Although the character The Incredible Hulk was born in 1962 and took animated form in 1966, the television series that ran from 1977-82 is probably responsible for introducing the masses, including us Gen-X kids, to the gamma radiation-fueled green guy. More recent live action portrayals have been underwhelming at best, until The Avengers. I don’t know if everyone was as pleasantly surprised with Mark Ruffalo‘s Hulk as I was, but I think it was partially because he reminds me of the actor imprinted on my memory as THE David Bruce Banner, Bill Bixby. (His name on his tombstone is David Bruce, though he goes by David on the show and Bruce in The Avengers. If anyone can explain this, please do.)
What stands out most about this pilot is its somber tone and relatively slow pace. It’s actually a TV movie running almost two hours, similar to the Wonder Woman pilot of the same era. The pace is impossibly slow by today’s standards. There are long stretches with no dialogue at all and we meet only four major characters. Much effort has gone into creating a mood through visual effects and music.
David’s back story is relayed in a five-minute montage of him and his wife. Through a Vaseline lens we see shots of the couple living the Hallmark moments of their marriage until they are in a car crash. The car rolls over, David is thrown from it, then struggles helplessly to open the door and save his beloved wife from encroaching flames.
In the next scene a middle-aged woman tells her story, recounting almost the exact same events we have just watched. Her story, however, ends happily and heroically, as she summons super-human strength to free her young son from the car. By having the writers first show us the experience, then listening to this character tell us down to the smallest detail what we have just seen, we feel David’s frustration building. Why was this woman able to do what he couldn’t? His rising emotions provide the basis for the episode’s journey.
As David and his colleague Elaina (Susan Sullivan, aka Castle’s mom) continue to interview people who have performed incredible feats of strength in emergency situations, they look for connections. You have to put aside their superficial explanations of mitochondria and DNA and lightening fast research and go with them on the ride. This being two decades before the decoding of the genome, their observance of a DNA strand must have seemed impossibly cool if not plain impossible. The idea that they’re able to increase the magnification to the degree that they can catalog individual genes, all thanks to some resident genius’ tinkering with the equipment… well it’s best not to think about it. The researchers’ conclusion is that a combination of a genetic variation, a surge of adrenalin, and high gamma ray activity from the sun gives people super strength in times of need.
David’s next move is entirely unscientific, so we must try and appreciate what he’s going through emotionally — the grief, guilt, and frustration of losing his wife — to explain that he chooses to irradiate himself, alone at night in an empty lab. (He doesn’t even write anything down.) We all know what happens next. Pushed over the edge by a flat tire, David metamorphoses into a giant green Lou Ferrigno. He is mistaken for a monster by a little girl, whose life he ultimately saves, getting shot in the process. A the while, there’s a tabloid reporter, Jack McGee (Jack Colvin), sniffing around.
(On a side note, I can suspend disbelief and pretend the science makes sense. But why is he green? Even his hair is green. In the original comic, he was gray, but the color wouldn’t print consistently, so Stan Lee opted for green. I want an explanation for the greenness, however pseudo-scientific it has to be.)
David and Elaina set about trying to recreate the conditions of the transformation. Again their scientific method is anything but methodical. They sort of make it up as they go. David changes again and the main take-away this time is that, as the Hulk, he isn’t “evil.” He could crush Elaina like a bug but instead they share a sweet moment where she examines his wounded hand. I must say Elaina is pretty bad ass. Where most people would run screaming for cover, she maintains her committment to scientific observation, then concern at the realization that this creature is still a frightened human being. She’s both yin and yang — dispassionate researcher and compassionate friend.
In the end, the lab explodes, killing Elaina, and David, also presumed dead goes on the lam. Elaina has professed her love for David while he’s in Hulk form — and therefore he blacked it out — and now he admits he loved her, too. Why is this necessary? We were going along, suffering this guy’s emotional turmoil with him and can understand anyone’s pain at watching a trusted friend die a tragic death. The fact that they were in love doesn’t add anything to the story and, in fact, cheapens David’s relationship with his late wife. All this time, his drive has been about losing his wife and now, it seems, it will be about losing Elaina. I think it muddies the waters. Still, except for this one fault, the pilot is a thoughtfully told, engaging story, not about a super hero/villain, but about a guy on a journey. It’s decidedly non-campy for a comic book-based story. I think that The Avengers tapped into that tragic ethos in Dr. Banner, even amid a movie that was primarily fun and upbeat.
IMDB has a slew of fun facts on this show.