And You Thought It Was Safe(?)

The Incredible Hulk (1977)

The Avengers (2012)

Hulk Vs. (2009)

Lionsgate Entertainment and Marvel Comics have quite the partnership going on. Hoping to tide us over between summer blockbuster seasons, the (I don’t quite feel right about calling them “dynamic”) duo of media conglomerates have put out a steady stream of direct-to-DVD cartoon features starring Marvel’s heaviest-hitting heroes. I’ve already spoken about Ultimate Avengers. The fact that I’ve seen it’s sequel, along with the animated Iron Man, and was not impressed enough to write either of them up, should tell you all you need to know about those two. You can understand why I went into tonight’s subject with a mixture of high hopes and lowered expectations.

My love for the Hulk knows few bounds, and I’ve been disappointed by most of his live-action outings. I’ll defend Ang Lee’s Hulk until the day I’m forced to save humanity from the despotic rule of my power-mad future-self, but last year’s Incredible Hulk left me cold. Desperate, I once again looked to Ultimate Avengers and the 1970s Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno live action show for my genuine Bruce Banner fix.

I still do. {More}

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

I’ll say this: it was better than I expected…if only because my expectations were so low. This sequel was long in coming, and all its flaws flow from the fact that no one (apart from me, it seems) enjoyed its predecessor.

Well, I hope you’re all happy. This movie is, in almost every way, a repudiation of Ang Lee’s Hulk, a one-eighty degree turn that falls all over itself to push all our Pavlovian buttons and make us squeal. Like a pile of red meat delivered to your door, it looks good but it’ll plug you up like a clogged septic tank, stuffing you with meaningless noise, flashing lights and disjointed images…much like the way Dr. Bruce Banner describes his experience as the Hulk: “It’s like someone poured ten gallons of acid into my brain.” I don’t know who Bruce is getting it from. Around these parts, you can get the same effect with a fraction of that dosage. Costs about as much as a movie ticket anyway (less if your date wants popcorn–mine, fortunately, did not) and you can enjoy it in the privacy of your own home, away from other people’s children, comments, loud laughter, and ill-timed cellphone usage. {More}

Ultimate Avengers (2006)
Yeah, guy wearing a flag into battle. That's not an easy target.

Yeah, guy wearing a flag into battle. That's not an easy target.

Best to begin this with what Ultimate Avengers is not. It’s not the movie I’d hoped it would be. What is these days, right? It’s not a shot-by-shot recreation of the similarly named, and much more thematically complicated Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch comic book miniseries upon which it is based. It’s not necessarily a major milestone in American animation. (No Fritz the Cat’s here, folks, keep walking.) It is not Marvel’s answer to Paul Dini’s spectacular Justice League series, which did more with more characters, smaller budgets, and the Ever Present Eye of Cartoon Network’s Standards and Practices.

Ultimate Avengers is not a great movie at all…and it shakes and shutters on the cusp of being good. By any objective or technical measure it’s not really that, either. The reasons why become quickly apparent. But first: plot synopsis.

Ultimate Avengers opens (like so much else in the Marvel Universe) during the winningest days of World War II. Hitler is dead, his armies in retreat, Germany safely carpet-bombed back to the Middle Ages. “But what,” asks the radio announcer, “are these rumors of a secret Nazi super weapon aimed at Washington? Categorically false, says the War [nee, Defense] Department. And we believe them!” {More}

Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)

''Was that you, George?''Short and sweet version:

The defining, stand out scene of this whole movie (the one we all get our pictures from) turns out to be a dream sequence.

Long and painful version:

Remember when I called The Incredible Hulk Returns “a fine capstone” to the series? Well, that was the truth. It’s unfortunate no one at NBC realized this in time. Not very surprising, though. Happens everywhere. A decent little picture miraculously becomes popular (popular enough to snatch the fifth highest rating of any program aired in the same week) only to be sullied by a lackluster, assembly-line sequel.

Hot off the success of Returns, NBC rushed to make a deal with Marvel for future Incredible Hulk outings. And, wouldn’t you know it, less than a year later Trial of the Incredible Hulk roared and flexed its way to prime time. And as the talking head said on the news, right before the aliens blew up all those cities, “Indeed, god help us all.”

Well…okay. So it’s not that bad. Things could be worse. But saying “things could be worse” doesn’t make that any better. Go back in time and try saying that to a Parisian during the Natzi occupation. Go ahead, try it. You’ll see something funny. Still…there’s definitely something missing from Trial. You can feel it from the start. For one thing, the obligatory Hulk title sequence is nowhere to be found. Instead, Dr. David Banner’s choppy voiceover brings us up to speed. Scientist. Gamma radiation. Monster. Yadda, yadda, yadda…

We find Dr. Banner (still played by Bill Bixby) hole diggin’ in some anonymous rural landscape. When one of his co-diggers decides to get smart and push him around, Banner takes the moral high road and decides running away is his best bet. Right away we see the responsible, upstanding Banner of Returns is nowhere to be found here, and no reference is made to whatever might’ve happened in the Time Between to drive Banner this far back underground.* Unfortunate, considering whatever it was would’ve probably be much more entertaining to watch than the following.

[*Of course, this assumes that Returns and Trial take place sequentially…and in the same fictional universe. No one on the production end of things seemed to care enough about this issue to even bring it up. As a result, Trial could just as easily have taken place during the show’s original Five-Year Mission…save Bixby’s choice to sport a shaggy beard for the first two-thirds of this film.]

Knapsack in hand, Our bearded Hero heads for The City…though, by now you’d think Banner would be smart enough to know this is a Bad Idea. We certainly are. Sure enough, within ten minutes Our Hero runs across two thieves assaulting a woman named Ellie Mendez (Marta DuBois) on The Subway. Rough housing ensues and Banner’s alter ego (still Lou Ferrigno) emerges to bust some heads.

Now, there’s nothing really wrong with Bixby’s choice to sport a beard in this outing. Banner’s two-dimensional other self has been known to change his appearance while on the lamb. But you’d think someone (in make-up, props, set-design, anywhere) could’ve run out, ganked some more green-tinted yak hair, and given Ferrigno a beard too. As is, this glaring continuity problem unwilling sabotages the emotional crux of this entire Hulk thang. Know what I’m sayin’, G? It’s hard to enjoy the high point of a film with a goof like that staring you right in the face. We nerds are a fastidious bunch, and our eyes (sheltered behind their shields of glass) are sharp as hawks. And we really hate it when our left brain interrupts our right brain’s vicarious thrills with stupid questions like, “Hey, where the hell’s the Hulk’s beard?”

This is one of the least talked-about issues of Trial, one that I think is central to the final taste the film leaves in your mouth. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There’s more plot ahead. After sending the punks packing, the Hulk (with his usual subtlety) makes his escape through a crowded station, cops in pursuit. Johnny Law finds a half naked, shivering Banner and somehow* Our Hero winds up behind bars, accused of attacking the very woman he tried to save.

[*We later learn that police in The City are helplessly corrupt, along with most of the local politicians (duh). Still, you’d think a higher Court of Appeals might be interested in all those witness testimonies about a big green dude who bore no resemblance to the skinny white man the cops picked up. Or maybe the FBI. Unless you’re telling me the FBI is ignoring all the blatantly obvious organized crime in The City.]

Who would possibly defend the Incredible Hulk? Why…Matt Murdock (Rex Smith) of course. Foolish humans.

A week ago, I saw two men kissing in a park. It was the gayest  thing I've ever seen. Until now.And right here, ladies, we have the Trial‘s other Defining Problem: Daredevil. Remember, last time at least Thor had the decency to have his bar fight and leave so we could all watch Banner Hulk-out and kick ass? Not so here. My key point remains: if you’re gonna do a Pilot, make a fucking pilot. This left-handed stuff just doesn’t work. But have no fear, Dr. Banner. Matt Murdock is on the case…especially after dark, when Matt sheds his three-piece for a black leotard and becomes the vigilante known as Daredevil, the Man Without a Shred of Self-Respect.

Matt quickly deduces that Ellie Mendez’s accusation is obviously the work of his arch nemesis: the Kingpin (John Rhys-Davies!). Masquerading as well-paid rich person, Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin uses his wealth and power to command a vast criminal network slowly eating away at The City’s heart. Daredevil being a Marvel Comics character, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out who killed Matt Murdock’s father, providing Our other Hero with a Defining Element of Tragedy. One of them, anyway…Daredevil, breaking the Spider-man mold, has two. The other being a childhood misadventure with an old man, a street, and a truck illegally transporting toxic waste through The CIty. Young Matt, rescuing an old man from a hit-n’-run, wound up dosed with “those mysterious rays of which we know so little…” loosing his sight. Fortunately the accident also made his other senses extraordinarily sensitive, giving him a kind of second sight, which the makers of Trail chose to represent with a cheep video filter effect.

So, while Banner sweats in prison, we follow Daredevil as he learns those two men in the subway were in fact fleeing one of Kingpin’s diamond heists. Peeked at his arch-rival’s interest, the Kingpin quickly kidnaps Ellie Mendez, using her as bait to lure Daredevil in and slaughter him…on video*. Fisk plans to then showcase “the destruction of my enemy” to “the other heads of Crime,” convincing them to turn over control of their vast organizations…somehow.

[*Much like The Architect, the Kingpin has a healthy TV fetish. And, like any villain, wears only square sunglasses.]

Will Daredevil save Banner from the stand? Will the Hulk save Daredevil from the Kingpin? Will anyone save the poor Latina babe (and her scary, 80s hair) whose plight started all of this? And how come a two-hour made for TV movie can last this long?

Last question first: These two hours are filled to bursting with all the plot, setting, and exposition you can stomach…and more. Too bad most of this stuff isn’t terribly interesting, considering how little it hasto do with our titular character. Hence Defining Problem Number Three: The two main character arcs of the piece are badly cobbled together, with the Hulk clearly getting such a short shift he doesn’t even appear during the climactic battle. Daredevil’s prominence is almost insulting on one level. I…well, didn’t exactly pay for this movie…but if I had, I would’ve paid for a Hulk, movie, damnit. If the NBC bean counters (I’m under no illusions about writer Gerald Di Pego’s degree of script control) didn’t trust Daredevil enough to give him two hours and no competition, well…fuck Daredevil, then. Not like you don’t have the Hulk, for God’s sake.

So, obviously, Trial’s another victim of bureaucratic pussyfooting. But chin up, campers, there’s plenty more wrong with this picture. For one thing, there’s no real evidence connecting the central axis of the plot (the two robbers menacing Mendez on the subway) to the Kingpin. We’re told he wants to keep these thugs in prison, so the obvious question is…why? With his god-like control over The City (actually Vancouver, B.C., natch), couldn’t the Kingpin just have them killed in prison? In a sequence that harkens back to the feel of the Hulk series, only random chance saves Banner from meeting a similar fate.*

[*Of course, no further attempts on his life are made.]

Then there’s this whole thing with the Kingpin forming a “network” with other crime lords….his competitors, in other words. Again, why? The Kingpin I know would be much more interested in killing his rivals off, one by one, as an ever-shrinking number of them sweat, wondering when the ax would fall. Or maybe sic them all on each other through some Machiavellian scheme…or, better yet, send the idiots after Daredevil. I’m sure they’d hop to it once the Kingpin showed them all the evidence he’s amassed of Daredevil’s WMD program.

I’m just rattling these off. Unfortunately every one of them would require little things like a budget, more screen time, and much more talent on either side of the camera. A problem showcased by Bill Bixby’s miniscule screen time during the first two-thirds, while the audience is forced to follow Daredevil. Without a doubt, Bixby is the most professional actor in the house. Yet even he (like everyone else) labors under the ludicrous dialogue he’s forced to spout. Stomp Tokyo’s favorite (“I’m a good doctor. I thought I’d lost it, but I haven’t. I can fix anything they broke in you…except your spirit.”) is just the tip of this saccharine iceberg. You might like to know that Mr. Di Pego also banged out the 1996 John Travolta vehicle, Phenomenon. That’s what we’re dealing with here. And nothing stirs up my Banner-ambivalence like idiotic dialogue. At least John Rhys-Davies seems to be enjoying himself. By playing Kingpin completely straight (no matter how illogical his plans) Rhys-Davies manages to escape with his limbs intact. But do you think he put this on his Lord of the Rings resume? No.

The sad thing is…I kinda dug Rex Smith. As Daredevil, he’s sorely lacking.* As Matt Murdock, he’s…competent. But (again, like everyone else) his Murdock comes across as a refugee from a soap opera. Not to mention all the crucial elements of Daredevil’s character (and, by extension, his story’s distinct world) left on the cutting room floor. Vancouver’s a poor Hell’s Kitchen. Murdock’s struggling legal practice becomes a posh corporate office right next door to the Kingpin’s tower. And Foggy Nelson is replaced by a woman named Christa and a Token Black Dude. Sweet Jesus.

[*My friend Rachel (upon examining the box art): “So, is this quife supposed to be Daredevil?”]

I was largely ambivalent towards Trial of the Incredible Hulk as I sat watching the credits role. A few hours of serious thought really helped me understand why. In the final tally, this movie is just a mess. It’s schizophrenic, drifting from melodrama to over-the-top superhero action without a hint of care. Bogged down with exposition, it grinds  to a halt every time another plot point begs for attention. And you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor sobs who have to say these awful things.

You are no match for the green pecs of JusticeMostly, I feel sorry for the Hulk. Because there’s nothing technically wrong with this movie (in the most literal sense). Its rampant story problems wear the scars of a rushed, haphazard production…or at least pre-production. And if you think I’m ignoring Bill Bixby’s contribution as a director…well, you’re right. But it’s not like he gives me much to go on. While his dialogue is trite and heavy-handed, his camera is lackluster and invisible. Very much the point-‘n-shoot style. Not something to write home about.

Which pretty sums up Trial of the Incredible Hulk…a bit of masochistic fun for the whole family. Especially if you hate your family with all your heart and soul. And if your family hates superhero movies, and you want to reinforce their beliefs, then look no further than this bit of trash from second decade of superhero movies Golden Age, when TV budgets shrank, big names began to jump ship, and Tim Burton proved to everyone Big Budget, summer blockbusters were the only way to go. All lessons learned in 1989…lessons we’ve paid for ever since.


Hulk (2003)

You know, straining too hard can cause a brain embolism.For various and sundry reasons, the Incredible Hulk casts a long shadow over my pantheon of superheroes…and what better time than now to examine each and every one in agonizing detail? It’s all because of that damned TV show. See, a long time ago, on a farm far, far away, my parents had a brief flirtation with mid-eighties middle-class status symbols. They got the VCR. They got the VHS. They got the satellite dish. One of those unwieldy, forty-foot fuckers that typified success for millions. Sure, go plant a ten foot tall metal tree in my back yard. Boy, that’ll really add value to the house.

By the time I came around, we got exactly two channels on the damn thing. Everything else was snow, bandwidth to bandwidth. Until the Sci-Fi Channel. One day, there it was: twenty-four hours of good ol’ fashioned science fiction programming. The Visitor, The Prisoner, The Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes, Battlestar Galactica…and The Incredible Hulk, every day at four, staring Bill Bixby. I’d get off school and bam, there it was,  Lou Ferrigno large and in charge. I developed quite the ritual around it, as I did with all the good shows. And like all the good shows, eventually, Hulk disappeared without a trace. {More}

The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
August 11, 2003, 5:04 am
Filed under: Movies, Reviews | Tags: , , ,

In 1979 the gray hairs at CBS shocked the world by unleashing The Incredible Hulk on prime time television. It was revolutionary in a post-Superman America, where comic book properties were thought either too expensive for television (unless they were animated), or just too damn campy. The tragicomic failure of TV’s Spider-man the year before only worked to shore up these illusions. And yet…

On one level, The Incredible Hulk was a horrific Franken-show. Its cast and crew of soap opera veterans had little idea how to run a superhero series. Its producers could barely drum up enough money to keep the green paint on Lou Ferrigno’s skin. And the network insisted on changing the main character’s name from “Bruce” to “David” because “Bruce” was just sooo gay. Even in 1979.

And yet it ran for five years with respectable ratings. The fan base seemed to grow and grow. People just couldn’t get enough of the not-so-jolly green giant and his puny human alter-ego. This marked a spike of hope in that superhero dead zone. Not bad considering every show featured exactly the same plot.

Then in 1982 The Incredible Hulk vanished. And silence covered the sky. With their mainstay gone, Marvel Comics seemed to fold in upon itself, shying away from live action film production. Just look at the ratings, they told themselves: people were getting bored with it, we were getting bored with it. Better to fade away than burn out. Could’ve been worse. They could’ve hated it. {More}