Test Pilot #46: The Incredible Hulk
Debut date: November 4, 1977
Series legacy: A generally well-regarded adaptation
Welcome friends, to the second Test Pilot Special Theme Week. We had such great success with the week devoted to Joss Whedon-produced series back at the first of the year that I thought it would be fun to take another stab at it.
Every day this week, a guest and I will take on a famous (or in a few cases, infamous) pilot focused on a famous comic book superhero. These characters have become massive properties in the film industry over the last 20 years (especially the last 10-12), driving many of the highest-grossing movies of all-time. This summer season kicked off with Whedon’s Avengers, perhaps the most anticipated film in the genre and one that succeeded all expectations. New Batman and Spider-Man films are soon to come. Superheroes are big business for film.
But on television? Geesh. Networks have attempted televised adaptations of popular superhero characters for decades, but most of them have failed, commercially, creatively or (in most cases) both. This theme will take a look at some of the high-profile attempts to make superheroes fly on the small screen and consider what worked and what did not.*
*Our discussions will focus solely on live-action superhero series. It is important to note that animated series centered on comic book heroes have thrived for years, and continue to do so. Surely there is more to the varying successes than simply visual effects and budgets, right?
Today, we move forward in time to one of the other relatively successful adaptations of yesteryear: 1977’s The Incredible Hulk. The Hulk character is a bit of an oddity as far as adaptations go. In the last nine years, we have seen three different interpretations of the character, portrayed by three different fairly high-profile actors in three different films. Most would say that Avengers was the first film to really “get” the character, while the response to 2003’s Hulk and 2008’s Incredible Hulk were decidedly mixed. And yet, the televised story of David Bruce Banner and his big green alter-ego lasted for a healthy five seasons and later three made-for-TV movies (and more likely would have been made had Bill Bixby not died of cancer). My guest and I will try to discuss why this is, if we can.
Speaking of my guest, joining me today is Cameron White. Cameron is a freelance blogger/writer who hasn’t shut up about how great television is since he first saw Firefly in 2007. Currently a student at the University of Central Arkansas, he is preparing to tackle a creative writing major before finally making a pilgrimage back to his hometown of Las Vegas, NV. He writes about television at Wayward TV and is accessible on Twitter, of course. Cameron, take it away:
At first glance, adapting an on-going comic book series to television should be an easy feat. Both media are serialized forms, requiring lead-time to produce individual slices of content (a single issue of a comic book, a single episode of television). Both lean more on developing strong character than on building complex plots or narratives. But television is much more expensive to make than comic books, where anything the writer imagines can be drawn and brought to life by a single artist. And television shows are driven by much more than just the vision of a writer, artist, and editor, which can make them complicated labyrinths of contract disputes and feuds both on-set and in the writer’s room.
The biggest problem, one that faces any adaptation from one medium to another, is the expectations of the audience. Some people might like watching a ten-season origin story for Superman; others might be let down by the distinct lack of costumes and supervillains. On the other hand, leaning too much on literally adapting the material begets the Watchmen film, which is undoubtedly faithful to the source material but also really tedious to watch for extended periods of time. The key to adaptation is to find a solid hook, either character or story, and expand that hook by using the tricks of the second medium available.
The Hulk has historically been one of the more difficult characters to adapt from the comics. This probably shouldn’t be the case: the Hulk’s character – Bruce Banner, a mild-mannered scientist who accidentally gets zapped by a fuckton of gamma rays and thus turns into a giant green monstrous form of himself whenever he gets angry – is equally as compelling as, say, Iron Man, who is also a scientist that goes through a transformation process of sorts. The problem lies in the superhero aspect of his character. Too often, the character of “Bruce Banner” gets lost in the desire for people to write to the Hulk, and the nature of anger. That can work, but it’s often hit-or-miss. What makes Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno the definitive iterations of the Hulk, the one that future generations have tried and failed to aspire while citing this show as an influence, is this: the Hulk is defined as much by loss as he is by anger.
The loss in The Incredible Hulk starts as personal. The first four minutes of the pilot are wordless scenes, a montage of a happy couple (David Banner and his wife Laura) that turns tragic. A car accident flips their car upside down in a grassy field, and David is unable to save Laura. The dream-like sequence finally ends when Banner wakes up, and in that moment, the message is clear: he’s haunted by his failure and the subsequent loss of a woman he loved. It’s an opening comparable to Disney/Pixar’s Up, which in the first 10 minutes walk through the courtship, marriage, and long life of two people in love, before the main character’s wife dies and he himself falls into disrepair.
David Banner is also a man in disrepair. The origin story blurb in the Hulk comics describes Bruce Banner as “mild-mannered”; David Banner is anything but mild. His lab partner-slash-romantic interest Elaina questions whether he’s being scientifically objective about his research (the study of the effects of adrenaline on human strength, conducted by interviewing people who have performed feats of superhuman strength to survive in times of dire need) or if he’s “emotionally compromised” to borrow a phrase from Star Trek. This is the key to treating Banner as a human being as opposed to the puny human attached to the Hulk. In The Avengers film, Banner’s secret to keeping the Hulk under his control is that, “[he’s] always angry.” In other words, he’s accepted anger as a part of himself, not a giant green monster to be wrestled into submission. This sentiment is built into the pilot of the show as well. David Banner is curious about what the effects of his experiment with the gamma radiation that causes his transformation; later, when the X-ray experiment to reverse the gamma radiation fails, there’s a sense that removing the Hulk permanently is no longer an option.
David Banner’s journey in the TV series, then, is not about accepting anger; it’s about accepting loss. When he realizes that the Hulk is triggered by anger, he says, “That means it’s uncontrollable!” But what he’s really reacting to is the feeling he has that he has lost control of his emotions. It’s no accident that this is connected to, well, accidents. There’s the car accident that killed Laura, and there’s Mrs. Maier’s accident that triggers his emotional response to Laura’s death. There’s the popped tire that triggers the first transformation into the Hulk, and there’s the series of accidents that converge in the fiery explosion of the lab where David and Elaina were working.
The end of the pilot, then, is quite interesting. David lets everyone assume that he perished in the fire, along with Elaina (whom he couldn’t save despite being the Hulk – a powerful iteration of Spider-Man’s greatest lesson, when poor Peter Parker failed to save Gwen Stacey from falling to her death). The pilot begins with his wife dead, and by the end, he accepts this fact by dying himself. Except he doesn’t die, of course – no, Jack McGee the reporter makes sure David can never stick around his hometown, lest the “other guy” be seen again by more civilians. As he walks away from his gravestone, the “Lonely Man Theme” – the sad piano music forever associated with this show and its main character’s journey – begins to play. “Dying” doesn’t quite give Banner the full peace of mind he needs, but it is a good first step, one that, along with the show’s established episodic stories of Banner and Hulk trying to help people in different towns across the country, is how Kenneth Johnson and CBS made a seemingly unusual character design into the mythical unicorn known as a TV series.
Why is the simple fact of loss so absent from other adaptations of the character, then? All of them have no qualms with paying lip service to this show: a shallow quoting of the pilot’s most famous line here (“Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry!”), a character name or story arc there. But referencing the work doesn’t mean understanding the work. All Hulk stories feature the character on the run, nearly all of them featuring the U.S. military considering him a national or international threat (the famous Colonel “Thunderbolt” Ross often shows up in these iterations). All Hulk stories feature the character isolated or seeking isolation at some point. All of them cover the angles on the subject of anger. None of them, not a single one, has the guts to take on the subject of loss. In the Edward Norton Hulk film, Betty lives, while Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk film is more about the clash between Banner father and son.
Part of the problem lies in the perception of comic books in pop culture. Most of the other adaptations of the character lean heavily into that perception – “Hulk smash” is pop culture shorthand for a severe outburst of anger for a reason. The TV series, on the other hand, pulls away from such perceptions, fearing that the audiences would not come to watch the show if it laid its comic book heart on its sleeve. Banner’s first name was changed to “David” specifically to get away from Stan Lee’s trademark use of alliteration. Kenneth Johnson wanted to use red for the Hulk instead of green, as red is the color associated with rage according to Western color psychology (but seeing as this is a stupid-ass idea, Stan Lee elected to ignore it, and the Hulk remained green for the series).
Most importantly, the TV series features a road-trip storytelling structure that allowed them to tell stories using just three main characters: Banner, the Hulk as played by Lou Ferrigno, and Jack McGee, the Jiminy Cricket to Banner’s Pinocchio. This goes in direct contrast to the other adaptations, which at least try to weave one or two of the recurring comics characters into the story (again, “Thunderbolt” Ross is a relentless man, and pop culture just loves recycling him).
But that storytelling structure also speaks to the second main problem other adaptations of the character have: scope. A TV series is expensive, especially one requiring as much make-up and special effects as the Hulk, so operating on a smaller scope is crucial to financial success. Films, meanwhile, are made to be big, because they’re shown on big screens with big speakers in big theaters all over the world. Animated shows are closer to comics in that if you can dream it, you can draw it – and at the time of the 1996-97 Hulk animated series, these “cartoons” would still be viewed as the primary entertainment for kids. So all of these other adaptations simply run away with their imaginations (and that goes double for the 2008 film, as Edward Norton basically swamped it with his own vision of the character, with mixed results) while the TV series sought the humanity of the character and downplayed the “comic book-esque” nature of the source.
In The Avengers, the Hulk doesn’t emerge until about two-thirds into the film, and he was induced by a manipulation of Loki in order to wreak havoc on the team (and, Nick Fury’s helicarrier). The moment that Banner himself brings out “the other guy” in the epic final battle is a moment frequently cited as “the entire theater exploded into cheers and screaming.” It’s a heroic moment, but it wouldn’t have worked if the film hadn’t spent so much time with the man underneath. The Hulk just doesn’t work if the audience cares little for Bruce Banner. Joss Whedon understood this, and so there’s the scene with Black Widow in Calcutta, where his attempts to help people are sabotaged by a military force once again; there’s his humorous quips about how S.H.I.E.L.D. wants him in a submerged pressurized container before seeing what the helicarrier really is and noting, “Oh no, this is MUCH worse!” There’s the scene after his fall from the helicarrier, with another person who’s seen him as the Hulk: “big and green and buck-ass naked.” And of course, there’s the revelation of Banner’s biggest secret, of how he has learned to control the Hulk by accepting him as a part of the man called Bruce Banner.
TV’s David Banner is the starting point of all that. The journey from accepting anger at the beginning to accepting loss at the end is the first step towards the Hulk on display in The Avengers. And even though the TV series downplays its origins, the show is still about a guy who transforms into a big, green monster. So the show makes sure that when the Hulk roars, it’s not just about rage for the sake of rage. With that simple notion, the series entered pop culture canon as the de facto best adaptation of the Incredible Hulk. He became the superhero that defied audience expectations.
Thanks for the fantastic thoughts Cameron. And now my thoughts on the opening episode of The Incredible Hulk:
Expectations and inter/paratextual knowledge can be a bitch sometimes. As you know, adaptations of characters and stories a certain chunk of the audience is already familiar with face an uphill battle. If you know the story already, you want certain things and prefer the new version to ignore other things. This is a simple concept that we all understand.
What is both curious and frustrating about the opening episode of The Incredible Hulk is attempts to subvert fan expectations or knowledge about the lead character’s origins, but in doing so, the pilot basically takes the long way around to depicting the same kind of beats anyone familiar with The Hulk would assume it to. Worst of all, I use “anyone familiar with The Hulk” as loosely as possible.
I know next to nothing about The Hulk as a comic book character. What I could tell you fits two, maybe three sentences. And everything I already knew is more or less on display here. Kenneth Johnson’s script tries so hard to go outside the boundaries of a typical (or what has grown into a typical) Hulk story, which makes it all the more frustrating when it really does not actually do so. This pilot is, save a few changes, the Hulk origin story you know, only stretched out across 93 fairly anguishing minutes. That is almost longer than the Edward Norton film version of the story that dealt with quasi-origins in its opening sequence.
I completely understand the reasoning behind doing the origin story, especially in a television series. Daglas and I talked about this in a bit when chatting about Batman, but it makes sense: Television gives writers a wider canvas to paint on and develop a story. And I guess I could give Johnson and Incredible Hulk credit for not stretching out the reveal of the actual Hulk or Banner’s realization of its existence into the season one finale. I could totally see that happening if the Hulk was brought to television in 2012.
Nevertheless, there are a handful of beats we know have to happen at the beginning of a Hulk story: Science experiment gone wrong, something something Gamma Ray, Banner discovers his other half and then begins to learn to work it into his “normal” life. The Incredible Hulk hits all those and makes a great deal of effort trying to add substance in between those beats, but goodnight, this pilot is just too slow.
I really appreciate Cameron’s analysis of this pilot and the depth at which he claims is present within the David Banner character. But…I’m not sure that I actually see all that complexity within the pilot itself, or at best, that complexity gets overshadowed by some stilted dialogue and static blocking that result in scenes droning on and on as if Johnson was trying to pad out the running time to meet a pre-determined length.
There are good elements in place here, don’t get me wrong. As Cameron noted, the focus on loss is worthwhile. It was a bit surprising to see that within 93 minutes and approximately a year of story time, Bill loses the two women he loves and has to fake his own death. This pilot is clearly nothing like the bright, campy fun of Batman 1966. And Bill Bixby is very, very good at portraying the inherent sadness and loneliness of David Banner. I would guess that subsequent episodes, divorced from the plodding nature of Banner’s initial self-discovery and self-examination here, work much better. This pilot is defined by the 20 great minutes bookending a whole lot of frustrating stuffing in the middle, but those disappointing 70 minutes still exist.
Though I think this pilot is plodding beyond belief, there is no question that some of the issues in this origin story-focused effort are inherent to the Hulk character. Ang Lee’s 2003 film was origin-heavy as well, and struggled because of it (among other reasons). The Norton film skipped over much of the typical origin rhythms and was ultimately the more enjoyable product. A big part of the problem with the Hulk is that his beginnings are A.) straightforward and B.) a bit boring.
More problematic is that it is easy for the comic books to present a smorgasbord of HULK SMASH panels, but that approach does not translate to the small (or even big) screen in the same way. Hulk is a visual spectacle, but a trap of a character: Most people do not care about the human form and would rather see him/it do things that are not practical on television.
Cameron makes a great point about why The Avengers and this pilot get the character right: they focus on Banner – and in a complex fashion. The only way to make a Hulk story work is to give the audience a palpable reason to invest in Banner. The Incredible Hulk goes to great lengths to get us there, and does at times, but flounders much of that goodwill away as well.
I have been trying to think about what The Incredible Hulk tells us about television adaptations of comic book superhero stories. We know that Batman 1966 tells us that there is space for different approaches, just as I’m guessing entries later in the week might tell us that there is such a thing as going too far away from expectations. But Hulk falls somewhere in the middle. The changes made here are theoretically valuable, but poorly executed or masked by even more troublesome portions. In a lot of ways, this feels like the best possible way to start a Hulk television series, despite all the issues. And so maybe that is what The Incredible Hulk tells us: Some characters just aren’t that interesting, or at least don’t have worthwhile origins, no matter how deep you dig.
Conclusions on legacy: Deeper than expected look at a problematic character