David Banner carries the weight of post-Vietnam guilt.

The Reluctant Superhero: The Guilty Walk of David Banner

The Incredible Hulk offered a number of metaphors for both post-war guilt and issues of white masculinity.

Although sci-fi’s TV hits of the ’70s aimed at escapism, their political aspects can’t help but reflect the times. Just a few years after America’s “best and brightest” overreached with the Vietnam War and (so-called) urban renewal, both The Six Million Dollar Man (and spin-off The Bionic Woman) and The Incredible Hulk begin by subjecting a technical professional to a terrible accident. The character then adjusts to penitential service as a reluctant superhero.

Memorable opening credits nutshell the premise: on ABC’s Six Million Dollar Man, astronaut Steve Austin (Lee Majors) has a near-fatal crash, then gets rebuilt with bionic parts that make him “better, faster, stronger”. Inspired by the subsequent bionics craze, CBS tapped Marvel’s superheroes, hitting the right vein with the saga of Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby). Banner’s obsessive research leaves him a rampaging id-beast (played by bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno) whenever crossed, thus creating Banner’s deathless catchphrase: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”.

Because each man has a secret life as a serial (good) Samaritan, long-term romance is impossible. The subtext is rather grim, especially on The Incredible Hulk: while bionic-man Austin is a federal agent, Banner is simply wandering the back roads and still manages to find corruption and tragedy around every bend. Personifying the US post-Vietnam era, Banner is “wanted for a murder he didn’t commit (and) must let the world think that he is dead, until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him”.

The Incredible Hulk (1978-82, available on DVD and streaming) ignores some of the fantastic aspects of the comic book. The TV version also deletes girlfriend Betty Ross and her father, a general who despises Banner, with names that slyly question patriotism. In any medium, however, the tortured Hulk was the ideal superhero for a circumspect era, with the narrative portraying an American masculinity that’s beleaguered, if not something to be cured.

Given the series subtextual questioning of masculinity, it would’ve seemed especially important that network TV’s Banner be heterosexual. In addition to losing his wife in the pilot, the TV Banner has relationships with women, including (it’s implied) sex, with no danger of “hulking”. Persistent rumors indicate that Banner’s first name was changed to David because one or more TV executives felt the comic book’s “Bruce” was too effeminate. (Press accounts of the time support these rumors, in that they report a variety of other excuses for the change.) Any offense might be tempered by the fact that the name Bruce had declined significantly from its peak popularity in the ’50s, although it fit Bruce Springsteen’s retro persona. That the name had become contested is indicated by a 1970 Monty Python sketch; mocking notions of identity, the sketch has a group of four stereotypical Australian men bonding over safari gear, homophobia, and their shared first name: Bruce.

As with most enduring monsters, the Hulk is a flexible metaphor, and the details of his TV backstory also touch on Cold War fears of nuclear technology. As for the pilot movie, written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, it’s a parable dramatizing (in today’s terms) the guilt of the entitled white male.

After failing to save his wife during a car accident, Banner joins a team researching superhuman strength, focused on anecdotal evidence about mothers lifting cars to save their children. We’re shown four subjects who’ve shown inexplicable strength. The first two are, respectively, a black woman who lived the above anecdote, and a female Holocaust survivor. The latter subjects are white men: a war hero and a working-class Italian-American.

Americans of the late ’70s had particular reasons to notice entitlement: white men of the middle and upper classes had found it relatively easy to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War (including three of the last four US presidents). The slight, white-collar Banner is a coded draft dodger, sentenced to live like the stereotypical Vietnam veteran, as he drifts from job to job while subject to flashes of (green-uniformed) rage. The series thus obliquely acknowledges the overlapping tragedies of homelessness and disabled veterans, a decade before the Vietnam War series China Beach (1988-91). Banner/Hulk isn’t entirely different from Sylvester Stallone’s portrayal of short-fuse drifter John Rambo, at least the version seen in 1982’s First Blood.

In the pilot, Banner finds he actually has the genetic mutation that provides super-strength, but on the day of the crash, he lacked another key factor: gamma activity due to sunspots. Driven by grief, he ends up giving himself an accidental mega-dose of gamma rays, ultimately triggering the Hulk. Essentially, Banner becomes a one-man nuclear power. The TV Hulk never kills anyone, but Banner fears that he will, especially since he can’t remember his viridescent episodes. In the wrong hands, these powers could be catastrophic, which helps motivate Banner’s wandering and use of aliases.

Banner endures another painful transformation.

Although it assiduously avoids controversy, The Incredible Hulk reads a bit more liberal than the bionic shows: Banner regularly defends underdogs and upsets big-shots, and the Hulk is played by hearing-impaired Lou Ferrigno (he gets a separate, speaking part in the episode “King of the Beach”). It seems significant that when Ferrigno finally returned to series TV for a recurring role on sitcom The King of Queens, he played a mainstream citizen, forever shaking his head at strange neighbors Doug (Kevin James) and Carrie (Leah Remini).

Like the sitcoms of the same era, The Incredible Hulk didn’t stint at offering “very special episodes” that addressed social issues such as child abuse (“A Child in Need”) and teen alcoholism (“Alice in Disco Land”). In “The Psychic”, Banner’s suicidal; in “The Harder They Fall”, he’s in a wheelchair. Other stories handled alternative healing (“Another Path”) and corporate pollution (“A Minor Problem”). It would take a separate essay to decode the show’s racial messages, but they weren’t escaping notice even at the time: in “Kindred Spirits”, a wizened Native American says the gods made the creature green to discourage claims of racial superiority (we’re looking at you, Superman).

In the two-hour season two opener “Married”, Mariette Hartley plays dying scientist Dr. Carolyn Fields, who is busily seeking her own cure (Hartley won an Emmy for her performance). On the plus side, she’s in love with Banner, and they’re in Hawaii. With its intermittent fantasy scenes, “Married” is too hysterical not to have symbolic meaning: it’s another white-guilt-trip. Caught between political correctness and Pearl Harbor, these noble professionals can’t resist bonding over Hollywood-Asian accents (this reflects then-current anxieties: in 1978, Americans had been at war with Asian nations for roughly half of the last 40 years). It’s no wonder her guided visualizations don’t work: Dr. Fields pictures her disease as hostile “renegade Indians”. Although it’s not questioned within the episode’s narrative, this seems a problematic choice given her (supposed) enlightened nature.

The reluctant superhero shows were US television’s solution to the problem of the action hero during a liberal, war-weary decade. In Starlog #173 (December 1991), TV historian Lee Goldberg lists a slew of failed pilots from the ’70s and ’80s about protagonists — usually androids or enhanced humans — who flee the government to avoid being used as military hitters. More recently, the subgenre revived with series such as The Pretender (1996-2000), and the Jason Bourne films. The Bourne Identity was first published in 1980; it’s certainly possible author Robert Ludlum was inspired partly by the Hulk franchise. That being said, the Hulk and Bourne’s circumstances and narratives most clearly draw on earlier stories, stretching back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Aside from the influence of the hit series The Fugitive (1963-67, remade as a1993 movie), the above trope grew from prominent real-life fugitives, such as activist Angela Davis and bank robbers D.B. Cooper and Patty Hearst, combined with rumors of government experiments, such as Project MK Ultra and the Tuskegee Experiment. The reluctant superhero series moderate any radical critique, but even Steve Austin of The Six Million Dollar Man needs careful handling to stay in the fold. As with many superhero narratives, the buried message of the Bixby/Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk is that anyone planning to speak truth to power had better a) stay on the move and b) have secret powers in reserve.

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Just as the transformations shred his clothes, the Hulk makes a lumpy fit for today’s superhero rally. Like Wonder Woman, the Hulk criticizes society even as he protects it. The X-Men carry a social critique but also flatter the viewer with the chance to show tolerance (or to assume we’re also gifted mutants). Iron Man is a dissociative daydream of the weapons industry as the world’s savior.

In contrast, the Hulk doesn’t necessarily seek out villains; he appears whenever someone angers Banner, thus his opponent could be any of us. Still, he offers a sliver of hope for a world plagued by terrorism, torture, and war. Banner’s alter ego may be the embodiment of rage, but nevertheless, shows restraint (in most incarnations) with the superhuman power at his disposal. No wonder General Ross hates him.