Comic book fans are sensitive and demanding when their favorite characters are adapted to screen. Not only have they attached themselves to a long, dramatic arc and the wonderful quirks of a written character, but they’ve already seen him visualized. Big and small screen versions have to translate that character’s essence and make it recognizable while molding it for the new medium. No easy task — and one that’s been particularly difficult for Marvel’s biggest, greenest leading man: The Hulk.
Looking back, few fans would argue that the 1977 to 1982 series The Incredible Hulk was a low-fi, yet surprisingly perfect take on the character. Starring Bill Bixby as the reserved Dr. Bruce Banner and Lou Ferrigno as his verdant alter ego, The Incredible Hulk sparingly used the rage monster, instead focusing on Banner’s quest to help people while attempting to quell his own inner demons. People fell in love with the show — including the filmmakers and actors behind the later incarnations of the character. When director Ang Lee and Eric Bana tackled the 2003 version, Hulk, they returned to the TV show. The movie bombed. Eventually, Marvel seized back the rights and rebooted the series with director Louis Leterrier and new leading man, Edward Norton (2008’s The Incredible Hulk). They famously apologized for the first film at Comic-Con, suggesting that Norton would deliver something closer to Bixby and Ferrigno’s combined performance. That movie too failed to draw mass audiences and jumpstart a franchise.
Audiences could tune in week-to-week watching a muscled man run around in green body paint solving small-scale problems, but when it came to a modern interpretation (souped up with a hundred million dollars worth of special effects), interest couldn’t be mustered. Why? Comic book Hulk isn’t limited to saving cats in trees and slamming down doors to rescue citizens trapped in burning buildings — in fact, in recent years, he’s become a character with enough thoughtfulness to lead an entire race to freedom after being banished to another planet. (There’s a live-action movie you will never see.) On a simpler scale, The Hulk is essentially a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde reinterpretation, a story that’s been adapted to screen, TV, and stage hundreds of times. The story and character appear to be intact and mineable. That leaves the execution.
For insight, there’s really only one man to turn to: The Hulk himself, Ferrigno. “I know exactly what needed to come out from inside of him,” Ferrigno told Hollywood.com. “[Having done] the TV series, I know how The Hulk thinks and feels.” Having played the character for five years and in a handful of television movies, the bodybuilder-turned-actor understands the human component of Hulk — an aspect lost in the digital versions of cinematic Hulk. Ferrigno is blunt: “CGI can’t compare to the human Hulk.”
By having a human Hulk, the TV show had an upper hand when it came to performance. Ferrigno was able to shape his Hulk with the help of his human counterpart. The actor found Hulk evolving even further when Bixby eventually stepped into the role of director on the show. “Bill didn’t want The Hulk to be comical, jumping off buildings. It was a TV series. We didn’t have the special effects like today. And he mainly wanted to focus on the story plots. He was the best one in the business. Whenever I had questions I would ask Bill about The Hulk, how he felt and how we could improve the performance. We worked as a team.”
That collaboration helped Ferrigno unlock actual emotion while grunting and growling as the larger-than-life hero. Anger was the inciting emotion, but the key to connecting with an audience was something deeper. “Sensitivity. It came right through the make-up. We relate to him because when you look at the human Hulk, you feel like that kind of person. When you’re angry, when you’re emotionally depressed. The Hulk does it for you. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, that’s what made the show magic.”
In this week’s Marvel’s The Avengers, actor Mark Ruffalo will be the first Bruce Banner to also “play” the Hulk, thanks to the wonders of motion capture technology. For the first time on the big screen, Hulk will be receiving the help of a human performer. Much like his predecessors, director Joss Whedon has stated that he hopes to revive the magic of the Bixby/Ferrigno show. With Ruffalo actually portraying The Hulk, that may finally be possible. But not without a little help from Ferrigno, of course. “I did the voice of The Hulk for The Avengers. The growl, everything.”
For the actor, that’s the keystone of a live-action Hulk. Filmmakers, actors, and audiences fondly remember the show because that was the definitive, inescapable Hulk — an imprint as powerful as the original source material. “I do conventions and almost every person knows, when I come to the convention, that I’m doing the voice of The Hulk and they get excited. They have the motivation, they want to connect with The Hulk. They know.”
With word that Ruffalo has been signed for a six-picture deal, that could see him return as Banner in future Marvel movies and his own stand alone films, it sounds like Marvel may have solved their Hulk problem. You’ll find out for sure when The Avengers hits theaters this weekend.