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The Reluctant Superhero: Marvel TV in the '70s

Thomas Lalli Foster
Nicholas Hammond's reluctant Spider-Man

Before the rise of the MCU, Marvel attempted to bring some of its most famous superheroes to television.

Superheroes, Restrained

They were, however, stuck within the narrow restrictions of network television in the '70s, such as:

The hero is always heroic. The unintentional result here is to render Banner a busybody. A physician in his former life, he's not even diplomatic about his interference. Then again, why shouldn't he play know-it-all when the Hulk is lurking to protect him?

TV should teach moral lessons but never offend anyone. A corollary to the first rule, this is deadly to drama: in a sitcom, you can at least have an Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor, All in the Family) or a Ted Baxter (Ted Knight, The Mary Tyler Moore Show), as long as the joke's on him, but on The Incredible Hulk, the morality is so simplistic, it's painful (or laughable). Banner never does wrong, and the Hulk acts instinctively, so the central character never faces real moral decisions. This construction breeds hypocrisy, as in "Killer Instinct", which offers performance-enhanced football violence with a frown.

Every episode ends by resetting the series. At the time, the vast majority of viewers didn't watch every episode of a series, so Hollywood TV avoided serialized elements (this nervousness survives in shows that begin with "previously on" recaps). Every Incredible Hulk episode ends with Banner walking out of town to the pathetic strains of Joe Harnell's "The Lonely Man".

If you must do sci-fi, stick to mad scientists and their creations. Hammer remade the Universal monsters in the '60s; in the '70s, it was US television’s turn (on the Universal backlot, no less). As with other media, TV embraced the myth of the cyclic character, with versions of Jekyll and Hyde (Jack Palance, Kirk Douglas), Mr. Spock's (Leonard Nimoy) pon farr, or Gemini Man, who can stay invisible for only 15 minutes.]

That being said, the fan-favorite Incredible Hulk episodes include the sturdy pilot movie, the most-dangerous-game riff "The Snare", and several in which the Hulk flirts with evil, including "The Beast Within" and "Dark Side". Fans also remember the high-concept two-parters "The First" (Hulk vs. his evil counterpart) and "Prometheus" (Hulk captured for military research); neither holds up, although they'd make good remake fodder. A revived series could explore motivations: should David be "cured"? Does he really want a cure? Perhaps he'd rather research time-travel, now that he has the strength to save his wife. David's loves have a high mortality rate; is he literally cursed?

The cast roster remains the show's enduring quality. Cameron Mitchell carries the moody noir homage "Goodbye, Eddie Cain". In "Interview with the Hulk", reporter Michael Conrad vies with McGee and commiserates with Banner. Sally Kirkland plays the abused mother of an abused child in the still impressive "A Child in Need". Despite portraying the violent father as merely sick (Banner: "he's not a criminal"), the show implicitly admits that in the anonymous suburbs, this family needs a miracle (like the Hulk).

Bixby is also reunited with past co-stars in "747" (Brandon Cruz of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and "My Favorite Magician" (Ray Walston of My Favorite Martian). "Kindred Spirits" features a young Kim Cattrall, still a little nervous on-screen. Gerald McRaney is fine in the atmospheric "Deathmask", but filming a slasher movie for family hour caused network anxiety; the episode tips its hand in the first scenes. Mackenzie Phillips is compelling as a troubled rocker in the otherwise-ridiculous "Metamorphosis". Television rock bands generally had limited repertoires: Lisa Swan and band launch into their "Necktie Nightmare" in three different scenes ("He's a walking stucco wall, he's the shadow beneath your sink").

As an American gothic, The Incredible Hulk loved ill-fated romances, including Susan Sullivan (the pilot film), Mariette Hartley (the two-hour "Married"), Kathryn Leigh Scott of Dark Shadows ("A Solitary Place"), and Andrea Marcovicci ("Triangle"). Typically, Banner meets a female scientist whose research overlaps his own. They fall in love and share fantasies of a cure and life together, but given that rule about resetting the narrative, she'll be lucky to get out alive.

Lou Ferrigno's Incredible Hulk always seems confused

Bixby's turn on My Favorite Martian (1963-66) was an early indication that he had the essential quality of a sci-fi lead: a credible fascination for the incredible. In addition to the obvious examples, this fraternity includes James Mason, Robert Culp, Louise Fletcher, Jodie Foster, Joe Morton, Jennifer Connolly, and Angela Bassett. Throughout the decades, reviewers would praise the show's "intelligence" and "adult themes", but they were responding partly to the innate goodness of both leads: Bixby and Ferrigno managed to ground a show featuring sudden cameos by a green, half-naked bodybuilder in bushy wig and eyebrows (and due to restrictions on TV violence, the Hulk mostly strikes poses and smashes props). The two became heroes to a generation: sci-fi royalty. When Hollywood needed to make up for Ang Lee's sulky Hulk (2003), they stuck closer to the TV series for The Incredible Hulk (2008) with Edward Norton, who earlier met his aggressive alter ego in Fincher’s Fight Club).

Like Wonder Woman, the Hulk has been tough-to-package for the current superhero rally (Banner's been played by three actors in this century: Eric Bana, Norton, and Mark Ruffalo). Maybe it's because both superheroes critique society as they protect it, challenging the image of heroes as white-male-rational: if the Hulk is good, it's because he shares Banner's good heart.

Marvel's neurotic mutants demanded a deft treatment that '70s primetime television was incapable of, but as with ABC's bionic shows, the CBS series had a cultural impact beyond these considerations of quality, even allowing for the pre-existing comic-book version. The Hulk is a frequent metaphor for rage, and often name-checked in hip-hop. The rapper known for "Get Like Me" (featuring Chris Brown and Yung Joc) goes by David Banner in homage to the TV character. The Hulk also casts his bulging shadow on professional wrestling, artificial soldiers like The Terminator, shape-shifting characters such as Odo (Rene Auberjonois) of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and the rage virus of 28 Days Later. Star Trek: The Next Generation launched in 1987 with new menace the Ferengi, the name seemingly a twist on "Ferrigno". The unflappable Barack Obama had us thinking Hulk: Dwayne Johnson played "The Rock-Obama" when he hosted Saturday Night Live in 2009, and sketch series Key & Peele echoed with Obama's "anger translator", Luther, who debuted in 2012, and even appeared with President Obama at the 2015 White House Correspondent's Dinner.

Banner's curse isn't that he lost his wife, it's that he accepted neither that tragedy nor his own fallibility. Still, being cursed wasn't such a bad thing on Cold War-era TV, nor was poverty (The Waltons, The Rockford Files); paying a debt to society (The Mod Squad, Welcome Back Kotter); fleeing the authorities (Logan’s Run, The A-Team); or some combination thereof (M*A*S*H, Kung Fu). These particular burdens allowed a cyclic story; thus, the viewer could drop in anytime, knowing nothing had changed. Today's television still likes arrested characters, but we've accepted that anti-heroes hold up to repetition better than heroes, even superheroes.

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