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‘Incredible Hulk’ (1977) is the best Hulk movie ever

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You won’t like him when he’s angry — but then again, maybe you will.

Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Hollywood had a different strategy for launching comic book heroes into live-action. In the 1970s, Marvel fans were treated to a cavalcade of made-for-TV superhero movies meant to kickoff long-running shows. The results were… mixed, with subpar outings for Dr. Strange and Captain America doing more damage than good for their respective characters, but without a doubt, the biggest success of the era has got to be The Incredible Hulk.

What began as a 2-hour pilot starring Bill Bixby (Dr. Banner) and Lou Ferrigno (the Hulk) blasted the popular Marvel character with enough gamma radiation to last for five seasons — and this was back when a TV season last for 20+ episodes, not the 10-episode arcs we get today from Netflix and HBO.

The Incredible Hulk is a classic for a reason, but how does it compare to Mark Ruffalo’s performance? Can it even surpass Ang Lee’s unpopular adaptation of the hulking superhero? Let’s take a closer look at the 1977 movie that launched this incredible show.

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The movie opens with cheerful mood music and a frolicking couple. Then the music turns ominous. Suddenly there’s a burning car and Bill Bixby’s painfully anguished facial expressions.

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Right from the beginning, it’s clear this show is diverging from the original Hulk story by giving Bruce Banner’s character a random wife who died in a car accident. The wife isn’t anyone we’d know from the comics, she’s just named “Laura Banner.” She’s not even Banner’s usual love interest, Betty Ross. In fact, none of the usual characters are here. No Rick Jones, no Betty, no General Ross.

More jarringly, our main character’s name has changed from “Bruce Banner” to “David Banner.” Hearing our lead constantly referred to as “David” just makes me think of Nick Nolte from the 2003 film.

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It’s sometimes hard for me to see “David Banner” and “Bruce Banner” as the same person. Mainly because David Banner is a very careless scientist. Still distraught over his wife’s death, Banner is studying how adrenaline gives people extraordinary strength when in crisis — something he failed to access in the accident that killed his wife. Banner then figures out that several of the adrenaline-induced strength cases he’s studying occurred during high levels of gamma radiation from sunspots. And that gamma radiation levels were low the day of his car accident. So, what does Banner do? He injects himself with over 2 million units of gamma radiation, of course! Without supervision!

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Okay, technically, he intended to inject himself with only 300,000 units, but another scientist had been messing with the injector and hadn’t finished calibrating it — causing Banner to overdose on gamma radiation. Banner would have known this if he had the sense to wait until someone was available to assist him.

Driving home from a thunderstorm, we see a pissed off David Banner furiously change his flat tire looking like all of our collective fathers having car trouble.

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And Banner is so hilariously mad at his car that he dramatically turns into Lou Ferrigno.

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I will say that the Hulk transformation scene was excellent given that this was made in the late ’70s. The transition from Banner to Hulk was executed quite seamlessly, which must have been challenging since this involved a change of actors.

In terms of the origin story, the comics did a better job showing Banner as a complete victim of circumstances. He knew the dangers of gamma radiation and took every precaution. What screwed him over was dumbass teenage Rick Jones driving through a government testing site right when Bruce was about to test a gamma bomb. Bruce risked his life to save this teenager’s sorry self but was caught in the gamma explosion, turning him into the Hulk.

Here, we have David Banner deliberately pump himself full of gamma radiation without assistance. Yeah, he called his partner, Elaina, but she had gone home already. Instead of waiting until tomorrow, he decides he has to shoot himself up RIGHT NOW. Under these circumstances, Banner’s Hulk problem feels far more preventable.

NBCUniversal Television

That’s not to say this Hulk TV special is bad. Far from it. Unlike other Marvel TV specials of this era, The Incredible Hulk devoted more time to real character development. Even if you sometimes get annoyed with David Banner, it’s still easy to feel empathy for him. He’s clearly agonized by his failure to save his wife, and later even more so when he realizes what his experiment did to him. You can see his genuine terror and fear of unknowingly harming someone while in his Hulk form.

Also done well was Banner’s relationship with his friend and colleague, Elaina. In other early Marvel TV movies, too often the female characters are thrown in just to be someone’s love interest. But Elaina is Banner’s true contemporary.

NBCUniversal Television

When they say that they’re long-time friends, you believe them — the actors have that much chemistry with each other. When Banner realizes he’s in deep trouble, Elaina is the one he turns to. And she’s right there, ready to protect him and help cure him. Elaina is the one to remind Banner of his humanity, and reassure him that he’s not a killer as murder goes against his nature, which means the Hulk can’t be a killer, as he’s still a part of Banner.

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When Elaina is killed at the end of the movie, I felt genuinely sorry as the pilot did a great job establishing her as a character in very little time. My only gripe is that Elaina confesses her love for Banner (in his Hulk form) just before she dies. Banner later returns the sentiment at her gravestone.

NBCUniversal Television

As much as I sensed their connection, it never seemed like a romantic one — just a very intimate friendship. And it would have been better if it stayed that way. This out-of-nowhere love confession felt like it was hurriedly written in at the last minute.

The pilot movie ends on a note that smoothly transitions to the series. David Banner flees town after being declared dead, beginning his journey of finding a cure, and, until then, use his alter-ego to help others in need.

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It certainly keeps the audience on edge and leaves them wanting to see more. I can honestly say that I was far more invested in this story than in the 2003’s Hulk. And I’ll take this David Banner over Nick Nolte any day.

Is this the best Hulk movie ever? To be fair, it’s not a high bar. Ang Lee’s movie is one of the director’s worst, and Marvel’s attempt to reboot the character with Ed Norton wasn’t much better. The studio finally found its Bruce Banner in Mark Ruffalo, but until his Hulk gets a standalone movie, the 1977 film remains the one to beat.

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Rewind is an Inverse series that remembers the forgotten performances we love.

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