Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Watcher Retrospective - Hulks on film

Marvel fans are in for exciting times at the movies. With two dazzling Iron Man films; the imminent release of Kenneth Brannagh's Thor; plus a steady stream of Captain America footage knocking our socks off - all the pieces of Marvel's ambitious plan for a shared screen universe are finally coming together.

'Nuff said? Well... let's spare a thought for the Hulk. His two big screen outings - the Eric Bana starring 'Hulk' (2003) and Ed Norton's reboot 'The Incredible Hulk' (2008) - although financially 'successful' are both seen as relative failures by fans, critics and even the studio. To add insult to injury, Hulk has now not only been recast once more, but is set for whipping boy duties, as it's rumoured that his above mentioned Marvel team mates are set to 'get medieval on his ass' in 2012's 'Avengers'.

Ironic then, that over thirty years ago, 'The Incredible Hulk' (1977) ruled television for five years, practically shaping the rules of the live action superhero genre alongside DC’s Superman (1979) and establishing the Hulk himself as an iconic character; who doesn’t remember that catchphrase, "Don’t make me angry, you wouldn't like me when I’m ANGRY!", or appreciate the haunting closing theme 'The Lonely Man' as genre music at its finest?

Watching the series now is something of a revelation. Eschewing the camp approach of the 1960s Batman, producer Kenneth Johnson made a virtue of perceived limitations. Unable to recreate the fantastic scope of the comics, the series is grounded in believable reality (wink, wink, Christopher Nolan), following David 'Bruce' Banner's lonely journey from town to town, barely one step ahead of the paparazzi. The combination of Bill Bixby's charismatic 'everyman' in Banner and Lou Ferringo's imposing yet heartfelt Hulk gel surprisingly well and with considerable pathos. Suspension of disbelief is definitely required, but it adds up to an altogether more real Hulk than Bana, Norton and their CGI alter egos.

That's not to say the 1970s vibe doesn't also deliver a few chuckles. The decision to have Banner's first 'Hulk Out' be the result of a flat tyre is wonderfully silly. Not to mention the frequent use of slow-mo, the Hulk's almost prescient proclivity for ripped jeans, and a format somewhere betwixt 'The A-Team' and 'The Littlest Hobo', all of which provide just the right balance of nostalgia, action and entertainment, while still showing a genuine respect for the character from all involved.

Tellingly, Norton's film paid frequent homage to Johnson's series, not only including that catchphrase, but hardware, stars, music cues, those chilling green eyes and even Ferringo as the voice of the Hulk. But somehow, Norton's over-earnest portrayal, the CGI Hulk's lack of genuine substance and perhaps most importantly, a complete lack of humour render this Hulk a little lifeless. Lets hope it's third time lucky for Marvel Studios.

So, far from the lesser son of the screen Marvel, Hulk is actually its trailblazer. Notably the TV Movies that followed the series pioneered both the now obligatory Stan Lee cameo, and with the inclusion of both Thor and Daredevil, also introduced the concept of the shared Marvel universe to a wider audience. Hulk's most important contribution of all is the proof that screen superheroes could be portrayed both with fun AND credibility, which considering the HUGE success of Marvel Movies in recent times, deserves kudos indeed.

Next time, Robert Barton-Ancliffe turns his attention to the God of Thunder

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