Universal // 1977 // 692 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // September 13th, 2006
You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.
Lean, mean and definitely green, The Incredible Hulk burst on to screens in the late 1970s and offered a fresh new slant on live-action superhero TV. Based on the long running comic book from Stan Lee's Marvel imprint, this small screen incarnation of the colossal character offered a sentimental, occasionally bleak view of derring-do. It depends less on the appearance of the "beast within" than the trials of a mild-mannered alter ego forced to deal with a life-altering affliction. Over four landmark seasons, the show kick-started the superhero craze of the late 1970s and set the groundwork for the future of Marvel Comics' vast film and television empire.
Exposed to a massive dose of gamma radiation while working on his theory of untapped inner strength, research scientist Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby, Clambake) discovers that feelings of anger or anxiety inexplicably transform him into a rampaging muscle-bound green creature known as the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, Hercules). While Banner attempts to reverse the effect at his lab, however, the beast is mistakenly blamed for the death of a fellow scientist. Hunted by sleazy tabloid journalist Jack McGee (Jack Colvin, Child's Play), who wants the Hulk exposed on the front page of The National Register, Banner heads out on the open road in the hopes of discovering a cure. He helps out ordinary people who have gotten themselves in trouble along the way.
The Incredible Hulk already has a long history on the DVD format, but this is the first time the show has been offered in collected season box sets. Featuring a solid four discs of Hulk smashing action, The Incredible Hulk: The Complete First Season contains two feature-length pilot TV movies, and the ten episodes that followed once the series was picked up for a regular prime time run. It includes:
* Pilot (TV movie)
* Death in the Family (TV movie)
* The Final Round
* The Beast Within
* Of Guilt, Models and Murder
* Terror in Times Square
* The Hulk Breaks Las Vegas
* Never Give a Trucker an Even Break
* Life and Death
* Earthquakes Happen
* The Waterfront Story
The comic-book incarnation of the Hulk obviously owed much to Robert Louis Stevenson's immortal horror novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Tthis screen adaptation looked more to Universal's depression-era horror classics The Wolf Man (and to a lesser extent, Frankenstein) to give The Incredible Hulk a distinctly adult spin. Like Lon Chaney Jr.'s ill-fated Larry Talbot, Dr. David Banner is by day a real person, the victim of a circumstance that has left him aware of his curse but unable to control it. But where The Wolf Man harkened back to the Scopes trial and breakthroughs in evolutionary theory to suggest that thin line between civility and savagery, the TV version of the Hulk tapped into the same ambiguity as a source of strength and hope. Though Banner spent the series trying to control his alter-ego through scientific means, the Hulk was never a killer who put innocent people in danger. He was an empowering "monster from the id" who gave viewers a way to vicariously fight back against everything from organized crime to national disasters in the uncertain and corruption-plagued 1970s.
Not that this was always obvious from the mostly uneven, yet beloved, TV series that represented Marvel's first big live-action success on the small screen. The series' wild fluctuations in quality are captured succinctly in the two TV movie pilots included on the first disc of this set. The pilot film, which basically comprises the Hulk's origin story, really depicts the potential of the show, even it if was a radically different take on the character than his carnage and supervillain-filled comic book. Featuring both action and pathos, it has some great scenes of Banner getting pelted with Hulk-evoking gamma beams, a controlled test where the Hulk bashes his way out of armored isolation tank, and some amazing moments of the beleaguered scientist struggling with the implications of his change. Though dropped in subsequent episodes, the idea that people have an accessible inner strength brought out by stress is both interesting and plausible, and Banner's obsession over his wife's car accident death (specifically why he was unable to save her) makes for good dramatic fodder.
"Death in the Family," on the other hand, is a puerile and unintentionally hilarious follow-up to the thoughtful debut featuring a teeth-gratingly saccharine performance by Laurie Prange (Looking for Mr. Goodbar) as an heiress who only thinks she can't walk after a boat fire claims the life of her well-to-do father. Of course, there's a plot afoot by the girl's wicked stepmother to steal her inheritance, and it's up to Banner and a warm-hearted hobo (John McLiam, First Blood) to stop them. Climaxing with a completely ludicrous foot chase that sees Banner turning into the Hulk no less than three times to fight a rattlesnake, a man in a tattered grizzly bear suit, and a pool of quicksand, it's an embarrassing effort that emphasizes the most brainless qualities of the premise.
Once the series actually began, however, a happy medium between these two extremes was hammered out, and formula began to take over. In almost every episode on the set, Banner arrives in a new town, takes a menial job, and inadvertently befriends (and later assists) a damsel in distress. The Hulk almost always makes two appearances in each episode-one about 20 minutes in, and once again for the big brick wall-smashing, mob boss-flinging finale. Much of the first season episodes play out in this fashion, including "The Beast Within," which has zoo pooper-scooper Banner stumbling on a smuggling ring, and "The Final Round," in which Banner discovers that a would-be boxer is marked for death after he discovers he's been exploited as a drug mule by a crooked gym owner.
In the midst of these by-the-numbers exercises, "The Hulk Breaks Las Vegas" clearly stands out as the series' highpoint. Unlike most of the episodes, the appearance of Jack McGee isn't the cue for the Banner to head off down the highway hitchhiking to weepy piano music, but he's cleverly worked into the plot, and must work together with Banner to bring down a crooked casino. One of the finest shows ever done for the series, this episode is smartly scripted and engrossingly performed, as Banner must find a way to help his pursuer without blowing his cover, resulting in all sorts of information drops, vague phone-calls and suspense as McGee tries to discover who his anonymous partner is. The final Hulk-out, which pits against the jade juggernaut against a bulldozer in a bid to save McGee's life, harkens back to the best moments of the pilot.
Even when the The Incredible Hulk is great, it's still plagued by production problems. It's really too bad that the network wasn't interested in properly bankrolling this admittedly gimmicky addition to their prime-time line up. The idea of having Banner traverse across the United States in search of a cure was inspired. But all ten episodes were clearly filmed on the same dingy Hollywood backlot, with the Hulk's supposed whereabouts communicated to the audience exclusively through establishing shots culled from library footage -- a transparently cheap technique. They did apparently splurge once for a few seconds of a greened-up Ferrigno tearing around Manhattan in "Terror in Times Square," but more often than not, the producers were content to rely on obvious trickery. For example, in "The Hulk Breaks Las Vegas," Ferrigno's downtown rampage is blatantly superimposed over a blue screen background of brightly-lit casinos. While the Hulk's transformation scenes were always one of the most enjoyable and accomplished aspects of the show, these were eventually recycled ad nauseum too, to save yet a few more bucks. Even more astounding, many of the bigger special effects and action scenes this season are shamelessly stolen from many of Universal's big screen hits, including Earthquake, Duel, and even the Airport series!
Like most TV on DVD releases from the 1970s, Universal's The Incredible Hulk: The Complete First Season isn't going to wow anyone on presentation. The included episodes look just about as sharp and bright as those in syndication, but are marred by the expected grain and source artifacts of their previous The Incredible Hulk: The Television Series Ultimate Collection sampler release, which collected scattered episodes from throughout the show's history. The mono 2.0 soundtrack is, as expected, cramped and slightly muffled, but music and dialogue come through more than sufficiently. The extras are a disappointing lot; a commentary on the pilot telefilm by writer/director/producer Kenneth Johnson is simply ported over from an earlier DVD that featured both that episode and the 90-minute second season debut, "Married." We also get a teaser from the next season here, the lackluster episode "Stop the Presses" that will be rendered useless for collectors once they pick up the eventual next DVD season set. It's worth noting, however, that the housing box features a fun, 3-D lenticular cover of Banner hulking out, a nice touch on an otherwise lackluster effort by Universal.
Despite some clever episodes and the occasional slice of poignant drama, it's a stretch to call The Incredible Hulk: The Complete First Season great TV on the whole, but that doesn't stop me from wholeheartedly recommending it to even casual fans of the big green lug. Focusing on the soft-spoken, genuinely compassionate Dr. David Banner rather than his menacing alter-ego, The Incredible Hulk remains an inspired, strikingly adult comic book interpretation that is often interesting despite its budgetary limitations and its reliance on formula.
Review content copyright © 2006 Paul Corupe; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 692 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary on Pilot Episode
* "Stop the Presses" Episode from Season 2