Hulk fans to deliver a healthy return. I've wondered if Lou Ferrigno, who appears in the second film as a security guard, wasn't slightly mortified by the computer replacement of his role. Johnson told SciFiNow he once considered Arnold Schwarzenegger for the part, but wasn't taller than Ferrigno. Richard Kiel was also a consideration for the role. Another actor, Ted Cassidy, was retained for the exquisite narration he would lend to the opening and for the growls of The Hulk for the first two seasons before his passing.
Again, there are differences between the comic and television. There's a great irony in the fact the lead character, Bruce Banner, was given a slight change of name as Dr. David Banner. Afterall the series is indeed different from the comic book and the slight modify in name really speaks to the fact things would be different- and they were. But, more than a comic book, The Incredible Hulk was a far more adult affair with real issues [child abuse, illness]. Fortunately, Kenneth Johnson had the foresight to take the story in this direction with a limited budget rather than turn out a monster of the week or forgettably crafted versions of The Hulk's many comic book-based villains.
Johnson learned a great deal with five seasons of The Six Million Dollar Man and three seasons of The Bionic Woman under his belt. Johnson seems to seamlessly weave all those wonderful ideas and concepts into reality-based science fiction.
In a SciFiNow piece called Modern Classic, Kenneth Johnson spoke to what moved him as a filmmaker and what motivated his work. Character, of course, is central to his success and, like The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk was no exception. He had his concerns taking on the project intitially and was very reluctant at first. But working through his frustration with the concept he began to realize he could "turn it into an adult psychological piece that would belie its comic book origins." Johnson returned to his friend Frank Price, head of Universal at the time, and indicated he would do it, but under his terms with complete artistic control. This kind of creative control is what made The Incredible Hulk, well, a hulking success. While it could have been a failure, it was not, and Johnson's track record proved he had the chops to make it work.
To underscore Johnson's ongoing desire for a reality-based thread, he was even questioning the idea of Hulk as a green beast. He contacted Stan Lee. Lee said, "When they first started doing the comic book, he was grey." The printers began printing the Hulk green and Lee indicated the decision to make him green had nothing at all to do with "logic." This was precisely Johnson's conundrum, because he was a man concerned with logic. Johnson admitted, "I was indeed anxious to keep the story as logical and based in truth as possible. I did a lot of research into cellular biology so that I could include some of that in the pilot to make it sound like Dr. Banner would know what he was talking about." Johnson was looking for a definitively mature, adult audience and refused to dumb down the property.
Johnson had a powerful handle on the character of Dr. David Banner and The Incredible Hulk that he set the tone for the audience with the opening quote to the TV Series: "Within each of us ofttimes dwells a mighty and raging fury." Johnson recalls, "I wanted to immediately set the tone for a more adult drama, for a tragedy of sorts." You soon realize The Incredible Hulk, as a superhero character, was ripe for tragedy and Johnson understood this regarding the Banner character for his unique vision of the series. Yes, the Hulk figure is tragic in the comics, and Johnson captured the dramatic power of those circumstances for his production. He immediately identifies character as the tie that binds the series through his wonderful casting of Bill Bixby. Banner's alter-ego is treated in the series as a symbol and a psychological component of the Bixby character. Johnson utilized the creature "figuratively." It was a story of the monster within as the emphasis was squarely on the man that was David Banner.
The Incredible Hulk Pilot is where it all began. An opening montage speaks to the kind of man David Banner is, a loyal and devoted husband. Scenes are intercut highlighting a long standing love affair with his wife Laura. A dramatic accident closes out the sequence when a tire blows out and the car rolls tossing David Banner from his vehicle. His wife, locked inside the now burning vehicle, cannot be freed as a weak and helpless Banner tries fruitlessly to free her from the flames. Banner awakens from the nightmare. He is a man alone, lost without the comfort and love of his late wife. He is clearly unable to break free from the haunting memories of those final moments where he simply could not save her. Banner feels responsible for the fate of Laura as a result of his shortcomings that fateful day.
One year later. Physician, scientist David Banner arrives to work. Since the loss of his wife, his motions are robotic and routine living life without really living.
As I watched the Pilot film, written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, it was clear from some of the close-ups of Bixby and other dramatizations that Johnson clearly had an eye for something bigger and cinematic. The transfers to DVD are also notably strong. Images are fairly sharp and clear, with some grain, but solid for a series over three decades old.
At the research facility where Banner works, an interview is performed on a mother and child. The mother shares the events of her fateful day when she rescued her son from a burning vehicle miraculously. The events are nearly identical to that of Banner's trauma, but somehow this mother was able to tap into an energy reseroir to free her son. This is at the core of their research being attempted to identify how the human body can release and utilize untapped strength. A moved Banner walks away from the proceedings. Banner converses with his colleague in private, begging the question how a 110 pound woman could move a half-ton vehicle. Where does that kind of strength come from? The bigger question for Banner that torments him in night sweats is, why he couldn't save his wife. Banner's friend and colleague, Dr. Elaina Marks wonders if he's too close to the project, but they continue to unlock the mysteries of the human body. Interview after interview displays events of people somehow inexplicably tapping into a reserve of strength that saved them or someone close to them, but it is a profound mystery to Banner who feels entirely inadequate over his failure. People in desperate scenarios seem to be doing the impossible.
Outside the facility Banner is visited by newspaper reporter Jack McGee. Banner stops McGee and assures him he is not interested in being interviewed in a paper that is solely interested in "murder, rape, horoscopes, UFOs and Farah Fawcett." It's a great line that places Banner within a reality-based existence.
Banner and Dr. Marks begin looking into the question of strength at a cellular level by analyzing mitochondria. Their investigation turns up an abnormal Adenine and Thymine content. As it turns out, Banner's levels are abnormal too, yet he was unable to unleash the needed strength to save his wife. A conversation with a fellow doctor regarding gamma radiation forces Banner to reconsider external factors or variables that may have inhibited him the day his wife died. Banner deduces gamma rays are the culprit affecting the strength of regular folks.
Once again, Kenneth Johnson took artistic license with the origin story moving away from the atomic testing mishap as portrayed in the comic book. That sensationalism was supplanted by a more reasonable, logical explanation whereby Banner would commence self-testing to understand his "puny human" ways.
Banner sets the controls for gamma ray testing on himself when the mishap occurs. The eerie score emphasizes the unsettling nature of the experiment. The experiment is also relative to the issues of testing that were growing and degree and potential in the 1970s. It all goes wrong when the wave of gamma radiation exposure goes well beyond his requested dose. This segment really speaks voumes to the power of such an event. The viewer is waiting for a physical reaction by Banner. Perhaps, we wait for him to wretch in pain, but Johnson stays true to the reality of such an exposure. The event is silent because radiation is a silent killer. It affects living tissue without the individual knowning their being affected like basking in the sun on a summer's day. Well, the reaction of eerie silence is so overwhelming in its delivery it is even more chilling and effective than the expected physical reaction the audience expects. Johnson plays it for logic, because that is what Johnson does. There is no dramatic license or sell here. This is frighteningly real and effective.
The results of Banner's experiment aren't obvious at first glance. Expectations aren't what they seem. In due time, Dr. David Banner will find his strength experiments worked too well. Frustrated, Banner drives off into the rain-soaked night.
Banner is literally maddened by his inability to discover what made these people strong and the fact his wife had to die. There are no spiritual or Christian overtures here. The answer lies strictly within science for Banner and his shortcomings are his own that he alone must face. The anxiety of the moment rises with some splendid music scored by Joe Harnell. Something is happening within Banner, something silent on a cellular level, growing with the quickening of his pulse and the rise of his blood pressure. With a flat tire, Banner is drenched adding to his heightened sense of frustration and growing anger. Lightning lights the skies around him elevating the mounting tension as he changes the tire.
The pacing and the build of the story is strong and a rare thing in television. As Banner works feverishly to fix the tire a spark of pain ignites the raging creature within. Here is that classic moment highlighting the transformation. Do note the wonderful use of music and the simple effects that create a significant impact visually.
Ferrigno really delivers us the monster. He's not just a man painted green, but a raging brute of a creature. Banner clearly won't have trouble lifting those cars now.
With the rain over, a calming Hulk happens upon a girl fishing. Intrigued, the creature smiles and extends his hand while the little girls screams in panic and paddles away on the nearby lake. Her father rushes to her side complete with a rifle. The girl flails about falling into the water and out of the boat. Hulk, complete with Ted Cassidy grunts and growls, moves to save the girl by extending a tree to her. Her father aims and fires upon Hulk. He bleeds and is moved to anger again. This is not the impervious Hulk of the comics or the big budget CGI pictures. Johnson's Hulk feels pain. He rushes to the man and literally grabs him by the nuts and throws him into the lake after snapping his rifle like a twig. Yes, we know this Hulk from the comics to be sure. Where a twinkie when you need one?
Wounded, Hulk leaves the vicinity. Calm he slowly morphs back into David Banner. It is handled with a nice, gradual touch as the Hulk reaches into water creating a ripple effect slowly blurring his image to reveal the transformation back to David Banner.
Banner, hurt, goes to Dr. Marks' home. Marks wonders why anyone would want to shoot Banner. The bullet wound reveals a healing process much faster than most as scar tissue has already formed. Banner explains to Marks that he linked gamma actvity from sun spots to the recipient's DNA giving people extraordinary strength. Drinking voraciously he explains he took a 300,000 unit gamma injection. He recalls changing a flat tire, but then waking in his current state. "I remember feeling incredibly strong... My eyes were white." Marks and Banner head to a southwest laboratory that is more remote.
Marks informs Banner that one of their colleagues modified the radiological unit in excess of 300,000 units. They suspect Banner took a does 2 million units strong. David sits inside of a metallic testing facility for observation. Marks hopes to reverse the process. Banner wants to observe the process to control the variables. Marks feels there are too many unknowns, but Banner wants to test, not reverse the process. They argue with differing opinions. The container was built to withstand pressure 1,000 feet below the ocean's surface and made of chromium steele with six inch glass.
The two researchers reconstruct events as they happened for Banner. Darkness, rain and lightning are all cleverly recreated in a controlled environment. The missing element: anger, emotion. Banner begins to get frustrated, but ultimately fails. Later, Banner thanks Marks through the glass as their hands touch on each side of the glass. It is the first time we hear the piano driven ballad by Composer Joe Harnell called The Lonely Man. This is a beautiful composition and variations on the theme would populate the series emotional core.
In due time, Banner sleeps and the readings on the graph begin to grow as a result of REM sleep. Reliving the final moments of his wife's death, Banner begins to wake and change into the Hulk. Transformed he wreaks havoc inside the cylinder. Marks calms the beast easing the Hulk to sit back as she watches him change back to David Banner. The simple use of a green light and fades between shots is effective, if a bit outdated, but that isn't the strength of the Hulk series. It was always character, but it still looks good in capturing the beauty and beast element.
Banner suspects it is anger that creates the transformation. Fury is the emotional committment that causes Banner to metamorphosize. Banner realizes if the transformation can occur in his sleep than he has no control over the monster inside of him. Marks believes the creature won't kill because David Banner won't kill.
The police arrive to speak with Banner- CHiPs to be exact [California Highway Patrol]. The police inform him of his vehicle being found destroyed. Banner plays it cool, but indicates he never reported it missing. McGee also shows up with a cast imprint of the Hulk's foot. The officer leaves, but McGee stays and continues his probe indicating he ran into a hunter and his little girl who encountered the "jolly green giant" by the lake. McGee informs them no one was hurt, to the relief of Banner. McGee proves he will be a dogged pursuer. Marks tries to assure Banner that he won't kill.
"I want to be Dr. Banner not Dr. Jeckyll." This is a very pointed reference to the origins of The Incredible Hulk as intended by Stan Lee. Stan Lee wanted to make a creation like Frankenstein melded with the concept of Jeckyll and Hyde where transformation occurs. Whether intended or not, this is clearly a reference to the work of Stan Lee.
McGee watches the research facility from a hillside perch. After they exit, he makes efforts to break into the facility. From a window he spots the destruction inside.
Banner and Marks return to the original facility to see if they can reverse the process. Banner isn't seeing results and is fairly annoyed. Marks retorts, "Do us both a favor, don't get mad." Banner's mind races as he suspects he may be a menace to society and may need to find a more remote, isolated location.
Returning to the southwest location, McGee is hidden inside. McGee hears some parts of their conversation, but it's murky enough that he doesn't obtain the full picture.
Banner discovers McGee. Some chemicals are knocked over in the process. As McGee probes Marks and Banner for information, a chemical reaction is happening in the room next door. Banner exits McGee out of the building in one of the series most iconic moments. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.
Once again, someone close to Banner, someone whom he loves, has grown to love, falls into harm's way engulfed by the fire. If that isn't tragic I don't know what is. Banner changes showcasing his great power. In the end, Marks dies. The events for Banner parallel his wife's death. The lesson tells us that even with all of this amazing, raw power, there are things outside of our control. The Incredible Hulk is all about aspects of control. The Pilot shows us that even with all of the access and abilities in the world sometimes we simply can't change fate or control destiny. Some things are completely beyond it much like The Hulk is for Banner. With all of his desire to find strength and unlock untapped human potential, when it mattered most, Banner still couldn't save the first woman he loved since the death of his wife.
McGee sees the Hulk escape with Marks in his arms. He cries out for Banner as the building ignites and explodes. Outside in the woods, Marks is held in Hulk's arms where she tells him she has loved him for so long. As the flame within her goes out, the Hulk howls with rage and yet he will not remember the words she shared with him before her passing. The raging beast calms and shows real emotion in her loss.
Days later, at the cemetary, amidst headlines of "HULK KILLS 2," Banner visits the site of Marks' grave and his own marked "David Bruce Banner." He, too, is believed dead in the explosion. Banner chooses to keep it that way. It closes with Banner's sentiment to Elaina, "I love you Elaina. I think you loved me too although you never said it." The credits roll to the theme of Joe Harnell's The Lonely Man and Banner's lonely journey begins. The theme highlights the tragic reality of the figure that is David Banner always walking away alone. This version of the Hulk has been called an "American classic." I think that is a great assessment of what the folks involved with this series, aimed for adapting from a comic book. It's the perfect American tragedy.
This was a strong start to the possibilties ahead. As a character study Johnson gets the dark tone, but I can imagine there were suits in the room that were uncomfortable with a story centered on a tragic figure. The Incredible Hulk was clearly intended to be a big green doozy of a series. It's one of the first comic book characters to move beyond conventions and present something much bigger and do so successfully.