The pilot movie that launched THE INCREDIBLE HULK television series is damn good television.
A lot of praise has been justly heaped on Bill Bixby’s performance as David Bruce Banner over the years, and every bit of it is justified, but I want to start with some kind words for Kenneth Johnson, who was responsible for adapting the Hulk to the small screen. Johnson wrote and directed this opening pilot and he displays an incredible amount of respect for the concept of the Hulk. Yes, there are changes from the comics (Banner goes by David instead of Bruce, he becomes the Hulk through self-experimentation rather than rescuing Rick Jones, there is no Thunderbolt or Betty Ross, etc.) but Johnson’s changes work, and you can see why they’ve been made and the consequences that go along with it.
Well, that doesn’t explain the name change to David, but that’s a small alteration and ultimately meaningless.
The opening to the pilot is exactly what you wouldn’t expect. HULK begins with a dialogue-free sequence in which we see David Banner and his wife enjoying lots of lovey-dovey activities beneath soft, gentle music. This is clearly a man in love and clearly a man in touch with his emotional side. A car accident wrecks their idyllic life and David tries and fails to rescue his wife from the trapped vehicle. Clearly, the scene is set up to tease Hulk fans, who get a clear set-up to David’s anger signalling the oncoming arrival of the Hulk, but it never comes. David simply fails to save his wife, unable to lift the car, and then the whole, soft-focus sequence ends with David waking up in bed, alone.
I really love this change from the comics. Instead of Bruce saving Rick Jones and getting blasted with gamma radiation, David fails to save his wife because he lacks the physical strength. It places the guilt collar around Banner’s neck and makes him committed to a course of action whose goal isn’t to rid himself of the Hulk, but rather to become the Hulk. Not that David says, “I want to become Lou Ferrigno in green body paint and a bad wig,” but rather his guilt drives David’s research into trying to figure out why some people can perform miraculous acts of strength during times of crisis and others – like himself – cannot.
David and his research partner Elaina Marks (Susan Sullivan) interview a whole host of subjects, all of whom have displayed extraordinary feats of strength that Banner did not. Somewhere along the line, David’s guilt morphs into confusion and anger. As he sits with Elaina and listens to person after person recount their experiences, David can’t keep his anger totally in check, and he has to excuse himself so as not to explode in front of his interview subjects. Johnson and Bixby combine to create this driven, passionate scientist, and I love the pilot’s representation of David as scientist, always pushing forward, gathering data, collating data, examining data, being pleased one moment and displeased the next. We see David’s scientific mind at work, and so you see the depth of both his drive and his intelligence.
When David lets his excitement get the better of him, Elaina is there to pull him back. Banner believes he’s found a breakthrough linking the various test subjects by looking at their DNA at a magnification of 1,000,000. Clearly overjoyed at finding the link, David exclaims to Elaina that now they know why these people could do it and why he couldn’t.
“How do you know?” Elaina asks seriously, ever the scientist. “When was the last time you looked at your DNA at magnification of 1,000,000?”
So David does, and it turns out he has the exact same structure everyone else in the study does.
Crushed by yet another disappointment, Banner stays late, working a new angle. When another scientist tells him that David can’t use a machine he wants because there’s some interference involving gamma radiation, Banner has that scientist explain recent gamma activity. Noticing that every single subject’s feat of strength coincides with high gamma activity, David has this new theory confirmed (as far as he needs it confirmed) when he sees that on the day he couldn’t save his wife, gamma activity was at its absolute lowest. Emboldened by this new theory and too impatient to wait for Elaina when she doesn’t pick up his call, Banner subjects himself to a decent-sized dose of gamma radiation.
This is another great sequence, and has become one of the lasting images of the program: David sitting in this huge, weird-looking, chair and putting his own face in the machine’s crosshairs. He doses himself, gets out of the chair, and … nothing appears to be different. Now furious, Banner storms out of the building and into his car, which he tears away in, only to get a flat.
It’s the flat that provides the fateful trigger. Already angry and now soaking wet as he tries to change his tire in the middle of a downpour, David transforms into the Hulk for the first time, and the Hulk does not complete the changing of the tire.
I’ve said on numerous occasions that I’ve had it with the origin story in superhero movies, but I don’t mind it one bit in the HULK pilot. Johnson has delivered such a winning script, Bixby and Sullivan have delivered such engaging performances, and Johnson (again) has delivered such solid directing that the origin of the Hulk is a joy to watch every time I see it.
The second half of the pilot is every bit as strong, as David and Elaina try to figure out what’s happened. HULK pulls off another rare feat as it manages to make a successful movie with relatively little use of the titular character. In part, this is because of the great script, performances, and directing, but it’s also because once the Hulk appears, the entire rest of the movie is about the Hulk, even when he’s not on screen. The constant worry about the Hulk, however, causes his few appearances to hit with major impact. Lou Ferrigno isn’t asked to do much beyond but growl and pose, but he’s very effective in the scene where the Hulk is trying to help a little girl and the little girl thinks this green giant is trying to attack her.
Rounding out the cast is Jack Colvin as reporter Jack McGee. Colvin wants to interview Banner and Marks about their research even before the Hulk arrives, but they brush him off. Dogged reporter that McGee is, he works for this show’s version of the National Enquirer, which means David and Elaina are worried he will sensationalize their study just to sell copies. McGee is every bit as great a character as Banner, too. I love the idea of his quest for the truth being tied in with the sensationalistic paper that employs him, and when the Hulk arrives on the scene and appears to kill both Elaina and David (the former does die, the latter is merely presumed dead), Colvin becomes the perfect antagonist as his paper becomes the perfect outlet for reporting on the Hulk.
There’s a wonderful sense of this pilot developing into a Battle of Three Armies: Banner and Elaina on one side, trying to discover the truth about David’s transformation; Colvin sits on another side, also out for the truth though for different reasons; and finally, the Hulk, who is less a destructive force of nature and more like an overgrown, very powerful child.
In the pilot’s most memorable scene, Banner tells McGee: “Don’t make me angry, Mr. McGee. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” What I love about the scene is that it is, on some level, a threat, but Bixby’s delivery also makes it play like a desperate plea. Banner isn’t telling McGee to back off or the Hulk is going to get him, he’s saying, “Back off or the Hulk is going to come out and I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know it’s going to be bad.”
It’s not hard to see why THE INCREDIBLE HULK was picked up as a series. A second TV movie was made (originally called “The Return of The Incredible Hulk,” it’s now been renamed “Death in the Family” to better fit inside the series), and that was followed by a solid five-year run, which was then followed by three additional made-for-TV movies. Through it all, it’s Bill Bixby’s performance as the intelligent, driven, and haunted David Banner that makes the show work, but as is clearly evident here in the pilot, Kenneth Johnson, Jack Colvin, and Susan Sullivan all deserve their share of the credit for launching this franchise.
THE INCREDIBLE HULK pilot is not just good superhero TV, it’s good everything TV.