The Incredible Hulk represents the most conflicted of egos in comic books today, that is: he’s the most angry. And the madder he gets, the stronger he becomes. There have been four noteworthy film representations of the Hulk to date, and we are going to look at who wear the shredded purple pants best, ranking them on a five-fist scale of Incredibility. Thanks to the modern film, the giant himself is entirely CGI in the later renditions, so for this article, we will be looking at how the actor represents the Hulk when in the human form of Bruce Banner.
Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno
The Incredible Hulk TV show that aired from 1978-1982 was the first regular look at the Jade Giant in film. What made the show so wonderful was the final montage in every episode that showed a lonely Bruce Banner making his way along a highway wearily trying to escape the damage that his life always brought with him. Actor Bill Bixby did a fine enough job of portraying the generous mind of Bruce Banner, but he had too much of an air of fatherly authority. Bruce Banner in the comics actually comes off much more mild, as the anger that triggers his transformation is a side effect of having grown up with a physically abusive father. Bixby’s portrayal feels too much like an empowering reversal of the character.
Additionally, many times in the course of the show Bixby seems to be okay with the monster he releases. Heck, even popularized the phrase, “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” This too feels like a character reversal because Banner was always more interested in repressing the Hulk at all costs; that’s why he was always willing to pack it all up and move away at a moment’s notice. While Bixby’s character was fun to watch, it just didn’t feel like the Hulk from comics
Lou Ferrigno on the other hand represents everything that we have come to love about the Hulk in films. He never had any lines, so his portrayal was entirely physical rage. The beauty of his performance was that when you saw the Hulk lift a car full of bad guys and roll it into a ditch, you were really seeing someone lifting a car and rolling it into a ditch. The reality of straining muscles and bursting neck veins made the character intense and gratifying. Most of the time, viewers tuned in for the whole show just for the reward of seeing the ridiculously huge Ferrigno go savage on the bad guys for a few moments each episode.
Score: One green fist for Bixby and two for Ferrigno
Ang Lee’s attempt at capturing the story of the Hulk was a great first step for the character in modern film. Unfortunately, the film was so poorly written and inexplicably cast that Lee’s visual style and fast picture work couldn’t save the film. Leading the foray was Eric Bana, an Australia-born Croatian actor who was most known at that point for a minor role in 2001’s Black Hawk Down. Bana had the unsavory task of showing the shift in Banner’s character in the aftermath of not only a DNA-altering accident but the revelation that he’s adopted. The story converted so much of the source material into Hollywood drivel that even the most accomplished actor would have a hard time nailing the character, let alone Bana. While he did his best to portray the tortured character, Bana treated the role too much like the tough guy he is for audiences to really develop empathy for Banner as the victim of both child abuse and a terrible twist of fate. Bana fails to capture either the anger of the Hulk or the self-sacrifice of the brilliant Banner.
Score: One green fist, right in Ang Lee’s face
2008’s The Incredible Hulk was probably the most under-rated of the Hulk representations so far. The film was critically boo-ed for it’s slower pace and lack of climax. But Edward Norton’s take on the Bruce Banner character was perhaps the best we’d seen. He fully committed to every abgle of the character. He nailed the brilliance and generosity of the doctor. He caught the fear of losing control. He even mastered the clever need to escape from both the monster inside and those who would use it to their advantage. Norton even looked like Banner by all accounts. As a superb actor, Norton treated his take on Banner with the psychological tension that the character deserved. It’s too bad his best scenes only appeared as bonuses on the DVD.
Score: Four green fists
No one can deny the acclaim that this summer’s Avengers movie has brought to Marvel comics. And a large (no pun intended) portion of that is due to director Joss Whedon’s take on the Hulk. When Whedon announced Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, fans around the comic convention scenes were a bit taken aback. No one really saw why Norton wasn’t reprising his role as Banner, especially with the consistency that Marvel Studios has executed in recasting the same actor for all of their films that tie into another (2008’s The Incredible Hulk saw Robert Downey Jr. cameo as Tony Stark in the post credit Easter Egg). Regardless, Ruffalo was cast, and the film was such a success that a new Hulk movie is already in discussion for a 2015 release. But was Ruffalo really responsible for the Hulk’s success in the film?
Ruffalo really doesn’t get much screen time as a result to both the need to allow each team member time to unfold themselves and because Ruffalo is no longer needed once the CG Hulk comes into the picture. What we do see of Banner in this film is much less brilliant radiation expert on the run and more charming guy at terms with a chronic disease. Ruffalo’s performance seems to ignore the comic character who uses all sorts of methods to reduce stress and escape harmful situations. Instead, there is a somewhat deadpan look at a man who doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of his crowd. Ruffalo even shows several scenes where his temper is clearly coming undone without a hint of green to be seen. The Hulk’s success in the film actually draws from Whedon’s clever use of humor in the context of the angry monster and not from Ruffalo’s suave approach to Banner.
Score: Two green fists
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