Back in 2008, the jade giant known as the Incredible Hulk wreaked havoc in the Movie Smackdown arena in a battle that pitted that yearâ€™s The Incredible Hulk, featuring Edward Norton, against 2003â€™s The Hulk, starring Eric Bana. Since then, a new Hulk has emerged on the scene, thanks to Joss Whedonâ€™s The Avengers and Mark Ruffalo, so weâ€™re revisiting the battle and kicking it up a notch by throwing Bill Bixby, the first man ever to embody David Bruce Banner on screen, into the mix as well. You might think Bixby has the advantage, since he has Lou Ferrigno in his corner, but donâ€™t count out Bana, Norton and Ruffalo from this fatal four-way just yet.
This fight is so big that we need two Smack refs to officiate over the action. After all, one Hulk destroyed Las Vegas, overthrew an alien planetâ€™s government and became their king, and beat the crap out of his fair share of Earthâ€™s mightiest heroes, so imagine the destruction these four Hulks might cause!
I hope we have a good insurance policy.
The Incredible Hulk (TV Series) (1978-82)
In the â€™70s, CBS adapted The Hulkâ€™s story for the small screen in the form of a weekly drama that completely ignored the characterâ€™s comic book history. Regardless, the showâ€™s many fans loved Bill Bixbyâ€™s portrayal of David Banner and Lou Ferrignoâ€™s portrayal of Bannerâ€™s not-so-jolly green alter-ego. Over the course of five seasons and three TV movies from 1978-1990, the audience followed Banner going from town to town trying to find ways to control his condition while taking up odd jobs and helping others with their own problems, all while trying to avoid a pesky reporter trying to unveil the truth about the Hulk.
As a fan of The Hulk comics, I was disappointed to discover that this show practically had nothing to do with the version I grew up loving. On top of that, I didnâ€™t find the show held up over time. Despite being called The Incredible Hulk, it was almost entirely about David Banner solving the problem of the week and the Hulk popping in every once in a while. CBS clearly needed the show to appeal to a wider audience than just comic fans, but this was just another campy network soap, with a superhero showing up occasionally. I donâ€™t think it would last a whole season in this day and age.
When it aired, however, the show wasnâ€™t too bad. It explored some compelling stories, often crafted around the theme of controlling your problems rather than letting them control you. (The one where Hulk was on acid was not one of those stories, though.)
Ang Leeâ€™s Hulk hit theaters riding the wave of Spider-Man and X-Men. Lee (Ang, not Stan) brought his trademark abstract thinking and art house sensibilities to the green juggernaut, who likes to pound things. In theory, it doesnâ€™t sound like that great a match. But Ang Leeâ€™s Hulk embraces elegance, fostering a certain self-contained pacing that earns admiration. In the film, Eric Banaâ€™s Banner has not yet become the Hulk. Instead, he is a semi-brilliant scientist, unaware of his own mutated genetic structure, which was modeled by his abusive father on the regenerative abilities of starfish and reptiles.
When gamma nanodes (your guess is as good as mine) blast Banner, the convenient combination of his genetic structure and the nanodes creates a very logically thought-out Hulk â€” a depressingly angry expression of Bannerâ€™s repressed childhood memories.
Honestly, as complicated as it sounds, itâ€™s a cerebral joy to watch. Itâ€™s quite engaging to see a man struggle with his inner rage and his weakness to accept his childhood. The sympathy Stan Lee strove to infuse in his comic book heroes is in evidence here too. Yet for all its complexities and deep psychological workings, Hulk just didnâ€™t know when to stop thinking and start smashing. Also, Ang Lee didnâ€™t seem to know when to end the movie, when he did, audiences were not satisfied with his decisions.
The Hulk returns, rebooted under the guidance of Transporter director Louis Leterrier from a script penned by Zak Penn, with an uncredited polish by its ever-captious star, Edward Norton. In The Incredible Hulk, Norton plays Stan Leeâ€™s classic Bruce Banner, a simple scientist whose brilliance leads to a tragic lab accident.
Now a fugitive from a military general who wishes to make him a weapon, Banner longs to tame or eliminate his monstrous alter-ego and the forced isolation it demands. Like Stan Leeâ€™s original Hulk, The Incredible Hulk focuses on Bannerâ€™s struggle to contain the Neanderthal lurking inside him. In fact, itâ€™s the filmâ€™s petrol, blasting through Bourne-style chase scenes and WWF-style mutant throwdowns. But like the green beast himself, Leterrierâ€™s film loses some of its humanity when it goes â€œHulk.â€ Itâ€™s also paced awkwardly enough to leave audience members feeling like Bruce Banner after a hulk-out: scratching their heads and asking where the hell they are and what the hell just happened.
There are a plethora of scenes â€” mostly character-oriented â€” missing from the shooting script in the finished film. Bannerâ€™s therapy session with his loverâ€™s new boyfriend and Bannerâ€™s attempted suicide are among them. The addition of these might have better balanced the story. Then again, some of the dialogue â€” no matter how good the actor, or how green â€” just doesnâ€™t work.
Marvel Studios had a unified cinematic universe in the works for a long time. It began with Jon Favreauâ€™s Iron Man, moved ahead with The Incredible Hulk, and followed those with Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. After these films laid the groundwork for Marvelâ€™s Phase One, it was time for the crowning glory: The Avengers. However, after bringing together the all-star casts from all of Marvelâ€™s movies, director (and Comic-Con royalty) Joss Whedon hit a snag with Edward Norton. Things fell through somewhere along the line, and Mark Ruffalo took over the purple pants of The Hulk.
Fans were skeptical at first, but almost all agreed the film worked exceptionally well. Sure, it had some minor problems, but it also had a brilliant script, a visually stunning look, phenomenal cast and more.
On top of it all, one thing stood out: Ruffaloâ€™s Hulk was heroic, funny and badass, making the movie accessible to all demographics. He had his dark moments, but the character was really balanced as he struggled to escape the dark cloud perpetually hanging over his head. This troubled individualâ€™s interactions with other, equally puzzling and extraordinary people are what made The Avengers what it was â€” the third-highest grossing film of all time.
Executive producer Kenneth Johnsonâ€™s TV Hulk was characterless, whereas his Banner was full of character. Though the two are the same person, they have differences, and thatâ€™s part of what makes the premise so interesting. But the show greatly reduced the Hulk element, possibly because the makeup and special effects were expensive and hard to produce. And then this Hulk has the disadvantage of being light-years different from the other three, and not really in a good way. Itâ€™s the furthest from a faithful adaptation, so thatâ€™s big points off right away in this fight.
Ang Leeâ€™s The Hulk is a thinking manâ€™s film. Itâ€™s beautifully designed and crafted. There is a genius quality to the comic book paneling that is admirable, and Lee is able to translate that to a cinematic level. He uses those multiple comic book panels brilliantly,Â directing four or five simultaneous scenes from various angles and compositions â€” not an easy task. Typically, those are scenes of long, drawn-out speeches or ruminations, which without Leeâ€™s masterful technique, would be flat-out boring.
The Hulk is very light on action, and when it comes, the action is a bitâ€¦ silly. Mutated gamma poodles attacking the Hulk cannot seem cool. It just canâ€™t; I have a moral obligation to prevent it. And for a film that takes itself so seriously and is so introspective, eight-foot monster poodles betray the concept and belittle the audience.
Itâ€™s hard to top Leeâ€™s characterizations, though. He spends a lot of time molding and shaping this complicated Bruce Banner, the product of an abusive childhood. Eric Bana plays him as naive, struggling with repressed memories. Heâ€™s pulled through the plot; he doesnâ€™t drive it. His character is weak and passive. This works for a Hulk movie, where the character eventually gets to show a completely different side. Nevertheless, the genius that is so important to Banner seems lacking with Ang Lee.Â Eric Bana doesnâ€™t seem to own Banner. The complex psychological atmosphere absorbs Banaâ€™s nuanced yet minimalistic performance and makes it just another abstract quality in an intelligent film.
Now, The Incredible Hulk really embraces its action, and does so on a variety of levels. There is a certain genius to Leterrierâ€™s escalation of action scenes. The first feels like itâ€™s straight out of Bourne Supremacy, a shaky chase through Brazil. This is followed by a fun and dramatic fight between Hulk and the military (a fight Ang Leeâ€™s film takes an entire two hours to get to). The last fight is an all-out brawl between two super-giants â€” itâ€™s brutal, itâ€™s violent, itâ€™s so frigginâ€™ fun to watch. Leterrierâ€™s action background is well suited to the kinetic, nerve-wracking pace of Bruce Bannerâ€™s escape from the militaristic father of his love.
Leterrierâ€™s got Edward Norton, an amazing consolation for whatever skills he may lack as a director of character drama. Norton is very believable as Banner, and very streamlined. The slightest facial gesture, the meekest intonation â€” itâ€™s all there for a reason with Norton. And in a film that moves so fast and is so violent, itâ€™s an appreciated texture that stands out on its own. The audience loves sitting with Nortonâ€™s Banner just as much as it loves sitting with Tobey Maguireâ€™s Peter Parker (although this new generation of fans might prefer Andrew Garfield).
Norton is so good at playing the brilliant, tortured scientist that his transformations into Hulk are sometimes awkward. Despite some beautiful CGI rendering of Nortonâ€™s face into the Hulkâ€™s, thereâ€™s a bit of a disconnect between the two characters. I canâ€™t say that Ang Lee nailed this either. This may be a cinematic challenge too great for any Hulk director.
In The Avengers, Whedon has the luxury of not having to retell the Hulkâ€™s origin. He just gets down to business with his version, introducing the character into the fray, and then running with it. He has a way of subtly showcasing various qualities of Bruce Banner and the Hulk without calling attention to his storytelling. And then he has the added task of juggling six other heroes who need equal amounts of screen time. Whedon couldnâ€™t focus solely on the Hulk which, for the purposes of this Smackdown, could have been a disadvantage. Yet he accomplished more with the character than any of his rivals. If Hulk ever appears solo in the near future, things can only get better, because Whedon and Leterrier have laid all the groundwork. All we need is Mark Ruffalo to star and Whedon to add his own brand of magic, and The Hulk will be in good hands.
Itâ€™s pretty obvious which Hulk comes out on top here. While each has its plusses, The Incredible Hulk (TV), The Hulk and The Incredible Hulk all have serious flaws. In fact, the first two have more flaws than accomplishments. Though Norton departure in favor of Mark Ruffalo was initially devastating, Ruffaloâ€™s performance and the writing and direction behind it were so masterful Â that heâ€™s our Bruce Banner from here on out â€” which is why the Hulk from The Avengers walks out of this brawl with his humungous gamma-radiated arm raised in victory.