[12 June 2008]
David Banner is as sweet and gentle and non-threatening a milquetoast protagonist as you’ll ever find on television. This makes the contrast between Banner and his growling, grunting alter-ego all the more startling, sure, but it also frames the entire maligned and celebrated The Incredible Hulk series in a strange sort of Susan Faludi’s Backlash context wherein Banner, sexless despite Bill Bixby’s unsettling corduroy bulge, seems to have willingly neutered himself in order to better accommodate and navigate a post-Women’s Lib world.
Clearly, though, Banner’s surface enlightenment is just that; he is kind and caring not because of any personal growth or natural femininity, but rather because of his ongoing efforts at suppression. But at the slightest provocation, he unleashes the drunken, destructive ID that lurks in every man. Apparently, it is not envy that is green, but rather a sense of entitlement… though to be fair, Banner’s hardly out of line in feeling entitled to walk down the street without being, to cite a random example, chained to a truck by the henchmen of a Voodoo Latina.
Evil witch doctor ladies notwithstanding, women are seldom the cause of Banner’s scary tantrums. That honor falls pretty much invariably to Banner’s fellow men, albeit less evolved men who have yet to adapt to a feminist world. These men remain abrasive and brash, ultimately suggesting that the mother’s advice to simply ignore the bully will never feel as good as fighting back.
Indeed, it can never be a woman who pushes Banner’s Hulk button, for Banner is inevitably working to save his (usually platonic) Woman of the Week, not in the manner of a knight in shining armor, but rather in the manner of an awkward, too-kind-for-his-own-good teen boy who’s always there for the aloof and elusive girl he loves, but who will never know her love because he’s not cool or handsome or—dangerous – enough for her.
Or perhaps I’m projecting.
Whatever the case, the third and fourth seasons of The Incredible Hulk have arrived on DVD (synergy!), and if the two collections offer us nothing else, they give us Lou Ferrigno as an absolute wonder of adolescent power fantasy and clumsily defiant re-masculation, all wrapped up in a bad wig and green tights (in close-ups, you can actually see the seam crossing his toeless foot.) But even his raging Hulk poses no real threat; the worst he does to a given antagonist is pose menacingly at him for a minute, or maybe throw him across the room or something. Certainly this Hulk never punches people; at worst, he might crush an inanimate object. Edward Norton’s computer-generated Putty Monster, by contrast, kicks a brash soldier across a field in the trailer for the latest Incredible Hulk movie.
The Hulk’s apparent reluctance to reduce Bad Types to puddles of roadkill ostensibly proves Banner’s overriding gentleness, but in reality all it shows us is the extent to which a literal-minded Hollywood was walking on eggshells in the 1970s.
Today, in a decidedly more daring, willing-to-offend television landscape, The Incredible Hulk would be a very different show. Banner would be an edgy, subtly taunting hothead, and his first name would once again be Bruce (in the ‘70s Universal demanded the change to “David” because “Bruce” was deemed “too gay”), and the whole enterprise would reek of knowing irony and postmodern posturing and clumsy, distracting tantrums of bad CGI. Today, The Incredible Hulk show would be like Lost if its only characters were Sawyer and the smoke monster.
Thankfully, there is of course nary a trace of CGI in the Bixby/Ferrigno Hulkverse. And what does it say about Hollywood’s CGI tunnel vision that a bodybuilder in green make-up remains, 30 years later, the most resonant Hulk to grace a screen?
Now, having said that, my nostalgic affection for the Incredible Hulk television series is not so powerful that I can’t spot its many comical flaws (glacial pacing, ridiculously contrived and formulaic plots, painful acting on the part of guest stars), but it is powerful enough that I find the cheesy, dated beginning sequence quietly haunting (in my defense, I was only three years old when the show was first broadcast.)
And now, looking to distance themselves from Ang Lee’s pretentious yet stupid Hulk from 2003 (daddy issues and atomic Hulk dogs: together at last!), Universal is clearly targeting aging nerds like me with their ad campaign for the troubled franchise’s cinematic reboot; in its ubiquitous promotional poster, a denim jacket-clad Edward Norton stares sadly at his feet with a knapsack over his shoulder. One can almost hear the faint strains of “The Lonely Man Theme”.
For its first 60 seconds or so, the film’s teaser trailer is similarly inviting, but then the Stay Puft Hulk and the even sillier-looking Abomination appear and the trailer devolves into the usual stupidhero stereotype nonsense we’ve come to expect (and which Norton reportedly fought to prevent.) I am reminded of my friend Kit’s complaint about the ending of Iron Man: “Imagine if Unbreakable had ended with Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis climbing into robot suits and soaring through the sky.”
Honestly, who can’t see that Tony Stark would have made for a more compelling movie than Iron Man? More to the point, who would dare deny that Bruce Banner would be ten times the movie that The Incredible Hulk is shaping up to be?
Meanwhile, these DVD collections practically are more of a Bruce Banner Show (or David Banner Show, rather); The Hulk makes an average of two brief appearances per episode (and keep in mind that there were fewer commercials 30 years ago; each episode is approximately 48 minutes long, versus the more typical 42 minutes of today’s “hour-long” dramas.) And sadly, Season Three gets off to the rockiest start possible: “Metamorphosis” stars Mackenzie Phillips as a KISS reject named Lisa Swan who wants to sing folksy, earnest ballads but who is pressured by her sister/manager into engaging in increasingly gimmicky and dangerous stage theatrics involving electricity. (Her band’s name? “Shock”. Hoo boy.)
However, all is forgiven when a bitter producer slips LSD in Banner’s orange juice, triggering arguably the strangest Hulk-out scene ever. I say “arguably” ‘cause this is, at its heart, a pretty weird show; see Kenneth Johnson and Kevin Koster’s painfully funny (if not as thorough as advertised) list of reasons Banner “Hulked Out” throughout the series.
Better by far is Season Four’s two-parter, “The First” (vague memories of which troubled me for two decades), wherein Banner runs afoul of a man who’d transformed into a Hulk years before Banner’s curse began; when said First Hulk destroys Banner’s only hope for a cure, Banner is reduced to helpless tears, which remain on his cheeks even after he has changed into The Hulk. More effective than it perhaps deserves to be, this scene represents the most devastating moment in a reliably depressing series.
And for all the show’s faults, it really does have a lot of heart. Bixby is especially endearing as the hapless but determined David Banner. He might strike today’s more discerning viewer as toothless and dishwater dull, but such is Bixby’s sweetness that the character’s over-the-top wholesomeness feels almost earned. And Ferrigno, for all the Hulk’s useless, impotent shows of strength, is still terrifying, in his way (it’s easy to dismiss this Hulk with a laugh, but imagine how it would feel to have him angrily approaching you in your house late at night. Brr.)
It is 2008, and I am 31-years-old, and I have just spent a frankly unhealthy amount of time ingesting more than 40 somewhat interchangeable episodes of a dated TV show with uneven production values and almost magically bad acting, and yet I maintain that what I’ve just watched remains the greatest and most arresting onscreen representation of the Incredible Hulk character. Whether this will still be the case after I’ve seen Edward Norton’s new film remains to be seen, but while the TV show’s championship status owes as much to Ang Lee’s film’s crappiness as to its own strengths, it’s still nice to see the show getting some love on DVD, even if it is just in an effort to cash in on the film.
One cannot in good conscience recommend these DVD collections to anyone not already familiar and enamored with the series, but to anyone who thrilled to Ferrigno’s low-budget exploits in the ‘70s, these 40-plus, wildly uneven episodes are a fascinating time capsule and, if youʼll indulge a critique as simultaneously pretentious and stupid as Ang Leeʼs atomic Hulk dog-infested movie, itʼs also a surreal and intriguing extended metaphor for manʼs clumsy, half-assed attempt to embrace womanʼs changing role in the world.
Or perhaps I am simply projecting.