I used to be so impatient watching The Incredible Hulk. I curled up coloring, waiting for David Banner to transform and roar and smash through brick walls. But watching that show only for the Hulk sets any viewer up for disappointment. Instead, I’ve learned to watch The Incredible Hulk for David Banner. And, rewatching the show, I don’t mind David Banner at all.
Running from 1978 to 1982, Marvel’s live action series spanned the adult-oriented dramas and comedies of the 1970s, when anyone under 35 was a kid, to the less character- more explosion-driven shows of the 1980s. It starred Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner, physician/scientist, Lou Ferrigno as the creature and Jack Colvin as Jack McGee, a tabloid reporter hunting the Hulk. Actually, the plot’s well summarized in the show’s still pretty swell opening. I love the x-rays and platelets.
The Incredible Hulk was about a hero’s ostensibly boring alter ego before Smallville or Lois and Clark, or before Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) spent a lot of time onBruce Wayne’s psychology. In fact, by the time Kal-El was living full-time as Clark Kent in Superman II (1982), The Incredible Hulk had been canceled. As part of the focus on David Banner, the series also focused on mundane problems and human relationships. I think that’s why some fans find the show kind of embarrassing. If you’re used to looking for plot twists and waiting out conversations to get to the Hulk Smash, you’re looking for the least gratifying part of this show. Worse yet, if you’re only watching for problems caused by supervillains like The Leader, you will always be sad.
While David Banner is provoked in
many different ways, the show’s tight discipline might rub structure monkeys wrong. Banner is a drifter, taking odd jobs and solving problems across the USA while searching for a cure or way to control “the creature.” David Banner “grows angry or outraged,” as the narrator says, and transforms twice each episode. His transformations help solve a problem, but afterwards, ashamed, he abandons whatever life—and research—he’s only just begun. Then Joe Harnell’s melancholy “The Lonely Man Theme” plays as David Banner hitchhikes from one life to another. David Banner will never have normal life.
The closing theme led me to consider the show’s romance elements, something I never would’ve thought about before Chris started writing here. David Banner is a lonely man. Taken as a whole, the show follows David Banner as he grieves the death of his first wife in a car accident. The Hulk could even have arisen from his rage at his loss. Ladies fall for David Banner’s compassion and sadness, but he turns them away, not just to protect them or because he’s searching for a cure, though those are concerns. He definitely doesn’t turn them away because he is a hero who, as Jules Feiffer writes, “could if he wanted to, but still didn’t” (21). He turns them away because he’s brokenhearted. Besides, David Banner only falls for science ladies and it never goes well. Mariette Hartley won an Emmy for her portrayal of David Banner’s second wife, Dr. Caroline Fields, who dies of a terminal illness after his car breaks down while he’s taking her to the hospital in a hurricane. Dr. Banner also transformed for the first time after hurting himself trying to change a tire in the rain. If this were the regular Marvel Universe, The Hulk would hate cars more than puny Banner.
But it isn’t the regular Marvel Universe. Unlike Bruce Banner, the Hulk was not created when Banner was irradiated while saving someone during military testing. David Banner experimentally irradiates himself, trying to discover a way he could have saved his wife. And David Banner is not pursued by the military but by Jack McGee, a reporter for The National Register. In fact, David Banner never even calls the Hulk, “the Hulk.” He calls his metamorphosized self, “the creature.” Mr. McGee coins,“The Hulk,” as a slick, sellable name.
The Hulk is also the show’s only fantastic element. At least until The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) and The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989) attempt to draw the series back into the Marvel Universe while catapulting Thor and Daredevil into their own series. But strangely, the movies seem more dated than the show, despite its bellbottoms and plaid jackets, even its disco and Blaxploitation episodes. The movies are much less adult. Then again, it’s possible that “adult” as something other than a euphemism for sex, violence or swearing is a mark of a 1970s drama.
Now I like the focus on David Banner. I like how adult the show is, although I’d still play a game where the Hulk throws cars and smashes stuff. I enjoy watching creatures smashing things. But having an interesting Banner, that’s great.
Carol Borden is believed to be dead, and she must let the world think that she is dead, until she can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within her.
This piece was originally published on The Cultural Gutter on Feb. 5, 2009.