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The Hulk: evolution of a comic book icon


In May 1962, following on from the media-led Communist witch hunts Marvel released The Incredible Hulk. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, this amalgamation of Frankenstein and Doctor Jekyll has since spawned a fifty year comic book following, one Emmy award-winning television show and five films.

With a Marvel mash up on the horizon in the shape of Thor: Ragnarok we examine those actors who made both Banner and Hulk possible.

1. 'Made for TV'

Hulk played by: Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby (1978-82)

Spanning eighty two episodes over four years, this international television success made household names of both Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby, putting The Incredible Hulk on the map for an entire generation of seventies children in the process.

Covered from head to toe in green greasepaint and sporting a combination of fright wig and cumbersome prosthetics, Ferrigno became the stuff of Saturday evening nightmares for children everywhere. Bixby on the other hand gave David Banner an intensity, emotional depth and grounded sense of self, which acted as the perfect foil to Ferrigno’s Hulk out moments.

His was the beating heart beneath the comic book origins which gave us a man with flaws, frailties and an inherent desire to do good deeds. Coining the catchphrase ‘don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’, this television show is still considered the benchmark others must aspire to reach character wise.

Budgeted at six hundred thousand dollars an episode it also carried the heftiest production cost, which only increased as the popularity skyrocketed. Part Greek tragedy, episodic drama and weekly morality play, millions would tune in every Saturday for these opening credits.

2. 'You Won't Like Me When I'm Ang Lee'

Hulk played by: Eric Bana (2003)

After the early nineties television movie Death of The Incredible Hulk no-one came near the character for over ten years. Ferrigno had embodied Hulk with such singular ferocity that CGI was considered the only route to explore. Also the show itself had covered a lot of ground in four years, meaning someone needed to come at it from a completely different angle.

That someone turned out to be Ang Lee, maker of measured human dramas like The Ice Storm and balletic martial arts movies such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. His take needed to put heart at the centre of things and utilise a unique actor for the purpose. That choice in a bizarre case of surname serendipity was Eric Bana.

What Lee and Bana brought to the table with this first Hulk for a noughties generation was emotional angst and brooding intensity. Focusing primarily on family issues throughout its run time, Hulk as a character unfortunately gets lost. Lee uses cross cutting and split screen techniques as storytelling tools to relative success, but CGI Hulk detracts from Bana’s on-screen contribution.

A veteran at embodying fearsome individuals as seen in the likes of Chopper, he is only able to give pathos and emotional depth to half his performance with motion capture still in its infancy. Ultimately this Hulk is left with a tonal imbalance, which both actor and director were unable to resolve. Still, elements of both Bana’s performance and Lee’s storyline hold up, even if Nick Nolte’s father figure proves more watchable.

3. Hulk! Transform!

Hulk played by: Edward Norton (2008)

If you take the director of Transporter 2 and put him together with Edward Norton, there's bound to be fireworks. An actor who took control of the final edit of American History X, Norton is renowned as a strong character.

In an odd way the Incredible Hulk's mythology, exploring two bodies fighting for dominance, mirrors the behind the scenes struggles between actor and studio, Marvel. It was the second instalment of the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe following Iron Man that very same year, and is largely significant for that reason.

In truth Norton came closest to matching Bixby’s pathos and emotional honesty prior to Mark Ruffalo. This is thanks in part to motion capture, which had advanced far enough for a performance to be carried through the FX making his Hulk tangible if not yet photo real.

Where Louis Leterrier’s version falls down is in its fight sequences. which distract from any real character work. Tim Roth’s Abomination strips any memory of nuanced character moments, in favour of a no brainer popcorn slugfest. That being said it does contain the best Hulk transformation sequence committed to film thus far, making us wonder what else Norton could have done given a chance.

Even so the actor's ongoing disputes with Marvel meant he wouldn't return as the character in another movie. The search for our definitive Hulk continued...

4. The rise and rise of The Ruffalo

Hulk played by: Mark Ruffalo (2012 to present)

Internet history has documented the less than rapturous response Mark Ruffalo received when he stepped on stage at San Diego Comic Con for that Avengers curtain call. Edward Norton and his reasons for departing are still controversial, but there's no denying that Ruffalo has defined the role in the eyes of a modern audience.

In The Avengers and its sequel Age of Ultron Ruffalo owns the part thanks to a combination of his performance, Joss Whedon’s whip-smart dialogue and fast-moving direction. Inner turmoil is evident, restraint barely concealed and silence means as much as any amount of words.

That is the strength of Ruffalo who manifests the monster by wearing his fear on the outside. Not since Bill Bixby has an actor successfully communicated that on screen, while retaining vestiges of his humanity through the motion capture performance.

So what's next?

He may have started as a cautionary tale for the Cold War era, but The Incredible Hulk has become more than just another comic book icon. At his best he represents a clash of ideas and search for truth. At his worst he represents a raging green manifestation of rage.

Come this October we will find out what director Taika Waititi has in store, as an evolution fifty years in the making brings Hulk back to cinemas in Thor: Ragnarok. Plus, it's got the showdown to end them all between "friends from work" Bruce Banner and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) himself. Excited much?

Martin Carr is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.