LOOK BACK IN ANGER

Total Film - - Retrospective - Words KEVIN HAR­LEY

If the Hulk is a prob­lem child for Marvel, why bother with a solo movie? Be­cause, as his his­tory tells us, the big lug is worth it…

s night creeps in, top sci­en­tist Dr. Bruce Ban­ner feels stir­rings. Some­thing hap­pened when he was hit with gamma rays in that ex­peri-bomb test. What, though? As he waits to find out with Rick Jones, the kid Ban­ner saved from the bomb blast, a Geiger counter flut­ters omi­nously. Sud­denly, Ban­ner be­comes beast, skin a dirty shade of… wait, is that grey?

In the Hulk’s 1962 de­but, his skin colour re­minds us that even his co-creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, didn’t quite know where to go with the not-yet-jade gi­ant. Hell, the big fella didn’t say “Hulk smash” for five years. The emerald icon-to-be was, it seems, a tricky bug­ger to nail down.

Fifty-five years on, the Marvel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse knows it. Af­ter the Hulk flew away in Age Of Ul­tron’s cli­max, Hulk-watch­ers spec­u­lated about pos­si­ble fu­ture des­ti­na­tions. Would a stand­alone adap­ta­tion of Greg Pak’s Planet Hulk comic fol­low? Yes but no: Hulk will don spaceglad­i­a­tor duds for Thor: Rag­narok, not for his own head­line film.

Be­tween rights is­sues and failed Hulk movies, rea­sons for the lack of a solo Hulk film are mixed. But one thing rings clear: like many prob­lem kids, the Hulk’s mas­sive po­ten­tial needs nur­tur­ing more care­fully than most.

Bruce can­non

“Is he man or mon­ster or… is he both?” The words that screamed from the cover of the first Hulk comic planted the seeds of fu­ture Hulk con­flicts, though the im­pe­tus be­hind his cre­ation was sim­pler: to split open the span­dex.

“I was getting tired of the nor­mal su­per­heroes,” Lee ex­plained.

Lee’s an­swer was to forge a char­ac­ter in a cross­fire of Cold War anx­i­eties, nu­clear fear, psy­cho-dra­matic trauma and soul­ful mon­sters. Ini­tially, Ban­ner be­came the Hulk at sun­set, not when he got an­gry, like the Wolf Man un­der the Moon. On page, a vis­ual re­sem­blance to Boris Karloff in Franken­stein rang out sharper than lime juice.

Char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion proved murkier. The think­ing be­hind Hulk’s colour­ing was loose: he only be­came green be­cause grey caused print­ing prob­lems for the comics, which only lasted for six is­sues be­fore can­cel­la­tion. Plus, “The Hulk was like a new char­ac­ter in each of those six is­sues,” Marvel vet­eran Roy Thomas re­marked. “Stan was try­ing what­ever worked.”

De­spite the stum­bles, Lee saw how the green meanie could be a use­ful team-player. The Avengers helped re­launch the Hulk in 1963 and he helped them in re­turn. “Hav­ing the Hulk in it made it eas­ier to write the is­sues, be­cause you never know, is he gonna be good? Is he gonna be bad? Is he gonna co­op­er­ate, or will he be against the Avengers?” Lee cap­i­talised on th­ese am­bi­gu­i­ties. Though the Hulk’s own rogues gallery in­cluded the Leader, the Abom­i­na­tion, Night­mare and more, his re­la­tion­ships with the Avengers were also be­set with trust is­sues. When the Hulk bat­tled the Avengers and Fan­tas­tic Four, Marvel hit its event-mode stride. Turned out the prob­lem kid had splash-page power.

Paint and gain

In the mid-’60s, Ban­ner’s im­pulsedriven an­ti­hero gained trac­tion among stu­dents. By 1971, he even made the cover of Rolling Stone mag­a­zine.

Seven years on, the Hulk spoke to a gen­er­a­tion (with­out many words) loudly in TV’s The In­cred­i­ble Hulk. As ever with the Hulk, the run was fraught but fer­tile. Not a comics fan, exec pro­ducer Ken­neth

John­son wanted a raging-red Hulk (Stan Lee re­sisted). Think­ing Lee’s al­lit­er­a­tive nam­ing child­ish, John­son changed ‘Bruce’ to ‘David’. He en­vis­aged an adult drama pitched be­tween Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde and Les Misérables, fo­cused on Bill Bixby’s Ban­ner be­ing a fugi­tive from the US Army. A melan­choly makeover emerged, hinged on John­son’s in­ter­est in the beasts within us all.

Teething trou­bles oc­curred in cast­ing, with Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger and Richard Kiel (James Bond neme­sis Jaws) con­sid­ered for the Hulk role. Arnie rec­om­mended Lou Fer­rigno. John­son thought the former met­al­worker wasn’t ac­tor enough. True, Fer­rigno had prob­lems with the green­ery when, in one in­ad­ver­tently camp episode, the Hulk smeared body paint on the bear he was fight­ing. Yet the show ran for 82 episodes and five TV movies, ce­ment­ing Fer­rigno as the Hulk in fans’ eyes for decades.

Green screen

Fer­rigno’s ex­pres­sive voice again roared in The In­cred­i­ble Hulk (1996-7), the cul­mi­na­tion of ap­pear­ances in an­i­mated ti­tles in­clud­ing Marvel Ac­tion Hour (1994-96). He also cameoed in Ang Lee’s 2003 re­boot, the path to which ex­posed the chal­lenges of a head­line Hulk movie. Pro­duc­ers Avi Arad and Gale Anne Hurd spent years try­ing to crack the prob­lem. Jonathan Hensleigh (The Pu­n­isher) and Joe John­ston (Ju­manji) were mooted helmers. Po­ten­tial vil­lains in­cluded in­sec­toid ex-cons and ter­ror­ists, be­sides vin­tage Hulk bad ’uns Gen­eral Ross, The Leader and Bruce’s dad.

Writer Michael France claimed Uni­ver­sal didn’t know whether to pitch the project as sci-fi or com­edy, a tonal is­sue that lin­gered in Lee’s movie. With am­bi­tion and af­fec­tion, Lee rev­elled in the su­per­pow­ers and psy­chodrama of the Hulk’s story: but the se­ri­ous/smash-y bal­ance was off and the mid­dling ef­fects drew Shrek com­par­isons.

Yet Lee’s film had more dis­tinc­tion than the MCU’s leaner The In­cred­i­ble Hulk (2008), which strug­gled with lame plot­ting and a mis­cast Ed Nor­ton. Louis Leter­rier’s box-of­fice flop joined Lee’s Hulk in smash­ing hopes of stand­alone Hulk movies: its $263.4m haul hardly tempted re­peat vis­its.

Nor­ton’s messy time as the Hulk grew messier post-film, when ra­dioac­tive ru­mours of star/stu­dio con­flicts cli­maxed in his de­par­ture. Yet just when the Hulk seemed a lost cause, Joss Whe­don stepped in. An­swer­ing Stan Lee’s com­plaint that the two movies had made the Hulk too pow­er­ful, Whe­don’s The Avengers used mo-cap to keep the in­nately hu­man Mark Ruf­falo in fo­cus: for the first time, one ac­tor played Ban­ner and the Hulk through­out. While Whe­don’s script de­ployed the Hulk with spar­ing care, Ruf­falo uni­fied his man/ mon­ster ex­trem­i­ties. Yet even Whe­don strug­gled. “The Hulk is the most dif­fi­cult Marvel prop­erty. Is he a mon­ster? Is he a hero? Are you going to root for a pro­tag­o­nist who spends all his time try­ing to stop the rea­son you came to the movie from hap­pen­ing?”

Back to the fu­ture

Be­yond th­ese cre­ative chal­lenges, rights is­sues stand in the way of head­line Hulk movies. Although Marvel can make them, Uni­ver­sal has the first right of re­fusal on dis­tri­bu­tion. But a sim­i­lar prob­lem was re­solved be­tween Marvel and Sony for Spi­der-Man: Home­com­ing, so such is­sues could per­haps be over­come, given the right story.

Shirt-shred­dingly good ideas are abun­dant on page. The Hulk has un­der­gone many over­hauls in the comics, from Pro­fes­sor Hulk to Sav­age Hulk to Guilt Hulk and be­yond. Bill Mantlo’s comics dug deep into Ban­ner’s child­hood trau­mas. Peter David’s ridicu­lously full-bod­ied 12-year comics run ranged vig­or­ously from jour­neys into the Hulk’s frac­tured psy­che to Aids-themed sto­ry­lines and psy­che­delic fan­tasies. Ban­ner’s doomed love for Betty Ross is a con­stant.

Else­where, at op­pos­ing ex­tremes, an out­sized Hulk ate Wolver­ine in Mark Mil­lar’s Old Man Lo­gan and a mi­cro-world Hulk fea­tured in a vin­tage Roy Thomas story. Greg Pak’s Planet/ World War Hulk tapped into Hulk’s grand-scale po­ten­tial; mean­while, Mark Waid’s The In­de­struc­tible Hulk gave the Hulk new imag­i­na­tive reach. And di­nosaurs to fight.

Don’t rule out Grey Hulk, ei­ther. He ap­peared in Peter David’s comics as Ve­gas heavy Joe Fixit. Whe­don also al­most used him in Ul­tron. You can’t keep a good Hulk down, much less pin him to one in­ter­pre­ta­tion. As for the fu­ture, Ruf­falo prom­ises “a lot of changes for Ban­ner and Hulk” from Rag­narok to In­fin­ity War. Fifty-five years af­ter that grey day, there’s still plenty stir­ring un­der Ban­ner’s skin.

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