❉ Jon Arnold on the not-so-jolly green giant’s TV movie trilogy, the first small steps towards a Marvel cinematic universe.
“These movies may be rough around the edges and show a comparative lack of budget but in context they’re a fascinating end to an era. CGI was a few short years away and the wonders of the imagination of Kirby, Ditko and Lee would soon be so easily realised that the fantastic would become mundane.”
The Incredible Hulk’s original run petered out with a lacklustre final season, cancelled by CBS’s Head of Programming who felt that the show had run its course. He had a point: although the show would occasionally toy with its formula in episodes such as Prometheus it fell victim to the fatal flaw of essentially making the same episode over and over: the mysterious stranger who becomes embroiled in the problem of the week and eventually solves it by getting angry and turning green.
It was complicated by one half of the leading man being distracted by tragic events in his personal life: Lou Ferrigno recalls Bill Bixby’s heart not being in the final episodes.
Durable ideas are rarely idle for long in television though, and the series returned after just six years off the air in a series of TV movies. These would prove to be a very different beast to the original series.
Although viewers might not have noticed the difference onscreen, with the recurring cast of Bixby, Ferrigno and Colvin all returning, attentive credit watchers would note the changes of production company and the lack of involvement of Kenneth Johnson, the creator and executive producer of the show. Instead Bixby, whose company was co-producing the TV Movie returning the Hulk to television, recruited Hulk veteran Nicholas Corea to write, direct and produce the film.
The most noticeable change is that Johnson’s disregard for superheroes is discarded, almost certainly down to Marvel’s then owners New World being partners in the venture. The Incredible Hulk Returns is the first small step on the road that would lead to superhero movies and, eventually The Avengers, as it introduces Thor to the Hulk’s world. The overt fantasy feels a little odd in the relatively realistic world of this Hulk, even with a compromised origin story which sees him as a mighty warrior king rather than an actual Norse God.
Although elements of Erik Allan Kramer’s performance presage Chris Hemsworth’s later version of the character (mainly the quaffing) to modern eyes used to CGI it’s painfully evident that it’s impossible to realise this character well on TV.
Ultimately it’s no shock that the proposed Thor spin off series was stillborn: he’s just not interesting enough, essentially being a frat boy version of Hulk with a more complicated, less affecting backstory. Otherwise it’s a serviceable return with Bixby, Ferrigno and Colvin slipping seamlessly back into their roles. Colvin’s best moments come in comic relief when an editor chews him out over the phone: sadly it would be the last we saw of McGee thanks to a mini stroke prompting Colvin’s retirement from acting.
Undeterred, New World would attempt a second comic book crossover with The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. This time the movie would not only draw an ally from the comic books it would take a villain from them too: the blind superhero Daredevil and outsize New York mob boss the Kingpin (John Rhys Davies playing it as Brian Blessed dressed as Marlon Brando). Aside from terrific Hulk moments on the subway and a dream sequence Hulk is really a green skinned maguffin here: a way to bring Daredevil to the screen.
Rex Smith is an appealing lead who sells both blind lawyer and costumed crimefighter, perhaps demonstrating that the Marvel characters who lent themselves to TV adaptations at this point weren’t the big names but the ones whose superpowers (and superpowered nemeses) weren’t quite as expensive to realise. Trial also starts one of the grand twenty-first century traditions with Stan Lee’s cameo as a member of a jury – sadly, he doesn’t get the wisecracks afforded him on the big screen.
The Death of the Incredible Hulk is a lesson in tempting fate: despite the clickbait title it wasn’t intended to be the final TV movie. After initial plans to feature Iron Man, the movie is more in the vein of the original series, with no superheroes and Banner caught up in a plot about terrorists stealing secrets from a government research lab.
As with The Incredible Hulk Returns, it holds the promise of a cure for Banner – is that the titular death? No, it’s not. The reason this is a strong ending for the series is in capturing the tragedy that’s always at the heart of the series: that no matter if he runs from his problems Banner can’t find happiness with the monster within always a fit of rage away.
There’s a lovely extended sequence where a last idyll, where he and his girlfriend of the week attempt to escape their problems by running away from it all but reality catches up with them. It’s a lovely last demonstration of the tragedy at the heart of the series that means Banner can only find one rest.
To readers of the comic books the way he finds rest might seem a little weak – it’s something that the Hulk of gamma bombs and three colours would shrug off, but it’s nevertheless a deeply affecting moment when the dying Hulk reverts back to Banner and allows Bixby one last moment, the realisation that as he dies he’s free. The FM rock which undercuts this is perhaps an error when Joseph Harnell’s Lonely Man theme, one of the most affecting themes in television, was available.
Still, it’s given to very few series to find such a definitive end, especially after recovering from a prior cancellation.
Just over a decade later Ang Lee’s Hulk movie would establish the Hulk as a movie regular (albeit lately as part of the Avengers franchise after the disappointing box office of his early movies), with the character being moved firmly away from melodrama and back to the world of comic books: an unstoppable force of destruction but who was somehow never quite as terrifying as Ferrigno had been in his prime.
Despite that, Kenneth Johnson, Bixby and Ferrigno inspired a legacy in the comic books themselves, with Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk taking the premise of the TV show (right down to the pursuing investigative reporter, although here it’s Jackie McGee, a young woman of colour rather than a hardbitten middle aged male) and turning it into a horror comic, with the Hulk more an angel of death than the force of rage who’d end up doing the right thing.
Ferrigno himself would be involved in the big screen Hulk by helping to create the Hulk’s roar, something he didn’t actually do in the original series.
These three movies may be rough around the edges and show a comparative lack of budget but in context they’re a fascinating end to an era. CGI was a few short years away and the wonders of the imagination of Kirby, Ditko and Lee would soon be so easily realised that the fantastic would become mundane, with superheroes becoming Hollywood’s bread and butter in the same way Westerns had been in the 50s and 60s.
The Incredible Hulk stands alone as a thoughtful, successful attempt to bring a superpowered character to a mundane reality and make it work, with an emotional resonance the cosmic battles of The Avengers can never quite have. In the end, a green-skinned monster can even break your heart.
❉ All three films are out now from Fabulous Films Ltd. as The Incredible Hulk Original Movie Collection (RRP £29.99) as well as being released individually as The Incredible Hulk Returns, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk and The Death of the Incredible Hulk (RRP £9.99 each).
❉ Jon Arnold is the author of three volumes of the Black Archive series and the forthcoming Silver Archive ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Surprise/Innocence’. He is also currently working on ‘Seasons of War: Corsair’.