Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Incredible Hulk S1 Ep3: Final Round

"Don't make me angry... You wouldn't like me when I'm angry." -Bill Bixby as David Banner with that classic, eternally memorable line from the Pilot that would underscore the theme of each week's opening-

One of the most impressive aspects of Kenneth Johnson's adaptation of the popular, ever-lovin' green-eyed thing that is The Hulk was just how distinctive his vision was for the reality-based character in The Incredible Hulk. The ascendancy of his television version of The Hulk was largely due to Johnson's attention to the human condition and the affect of variables on that condition within the real world. Most critics simply cannot separate the comic book from television. Instead of looking at the two vehicles as two entirely separate assessments on the character, critics have often discounted or derided the television series as something of an insignificant blip in the history of the hero. Others are more fair giving the series its due and noting its tremendous five season impact in the world of the live action superhero.

Put simply, The Incredible Hulk genuinely builds a television mythology around its hero grounded in a drifter's journey that is wholly unique from the world established in the comic book. While it seemed only logical to take such a tact away from the outlandish nature of a comic book that would never be feasible technically for TV, such an approach is no less significant. The show still proved an incredibly difficult undertaking for Kenneth Johnson from a psychological vantage point. The fact Johnson could establish a man and a creature in a fashion so convincing in this manner was no small feat and indeed a remarkable achievement. Certainly, Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno took those ideas to the next level.

Again, as everyone knows, The Incredible Hulk, the comic, was the creation of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Kirby took the inspiration from the classics, particularly the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and it coupled with a dose of Frankenstein. Part of my re-education on the subject came by way of Starlog Magazine #312 for purposes of specifics and a delightful article called The Historic Hulk by Will Murray. Marvel's The Incredible Hulk Encyclopedia [2003] is another terrific resource for all things Hulk including a segment on the classic Johnson TV series.

When it came to coloring the great creature, Lee knew he had to avoid orange thanks to ownership by the Fantastic Four's ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing. At first came the grey Hulk in its origins, revisited many years later to greater effect by Peter David and Todd McFarlane. Lee relented to the colorization of the Hulk as green, the creature we would come to know and love well.

Speaking to origins and alternate universes, like the one created for television by Johnson, the Hulk wasn't the product of a radioactive experiment as expressed in the television series or even the Ang Lee film, but rather the result of a nuclear test blast. The explosion of a Gamma bomb impacted the heroic Bruce Banner when he made efforts to save Rick Jones from the test zone. And of course, Johnson differentiated his Banner from the comic books, by dubbing Bill Bixby as David Bruce Banner instead of simply Bruce Banner. So change in any of the diverse, myriad Hulk forms was and is inevitable.

There have certainly been some significant and wonderful period runs within the Hulk 'verse. Herbe Trimpe [1968-1975] is renowned for his work on the book, though it was before my time. Later, as I mentioned, Peter David [1987-1998] had a huge run, while Bruce Jones [2002-2005] took the character to new, dark places. Both placed remarkable stamps on the mythology of the comic character. Of course my strongest recollection of the character came with the pencil magic of one Sal Buscema [1975-1985], brother of John, who really left an indelible image in my mind of the Hulk I loved from the comic books. Often I immediately recall Sal's work, which is why it was so disappointing to see his work derided in Starlog Magazine #312.

Writer Will Murray, who wrote a great piece overall in The Historic Hulk, wrote "The book slipped into a long period of coasting." His remark is more a denunciation of the writing than Sal's artwork, but somehow Sal overcame these shortcomings with his magnificent and brave portraits of ol' green skin. Murray wrote the character spiralled in quality. "The Hulk stagnated, battling a crazy conga line of bigger and badder monsters." Well, Murray isn't completely wrong, but as a child I adored Sal's interpretation not to mention that conga line of monsters. If anything Hulk was all about the next round of monster beat-downs. I was good with that. In fact, there was rarely a month that went by for a long period that I didn't run up to the local drug store for the latest issue of The Incredible Hulk. There was a revolving door of cool appearances too from The Man-Thing to the U-Foes. Classics like Sal were all about presenting the great tradition of comic books in the "Mighty Marvel Manner!" as they used to say. I'm not quite sure they still say that. It lacks a certain gritty and grim requirement for today's superheroes.

Anyway, after happening upon that terrific, but sobering, article in Starlog Magazine, it was refreshing to see Arnold T. Blumberg wax poetic on Sal in his coverage of the many phases of the Hulk's evolution in the Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. Blumberg declared Sal's work as the "definitive incarnation" for many. Though, Blumberg, too, notes the soft storytelling of Sal's tenure, he does credit Sal with overcoming those weaknesses through sheer artistic will. In fact, as wonderful as David and Jones' work is, and I discovered it much later, Buscema created images that have remained with me through the years. His Hulk gives me warm reminders of a simpler time, a less angst-filled period in comic books and he definitely captures the nostalgia factor with his wonderful artistry and craftsmanship of the character. Sal even took the character into a long run of another favorite series of the period in The Defenders. Ironically, Johnson's TV hero taps into the psychological aspect of the hero that was never fully mined in those early age comics.

Following that amazing run by Buscema, John Byrne took the reins for a short stint, but left rather abruptly and his handle on the character never generated more than a few strong issues notably of course the wedding of Bruce Banner.

Further, I would be remiss if I didn't mention an affection for Todd McFarlane's steady and beautiful work on the character during those Peter David years. Dale Keown's efforts, too, are notable.

Did you know Harlan Ellison wrote a story for the Hulk comic book called The Brute That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The Atom [The Incredible Hulk #140], based on his own collection The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World [1969] featuring one story, the classic A Boy And His Dog? It's a crazy world.

As a child I loved the comic book, but I also loved the show and for good reason the two never really felt completely connected. The show, while reality-based, was a lot like an alternate universe. Today, I've lost touch with the comic book, despite a handful of wonderful classic books that I still retain, but like the comic book the show still entertains me and remains a distinctive creation with a visionary lead by Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner. Bixby absolutely delivers a psychological component in his flesh and blood creation that immerses us into a character that wasn't always on the mind of the comic book or the inevitable films in the same detail.

Clearly, the comic books, thankfully, were able to take fantastic liberties, and did so far more successfully than Ang Lee's The Hulk [2003], which attempts a movie version of the comic book more than a successfully engaging plotline.

The fact was those involved with the TV show knew there was no way to compete with the unlimited imaginations of a comic book and Johnson knew he needed to sell it to a mature audience looking for more than endless, raging Hulk action. There had to be psychological weight and complexity to the character to sustain the series' evolution so that viewers could relate. Johnson told Sean Egan in SFX #206 in April 2011, "I just wanted to do something that would belie the comic book origins and take us into the real world as much as one can possibly do." Johnson crushed it with The Incredible Hulk. What Johnson tapped into from the pages of the comic book for the realities of television was the outcast underpinnings of the comic book character as well as the deeper pathos of the Banner character. The comic book got it right many times over the course of its ongoing run, but Johnson's TV series got it right too, and in television terms smashed through a wall of limited expectations. Five seasons, after all, is like an eternity in television.

So nearly four months after the appearance of the two Hulk pilot films, The Incredible Hulk and Death In The Family, Kenneth Johnson returned behind the writing chores for the series official debut with The Incredible Hulk, Season One, Episode 3, Final Round. Johnson would not return again until Episode 9, the oft-maligned Never Give A Trucker An Even Break.

Of course, with the third entry of The Incredible Hulk the series finally settles on its opening theme each week as narrated by the late, great Ted Cassidy.

The opening minutes of the episode sees star Bill Bixby as David Banner fronting as David Benson attacked by two thugs, but instead of transitioning into a startling metamorphoses he is saved by Henry "Rocky" Welsh who just happens to be a professional boxer.

According to Starlog Magazine #312 and an article by Mark Phillips, Hulk-out, "There were two Hulk transformations per episode." We'll see if the math adds up going forward and note the reasons for the Hulk transformation. Truthfully, for this fan of Johnson's psychological drama, two is more than sufficient. Bring on the frailty and subtext of the human condition. Enter one Bill Bixby for the job.

Welsh invites Benson to stay at his home for a few days. The offer of accommodations by strangers to Banner is a recurring theme. Strangers simply cannot resist the honest and kind face of Bill Bixby and often welcome Banner in their home. Can you imagine that happening today?

Welsh lands Banner work at the boxing gym he frequents. Welsh really hopes to be a "winner" someday. The Olympic's owner has a delivery to be made that Rocky always handles. Banner catches wind of it and challenges the owner. The owner overhears Banner and tells him to mind his own.

Of course, Banner is a good man and simply can't sit things out. His principles are strong and thus he is the lonely journeyman as a result.

Banner meets Rocky's girldfriend, Mary, and they talk quietly. Fast friends he's giving her a farewell kiss by episode's end. That Banner is a smooth operator. Banner suspects the owner might be "shady." He tells Banner to get back to work.

En route home Rocky and Banner are jumped for a back alley scrub. Of course you know what that means. Here comes the Hulk! Fortunately, as a result of the scuffle, Rocky drops his package. It turns out to be heroin. Rocky is an unknowing drug runner. He's known about the ring as a "sweet" guy, but not a boxer, but he does serve the owner a purpose.

Rocky is a good person, but not the brightest bulb on the planet as Rocky assures the boss he won't go to the authorities. After all, Rocky likes the gym and he's got big dreams. The boss plays into Rocky's desires and promises him a big match later that night confirming he's prepared to keep Rocky quiet.

In the gym, Banner stops Rocky and asks him if he actually saw what he was transporting, but Rocky just doesn't want to acknowledge the reality of the situation. The Incredible Hulk's Final Round is about choices. It's about the choices we must make and the realities we must face.

As much as Banner, played with just the right touch by Bixby, knows Rocky needs to act, there's something inside Banner that understands Rocky's desire to achieve a dream. Banner sees that light and that spark in his eyes and simply cannot take that away from him, because Banner knows what it means to dream. Whether it was the dream to have the strength to save someone he loved or to one day cure himself of that which haunts him, Banner is sympathetic to Rocky's heart.

Reporter Jack McGee makes an appearance because whenever the Hulk appears McGee is never far behind.

Rocky's girlfriend can't understand why the gym owner would allow Rocky to fight a killer like opponent Bill Cole. Rocky is quite simply not rocky. Banner suspects a set up by the owner to knock out and knock off Rocky.

The owner actually plans to drug Rocky and force induce a heart attack. Banner overhears the plan and breaks into the owner's office. He's discovered and Banner is knocked unconscious. No chance for anger there.

Banner is placed inside a metal cage, gagged and hoisted high above the boxing ring. Somehow it doesn't seem like the smartest plan.

One of the lackeys drugs Rocky's water bottle. The boxing match begins between Cole and Rocky. The Hulk's version of Rocky Balboa is also an underdog and his chances look grim. With Rocky's blood pressure rising as he enters round 2, Banner struggles to break free and is enraged by his inability to intervene and save Rocky. Enter the Hulk!

The Hulk closes down the show. The creature once again saves the day by preventing Rocky's death.

"It can't always be like in the movies. Not everybody can be a Rocky." It's back to the lonely road for Banner. And as one reflects back on Banner's short stay, you begin to realize his impact and that of the Hulk's generally positive influence on those he encounters. Banner is making a difference in people's lives one town at a time.

Final Round may be The Incredible Hulk meets Rocky, but Rocky it's not. By today's standards the story is relatively simple, straightforward and does plug into formula to a degree. Still, like artist Sal Buscema in those classic comic books, Bill Bixby's performance elevates the material with his every opportunity and for those moments alone, Final Round is a decent return to the ring for a series kickoff, but a knock out, it's definitely not.

Final Round: C+. Writer: Kenneth Johnson. Director: Kenneth Gilbert.

Hulk Transformation Reason #1: Back alley beat down by thugs. Bastards!

Hulk Transformation Reason #2: Gagged, bound and unable to break free. Bastards!


Walter said...

An amazing piece on the Hulk, both this episode and the history of the character.
Excellent stuff.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thank you for saying so Walter. Glad to have you on board here. I appreciate the support. Thank you so much.