Superheroes may dominate television screens these days, but it all started back in the seventies. Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) took cinemas by storm and drummed up enough cash to sink a small cruise liner, Marvel Comics had ventured into live-action adaptations of their comics books by licensing their properties to studios like CBS and Universal Television. This produced the iconic Incredible Hulk (1977 to 1982) television show that firmly entrenched the Green Goliath in the cultural consciousness and produced tropes that became synonymous with the character for years to come.
However, The Incredible Hulk wasn’t the only live-action adaptation of a Marvel Comics property to be produced in the seventies; in fact, there were so many productions (or, at least, so many Marvel characters) around this time that a version of the MCU can be seen to have existed long before Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) graced cinema screens. So, today, I’m going to take a quick look back at some of these productions and have a chat about the MCU we very nearly saw come together back in the days of Pink Floyd, frayed jeans, and mullets…
As I mentioned, The Incredible Hulk kicked all of this off; starring Bill Bixby as Dr. David Bruce Banner, the show depicted a scientist recklessly experimenting on himself with gamma radiation in a bid to unlock the hidden strength and potential of the human body. When he absorbs too much gamma radiation, moments of stress and anger cause him to transform into the green, bestial Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), a creature of limited intelligence, immense rage, and incredible strength.
Believed dead at the Hulk’s hands, Banner is forced to wander around the country in search of a cure, helping those in need with both his intelligence and the strength of the Hulk when pushed too far, all while being relentlessly pursued by reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin). The show was famous for coining the phrase: “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”, which has since become so synonymous with the character that it has appeared in most Hulk adaptations. Equally popular was both Bixby’s portrayal of Banner as a wandering nomad, desperate to cure himself of his alter ego and return to normal life, and Ferrigno’s portrayal of the Hulk (a role that Arnold Schwarzenegger auditioned for and that originally went to mammoth actor Richard Kiel).
Ferrigno has since become so associated with his role as the Hulk that he went on to not only voice the character in the animated Incredible Hulk (1996 to 1997) television series but also collaborated with Mark Ruffalo in voicing the Hulk in the MCU and cameoed in both Hulk (Lee, 2003) and The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008), a movie that was heavily influenced by the ‘70s television show.
If there’s any downside to the show, and Ferrigno’s performance, it’s that they both popularised the notion that the Hulk is a feral, growling creature rather than a semi-to-impressively articulate individual. While Stan Lee himself may have signed off on this at the time (“I had the Hulk talking like this: “Hulk crush! Hulk get him!” […] that would have sounded so silly if he spoke that way in a television show” (Lee, quoted in Greenberg, 2014: 19 to 26)), I feel this was more a case of Lee signing off on anything for the licensing revenue. This portrayal even carried over into the MCU, where the Hulk was capable of rudimentary speech (one or two growling lines here and there) but did not properly articulate until Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017); to compare, Bradley Cooper was snarking up cinema screens as Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) before Hulk was allowed to properly talk.
In any case, The Incredible Hulk ran for eighty episodes before finally coming to an end on 12 May 1982. Banner’s adventures, however, continued in the made-for-television film The Incredible Hulk Returns (Corea, 1988). While the TV show shied away from including any Marvel characters aside from Banner and the Hulk, much less his fellow Marvel cohorts, The Incredible Hulk Returns featured two of the most unlikely inclusions you could imagine given the show’s relatively rounded approach to its source material. After successfully suppressing the Hulk for two years, Banner’s idyllic life is turned upside down when an old student of his, Donald Blake (Steve Levitt), seeks him out. Right as Banner is on the cusp of finalising a potential cure in the Gamma Transponder machine, Blake reveals that he discovered an enchanted hammer in Norway that, upon his command, releases the mighty immortal warrior Thor (Eric Kramer) from Valhalla.
When Thor upsets Banner, he briefly battles with the Hulk and damages Banner’s the Gamma Transponder, but the two (three, I guess) are forced to work together to stop criminals from stealing Banner’s research and harming his life interest, Dr. Margaret Shaw (Lee Purcell). In the end, while Shaw is rescued, Banner is forced to destroy a vital component to the Gamma Transponder and, with the Hulk’s presence catching McGee’s attention, promptly returns to the road to seek out a new cure for himself. When I was a kid, I never got the chance to watch The Incredible Hulk, so one of my first exposures to it was with The Incredible Hulk Returns, which I found to be hugely enjoyable largely because of the thrill of seeing the Hulk in live-action and the banter between Blake and Thor. Rather than transforming into Thor, as in the comics, Blake instead brings Thor forth with the hammer and is charged with guiding him in life and in the fulfilment of a number of heroic deeds so he can take his place at Odin’s side in Valhalla. It’s absolutely mental, especially as a continuation of the TV show, but Kramer is so much fun as the loud-mouthy, arrogant, meat-headed Thor that you can’t help but smile when he’s onscreen, especially when he’s drinking and fighting in a bar or battling with (and alongside) the Hulk.
I said I never really watched the show but, in truth, my first ever exposure to the Bixby and Ferrigno team was the follow-up movie, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (Bixby, 1989), in which Banner, now a desolate soul who’s lost all hope, wanders into a city and, after disrupting a mugging on an underground train, is wrongfully imprisoned. As luck would have it, his appointed attorney is none other than Matt Murdock (Rex Smith), a blind lawyer who also patrols the streets at night as the black-clad vigilante Daredevil. Murdock is pursuing evidence against Wilson Fisk (John Rhys-Davies), an entrepreneur whom Murdock (rightfully) believes is a dangerous crime boss. While Banner is content to stay safely locked up in jail, the idea of being put on trial causes him to Hulk out and, eventually, team up with Murdock/Daredevil in bringing Fisk to justice.
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is notable for a couple of reasons; it features Stan Lee’s first-ever live-action cameo in a Marvel production, it heavily adapts elements of Frank Miller’s iconic run on the Daredevil comics, and the titular trial only actually takes place in a nightmare Banner has while imprisoned. Nevertheless, Rhys-Davies is exceptional as Fisk; he’s never referred to as the Kingpin onscreen but that doesn’t stop him being a cool, calculating puppet master of a villain; his eventual escape (in a God-damn rocket ship!) is a loose end that was never tied up as the final TV movie, The Death of the Incredible Hulk (Bixby, 1990), chose to bring an end to the Incredible Hulk series and did not feature any additional Marvel characters.
Hulk wasn’t the only one to get his own live-action TV show though; after the feature-length pilot, Spider-Man (Swackhamer, 1977), proved popular, Marvel’s web-head got his own thirteen episode series in the form of The Amazing Spider-Man (1977 to 1979). In addition, episodes of the show were edited (“cobbled”, is probably a better word) together into two made-for-television movies, Spider-Man Strikes Back (Statlof, 1978) and Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge (ibid, 1981), both of which (along with the pilot) are the only exposure to this show I’ve had. The Amazing Spider-Man starred Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker (with the show’s stunt co-ordinator, Fred Waugh, taking the role of Spider-Man, which was pretty obvious given their wildly contrasting size and builds) and, if you thought that this show took more from the source material than The Incredible Hulk then you’re going to be woefully disappointed.
Jonah Jameson (played by both David White and Robert F. Simon) featured quite prominently but Robbie Robertson (Hilly Hicks) and Peter’s Aunt May (Jeff Donnell) only appeared in the pilot episode and, though Spidey tussled with hypnotists, terrorists, and gangs, he never once butted heads with any of his colourful rogues gallery. Spidey (and Parker) also initially ran afoul of Police Captain Barbera (played with gruff, loveable glee by Michael Pataki), but this character was sadly dropped for the show’s second season. The Amazing Spider-Man was an ambitious project, especially for the seventies; Spider-Man is a character who requires a lot of effects and stunt work to pull off correctly and is arguably far more dependent on modern computer effects than the likes of even the Hulk. As a result, while the show featured an incredibly faithful recreation of Spidey’s origin, costume, and web shooters and did its best to portray Spidey’s wall-crawling and web-slinging through wires, pulleys, and other camera tricks, the show always came across as being far more absurd than its Universal counterpart.
There was more to come from Universal Television, however, as they also produced a Dr. Strange (DeGuere, 1978) made-for-television movie that featured Peter Hooten in the title role (I guess Tom Selleck was unavailable…) and Jessica Walter as Morgan Le Fay. This one’s especially obscure and many have probably never heard of or seen it; it actually got a DVD re-release in 2016, coincidentally around the same time as Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) was released in cinemas. Interestingly, Stephen Strange is portrayed as a psychiatrist rather than a physician and stumbles into his destiny as the Sorcerer Supreme when Le Fay possesses one of his patients, Clea Lake (Eddie Benton). The movie also featured other recognisable faces from the source material, such as Wong (Clyde Kusatsu) and the Ancient One (Michael Ansara), which is already a bit of a leg up on the Hulk and Spider-Man outings.
What scuppered Dr. Strange, though, was, again, the fact that it was produced at a time when special effects simply were not up to the task of doing the character justice. It also didn’t help that the film was criticised for being overly long and boring and lacking any real urgency. In all honesty, there really isn’t much to see here that’s worth you rushing out to watch except the novelty of seeing a C-list character like Strange get a live-action movie well before his time.
CBS also had one another Marvel character to offer the seventies; Captain America (Holcomb, 1979) brought the star-spangled Avenger to life on television screens and…dear Lord, is this a sight to behold! Reb Brown starred as Steve Rogers, a former marine-turned-artist living in the present day whose patriotic father was known as “Captain America”. After he’s nearly killed by an attempt on his life, he’s inexplicably chosen to be administered with the super-serum F.L.A.G. (Full Latent Ability Gain), which turns him into a superhuman. He then decks himself out in a horrendous version of the Captain America costume and takes to the streets on a modified super-cycle so massively over-the-top with gadgets and features than even K.I.T.T. would blush!
Luckily, by the end and the sequel, Captain America II: Death Too Soon (Nagy, 1979), Rogers adopts a more faithful version of the costume and uses his abilities to oppose the plans of General Miguel (inexplicably played by Christopher Lee!), who desires to create a dangerous chemical. I’m actually far more familiar with the equally-lambasted Captain America (Pyun, 1990), which is still a guilt pleasure of mine. Nevertheless, both films were released on DVD and, while Dr. Strange was lost to the mists of time and obscurity, these films appear to have at least partially influenced the MCU as Cap (Chris Evans) does favour a motorcycle (but, to be fair, so did the comics Cap…).
Both The Incredible Hulk Returns and The Trial of the Incredible Hulk introduced Thor and Daredevil with the intention of setting them up for spin-off shows of their own but, for a variety of reasons, this never came to be and that’s a bit of a shame. Smith is no Charlie Cox but, while his Murdock was quite dull and boring, he gave a pretty good turn as Daredevil and it would probably have been easier and far cheaper to produce a Daredevil TV show than a Hulk or even Thor one. Similarly, I love the portrayal of Thor in Trial; sure, he doesn’t look or act anything like his Marvel Comics counterpart, but it could have been pretty fun to see him tossing fools around, getting into bar fights, and learning lessons in humility on an episodic basis. One thing that is equally unfortunate about all this is that the inclusion of Thor and Daredevil really took a lot of the focus off of Banner and the Hulk; sure, in the show, he was often a supporting player in a bigger story and other character’s lives, but these movies devoted so much of their runtime to pushing and establishing their new characters that it’s easy to forget that Banner and Hulk are even in them. The Death of the Incredible Hulk rectified this, but at the cost of killing both characters off in what was, while emotional (as a child, anyway), probably the lamest way imaginable.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much love shown to The Amazing Spider-Man over the years; it’s never been released on home media outside of a few VHS tapes and, while Hammond appears to have been the basis for Parker’s design in the Spider-Man (1994 to 1998) animated series, he’s never returned to the character or the franchise again, not even for a quick cameo or a voice role (though I’m hoping the sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman, 2018) will rectify that). Interestingly enough, there were apparently talks in 1984 to produce a movie that would see Spider-Man cross paths with Banner and the Hulk, with Spidey even donning the black costume during the film. There were, apparently, also talks of an additional made-for-television Hulk movie, The Revenge of the Incredible Hulk, which would have seen Banner (somehow) revived and forced to recreate the accident that turned him into the Hulk (or be reborn as the Hulk with Banner’s intellect, depending on what you read) but neither of these ideas ever came to fruition and were ultimately halted when Bixby sadly died in 1993.
However, none of this changes the fact that, sometime around 1978 to 1979, there were all these Marvel characters running around on television screens at about the same time, all produced by two studios and, in some cases, airing on the same networks. What this effectively means, then, is that it’s easy to imagine an alternative world where negotiations never broke down and the shows and movies proved popular enough for Spider-Man to crossover with the Hulk and, by extension, interact with Thor and Daredevil.
So, what if…? What if there were a threat so big, so far beyond petty street crooks and one-note villains that these heroes would be forced to band together? Dr. Strange was heavily steeping in magic and mysticism, which was already (however unfitting) be proven to be a part of The Incredible Hulk’s world; hell, even The Amazing Spider-Man dabbled in the paranormal at times.
Perhaps the threat would involve Fisk waging a war against Daredevil and all costumed heroes? The city is never named in The Incredible Hulk Returns but it could easily be New York City, the same New York City that Spider-Man swings around in. Perhaps this would be a chance to do a supervillain team-up, of sorts, between Fisk and Le Fay or to introduce other classic Marvel villains, such as Loki and the Red Skull. I would have loved to have worked Nick Fury (David Hasselhoff) into this imaginary Marvel team-up but it’s difficult to do that seeing as Bixby died in 1993 and Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Hardy, 1998) didn’t release until 1998 but what if…? What if Bixby hadn’t suffered from cancer, or had beaten the disease and Banner had been resurrected in The Revenge of the Incredible Hulk? Perhaps we would have seen a version of the Professor Hulk or Grey Hulk personas, one that merged the brawn and the strength together, and Fury could have banded these heroes together to fight a common enemy.
Personally, though, I would have preferred to see Banner and Hulk as they were portrayed in the television series; Bixby would have been the veteran actor who held this team up together and I would have limited his Hulk outs to two or three occurrences. Have him be the team’s moral compass, the hesitant advisor who learns to reconcile with his enraged alter ego through working with the other heroes. Murdock, as the older of the two, could have also acted as a kind of mentor to Spider-Man as the two are often portrayed as friends in the comics and have a lot in common with their “everyman” approach to super heroism. While the effects would not have allowed us to properly see the two swing across the New York rooftops, I think they could have cobbled together enough to produce some semi-decent, maybe even slightly acrobatic, fight scenes between the two.
You’d obviously think that Captain America would be the natural leader of this group but, remember, this isn’t the war-tested superhero we all know and love and I am not proposing an Avengers movie; Brown’s Cap is more of a secret agent, an enhanced super soldier who hasn’t nearly a fraction of the combat experience that Cap is usually known for. Because of that, I’d imagine him as the public face of the group and (in the absence of S.H.I.E.LD.), a source of the group’s intelligence resources. Perhaps Cap prefers to work alone and he has to learn to work with a group, rather than tackling everything head-on.
Instead, I’d have Doctor Strange be the de facto leader of the team by virtue of his age and power as the Sorcerer Supreme. His arc, perhaps, would have revolved around him needing to shift his focus from the bigger picture to factoring in the smaller issues that his peers face on a daily basis, effectively making himself both a public figure of the superhero community and improving his interpersonal skills. And then there’s Thor (and Blake, of course); Thor would be the group’s hot-headed jock, the guy who runs in, hammer swinging, trying to fix every problem with brute strength. This team up would be the perfect opportunity to teach Thor proper humility, to accept that he must work alongside mortals and lead by example rather than being a blundering buffoon. While he learned some of this in The Incredible Hulk Returns, it was clear that there was more to tell with his story and, perhaps, this team up and his learning of humility would be the final heroic act that would earn him his place in Valhalla, allowing Blake to, however sorrowfully, begin his life anew.
In the end, for as hokey and cringe-worthy as a lot of these seventies Marvel shows were, it does disappoint me that we never got, at least, to see Spider-Man, Hulk, and Banner crossover onscreen. There was a lot to like about each of these, from the impressively realised costumes to the heart-felt emotion, to even the woeful action scenes and I would honestly have loved to see all of these characters come together to battle a common enemy. What do you think about Marvel’s television show and movies from the seventies? Do you have fond memories of The Incredible Hulk? Do you also wish that The Amazing Spider-Man would get a release on DVD? Perhaps you hated the monotony and ridiculousness of these shows. Whatever your opinion, leave a comment below and get in touch.