Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, The Incredible Hulk debuted in Marvel Comics in 1962. As he first appeared, the Hulk was sort of like the atom age synthesis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with aesthetic nods to the classic Universal Studio’s Frankenstein (1931) featuring Boris Karloff as the lumbering, bolted menace.
The Hulk is the alter-ego of scientist Bruce Banner, the child of an abusive household, who harbors a life-long fear of anger. Banner is amiable, composed, and slight of frame. An experiment with Gamma Radiation transforms him into The Hulk, who is the exact opposite: gargantuan, dimwitted, and driven to act solely by his anger and propensity to destroy.
Like The Thing, or Batman, or Spiderman even, the Hulk is one of those characters who is all the more endearing to audiences because of his foibles. Part of the character’s enduring appeal could be that his story is built upon mythologies that are not only familiar, but that also speak directly to mankind’s struggle to suppress anger. In Freudian terms, you might say that the Hulk speaks and to our constant struggle to reconcile animalistic urges with the demands of modern social mores. It would seem fitting then, that the Hulk has enjoyed popularity, not only in the comic books, but also on the screen — big and small.
Here’s a look at memorable screen adaptations of our beloved green behemoth.
The Incredible Hulk Television Show (1978-1982)
The program starred Bill Bixby as Bruce Banner and professional weightlifter Lou Ferrigno as The Incredible Hulk. In the show, Banner goes batty after his wife is killed in a car accident, and develops a method for amplifying the strength of people in emergency situations, thinking that this will enable them to save their loved ones. Banner then conducts an experiment on himself with gamma radiation and well…he goes from being Bixby to Ferrigno. Falsely accused of murder, the Hulk goes on the lam. Memorable for its dated music, dated technology, dated writing…the whole thing is dated, but in a way that enhances the charm of the series (unlike the short lived live-action Spiderman program).
The Hulk (2003)
Eric Bana starred in this iteration helmed by Ang Lee. While Lee himself has achieved monumental success in other arenas (notably with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain), he failed to appease comic fans with this one. The film is weighed down with dialogue, and the creature looks like a digital cartoon. What is interesting about this take on the character, however, is that it is tonally darker than most comic films had dared to be up until that point (remember, this was during an awkward stage between Burton’s Batman and Nolan’s Batman, when it wasn’t really clear whether studios were comfortable pursuing superhero vehicles that were simultaneously aware of their own artifice and willing to take themselves seriously).
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
While Lee’s film was overwrought with dialogue, this film, from director Louis Leterrier, is overwrought with cheesy, CGI heavy action sequences. Edward Norton does deliver a superb performance, but it’s not quite enough to save the film. What resulted was drastically different from Lee’s interpretation. But, even though the film had many detractors (including Roger Ebert) it has gone on to attract its own cult following thanks to special marathon screenings and digital streaming through some websites (more details here).
The Avengers (2012)
Joss Whedon’s blockbuster success pit the green guy together with many major Marvel heroes. Mark Ruffalo plays Banner, and the part of the Hulk is played, once again, by a giant digital cartoon. The Hulk becomes part of the Marvel answer to the Justice League, with the popular heroes teaming up to stop Thor’s evil brother Loki from conquering the universe. Ruffalo is now locked into the role in a way that Bana and Norton purposefully avoided, but maybe it’s just a well. Ruffalo provides a nice counterpoint to the giant digital cartoon, and who will ever forget the green one’s dust-up with Loki?