Since his explosive debut in May 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s gamma-irradiated Jade Giant has been one of their most recognisable and successful characters thanks, in large part, to the Incredible Hulk television show (1977 to 1982) catapulting the Hulk into a mainstream, pop culture icon. The Hulk has been no slouch in the comics either, being a founding member of the Avengers and undergoing numerous changes that have made him one of their most versatile and enduring characters, so what better way to celebrate all things Big Green than by dedicating every Sunday in May to the Green Goliath?
Released: 18 February 1990
Director: Bill Bixby
Distributor: New World International
Stars: Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Elizabeth Gracen, Andreas Katsulas, and Philip Sterling
Desperate to rid himself of his destructive alter-ego, the Hulk (Ferrigno), Doctor David Banner (Bixby) poses as a janitor to gain access to a research facility he believes may be the key to finding a cure. However, when the kindly scientists assisting him are kidnapped, he must join forces with an unlikely ally and once again rely on his monstrous persona to rescue them.
The brainchild of Marvel Comics legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby after learning of a hysterical mother exhibiting superhuman strength, the Hulk initially struggled to find an audience with Marvel readers but shot to fame thanks to his popular television show, The Incredible Hulk (1977 to 1982). The show ran for eighty episodes and firmly established the Green Goliath in the cultural consciousness thanks to coining the unforgettable “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” line and standout performances by star Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, who would forever be associated with the character. About six years after the series finale, the first of three made-for-television movies was produced; apparently intended as a backdoor pilot for Thor (Eric Kramer), The Incredible Hulk Returns (Corea, 1988) was successful enough to warrant a follow-up that was also hoped to be a pilot for a potential Daredevil spin-off. The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (Bixby, 1989) was met with mixed reviews, but a third film followed regardless; initially believed to have featured the debut of Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk, The Death of the Incredible Hulk ultimately spelt the end for the long-running series following Bixby’s untimely death and plans for a fourth film that would’ve merged Banner’s intelligence with the Hulk’s strength were shelved.
Growing up as a kid in the nineties, it was kind of tough for comic book fans such as myself; DC Comics characters received the most representation in live-action media at the time, so we mostly had to console ourselves with the awesome Marvel cartoons that aired during this period. If we wanted to see live-action interpretations of Marvel’s colourful heroes, we had no choice but to turn to the made-for-television efforts of the seventies and eighties but, honestly, I remember being awestruck seeing the likes of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Steve Rogers/Captain America, and the Incredible Hulk brought to life in live action. Expectations were much lower then, and I was just a naïve youth who had no idea that these characters would come to dominate cinema screens so successfully; plus, The Incredible Hulk wasn’t airing on any channel I could watch at the time, so having access to these TV movies was seen as blessing. I say all this to provide a little historical context for the nostalgia I feel towards Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno’s efforts on The Incredible Hulk; while I actually have come to find many of the episodes I have watched to be quite laborious, I have a great appreciation for the TV movies giving me the briefest glimpse of the potential these characters had in live-action.
The movie opens to find Banner now posing as “David Bellamy” and disguising his genius behind the persona of a well-meaning, but a mentally-challenged, janitor in order to secretly access to Doctor Ronald Pratt’s (Sterling) research on human healing. This masquerade allows Banner to win the hearts and sympathies of his co-workers, the security guards, and Dr. Pratt, who all see him as a harmless, if forgetful and easily confused, middle-aged man. Interestingly, Banner maintains this masquerade outside of work, and this, as much as the pocketful of cash, makes him an easy target for a group of street punks. Naturally, this triggers a transformation into the Hulk, which only accelerates his search for a cure; it turns out that Banner has been watching the routines of the guards, meaning he’s able to trick them with a tape recorder into thinking he’s left for the night, and has access to Dr. Pratt’s lab thanks to knowing his keycode. Luckily for Banner, the facility doesn’t have any security cameras, so he’s free to work throughout the night using Dr. Pratt’s resources, making corrections to his formulas in the hopes of finally discovering a cure to his monstrous affliction. Banner’s alterations to Dr. Pratt’s formulas do not go unnoticed, however; he’s stumped to find his notes changed for the better and incredulous when his wife, Amy (Barbara Tarbuck) suggests that his invisible partner is a ghost. Determined to find out who has been able to slip past the facility’s “high security”, Dr. Pratt hides out in his lab late one night and is shocked to find David is his mysterious helper; however, he’s even more shocked when David reveals his true identity, and is eager to hear about Banner’s research and what’s driven him to such desperate measures. Sympathetic to Banner’s plight, and believing that he can cure him while also potentially benefiting others by studying the Hulk’s incredible healing abilities, Dr. Pratt convinces Banner to work with him and, over the course of a heart-warming montage, Banner is taken in by the Pratt’s and becomes something of a surrogate son to them. After so many years alone and on the run, Banner is clearly grateful to have friends around him for the first time in forever; he forms a fast friendship with Dr. Pratt and Amy, who welcome him into their home and work with him to construct a machine capable of containing the Hulk and turning his strength against him. Dr. Pratt is infuriated when his superiors threaten to shut his experiments down unless he turns his research towards military applications, and they’re thus given one chance to rid Banner of the Hulk forever, and Banner is fully accepting that the procedure could cost him his life.
Unfortunately, Dr. Pratt’s Gamma research attracts the attention of Kasha (Katsulas),a powerful underworld figurehead who wishes to obtain the doctor’s secrets and sell them to the highest bidder. To fulfil this objective, he blackmails Eastern European spy Jasmine (Gracen) into taking on the assignment; having “served” Kasha since she was fourteen, Jasmine believes that she has completed her duty to her employers, who seem to be a kind of vaguely defined religious organisation. Somewhat akin to Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow, Jasmine is a much-accomplished spy whose favoured tactic is to adopt a series of disguises and false identities to get close to her targets, usually luring them in with her sexuality, and take information from under the noses. Although she has no wish to further serve Kasha, she is easily overpowered by his sadistic henchman, Zed (Joh Novak), and compelled to obey when Kasha reveals that their sect’s mysterious new leader, Ashenko, threatens the life of Jasmine’s beloved sister, Bella (Anna Katarina). Jasmine throws on her best wig and fake accent to seduce one of the facility’s security guards and take his fingerprints, then disappears amidst the crowd with a simple costume change in order to pose as Betty (Chilton Crane), another of the lab’s security guards. Unfortunately for Banner, Jasmine chooses to carry out her mission at the exact moment that he’s strapped in to Dr. Pratt’s machinery, forcing Dr. Pratt to shut down the experiment and costing Banner his last, best chance at a cure. Naturally, this causes Banner to Hulk-out and his monstrous alter ego to be blamed for the resulting destruction and Dr. Pratt’s injury, despite the fact that he carried the comatose scientist to safety, and Jasmine is reprimanded for having failed in securing the data Ashenko required.
Amy is as devastated by Dr. Pratt’s condition, which sees him lost to the slumber of a deep coma, as she is concerned for Banner’s safety; she covers for him when federal agents finger him as one of three terrorist infiltrators (with Jasmine and the Hulk being the other two) and creates a distraction so he can slip away. However, with Dr. Pratt incapacitated, Jasmine’s only lead is also Banner, which leads to him being pursued by Kasha’s minions; having seen her efforts to try and pull Dr. Pratt to safety in the lab, and unable to simply allow Kasha’s men to kill her in cold blood, Banner lashes out when she’s ordered to be killed and she’s left both distraught and shocked when her friend and minder, Pauley (Mina E. Mina), tells her with his dying breath that Ashenko is Bella and has taken control of their cause. Banner aids Jasmine after she she’s injured by a gunshot; despite her horror at Banner’s affliction, Jasmine helps Banner to get to Dr. Pratt in gratitude for his assistance and, thanks to his knowledge of Dr. Pratt’s work and life, Banner’s able to help wake him from his coma with an emotional plea. After Banner Hulks-out and Jasmine sees the tortured horror of the Green Goliath, the two enter into an unexpected romance in her secluded cabin; both are being hunted, both have spent years alone and being used or forced into being a weapon, and both are eager to escape from the world. However, their hopes of starting a new life together are dashed when Jasmine’s past comes back to haunt her; Bella has Dr. Pratt and Amy apprehended in the hopes of discovering his formula, and Banner is compelled to intervene, a decision that not only causes great dismay to Jasmine, who simply wants them to run away together and be free, but also ultimately spells the end of Banner’s long nightmare.
It’s a bit of a shame that The Death of the Incredible Hulk is lumbered with this uninterested spy-story subplot; maybe if Jasmine had been the Black Widow, that might have made it a bit more compelling (and also would have tied into the TV movies guest starring other Marvel heroes), but Jasmine’s not an especially interesting character and it’s difficult to really care to much about the cause she once served. The mid-movie reveal that Bella is the mastermind behind this malicious organisation doesn’t really carry too much weight for me as Banner was constantly running afoul of the criminal underworld and they took many different names and forms. It also doesn’t help that Bella, despite her steely demeanour and cold-hearted vindictiveness, isn’t as charismatic as Kasha or alluring as Zed, so she doesn’t make for a very interesting villain since all we really know about her is that she wants Dr. Pratt’s formula and will do anything to get it, including ordering her sister’s death.
As ever, it’s the Hulk himself who proves to be the main highlight of the film for me; Lou Ferrigno absolutely dominates the screen with his stature, physicality, and animal fury and there’s some fun scenes of him tossing around street punks, crashing through walls, bending steel, and holding back two diggers to help sell the Hulk’s rage and strength. More than ever, the Hulk is treated as a devastating affliction that Banner is desperate to be rid of; obviously, by this point, Banner has lived with the Hulk or many years, and been on the run so long and lost so much that he’s literally at the end of his tether and just wants to be rid of the beast. In recounting his arrogance and impatience to harness humanity’s capacity for superhuman strength, Banner muses that the Hulk is a mutation, something inhuman, and perhaps a missing link in mankind’s evolutionary process, which firmly paints the beast as a disease that could one day cause serious harm to others. Thanks to Dr. Pratt’s experimentations, Banner is able to see the Hulk for the very first time and is utterly horrified by the beast’s rage and monstrous appearance, and yet there is still the capacity for good within the Green Goliath; not only is the creature generally depicted as either reacting ins elf-defence or coming to the aid of others (such as Jasmine), but it’s superhuman ability to heal wounds potentially spells a medical breakthrough for Dr. Pratt’s research. Indeed, both Banner and Dr. Pratt are not just in awe but almost terrified at the Hulk’s healing ability, which has left Banner without a physical scar but also haunted by his uncontrollable alter ego, which is functionally immortal. Banner theorises that catastrophic damage to the creature could kill it, but he’s more focused on ridding himself of the beast so that he can be fully human again, which leads to a series of tests being conducting by the two scientists to better understand the nature of the Hulk. Thanks to Dr. Pratt’s resources, the beast is effectively caged behind an energy field, and the movie goes a little further than its predecessors in examining the complex relationship between Banner and the Hulk since he sees it as a threat to others that has stolen his life, Dr. Pratt sees it as a once in a lifetime chance to potentially cure all diseases, and Amy believes that the creature is more human than either of them will admit.
At first glance, it seems as though the movie’s title is referring to the fact that Banner will finally be rid of his monstrous alter ego, however it quickly becomes apparent that Dr. Pratt’s research is yet another dead end for the ill-fated Banner thanks to the machinations of Kasha and Bella. When Dr. Pratt and Amy are kidnapped, Banner’s last chance to escape the world with his newfound love is dashed as he cannot simply walk away from his surrogate family, and Jasmine begrudgingly leads him to an airfield, where Bella uses every means at her disposal to try and forcibly extract the information she requires from Dr. Pratt. Although Jasmine is unable to reach her sister, who has fully bought in to the brainwashing of her righteous cause, the two lead the Feds to the airfield, providing them with the backup and firepower they need to stave off Bella’s men; in the fracas, Bella guns down Kasha, the Pratts are rescued, but Bella and Zedd manage to escape in a small aircraft. The horror of seeing the two trying to run down jasmine is enough to trigger one last Hulk-out in Banner, who sprints across the landing strip and confronts the two aboard the plane. Naturally, Bella tries to fire on the Hulk but succeeds only in destroying the craft in mid-air, causing the Hulk to dramatically and tragically plummet to the cold concrete below. Having suffered a catastrophic fall, the Hulk is barely clinging to life and even his incredibly healing powers aren’t enough to save Banner this time; as Dr. Pratt and Amy look on, heartbroken, Jasmine begs Banner to stay with her and he bids her an emotional farewell, seemingly grateful to finally be free of his nightmare in death. Sadly, as poignant as this moment is, it is somewhat undermined by the ridiculousness of the Hulk’s plummet; filmed in slow motion and accompanied by a melancholy song, it’s hard not to focus on Ferrigno’s eye-popping face expressions. Thankfully, Banner’s final words (“Jasmine…I am free…”) and Joe Harnell’’s “Lonely Man” theme kick in just in time to allow Banner’s death to have the required emotional impact (there’s a definite sense of relief that he’s finally found the freedom he’s long searched for), but I can’t help but feel a slower, more tragic rendition of “The Lonely Man” would have been soundtrack enough for the character’s unexpected swansong.
Well, this was a sadly anticlimactic, disappointing, and forgettable end for the Jade Giant. It’s a shame that so many compromise shave to be made to appreciate The Death of the Incredible Hulk; obviously, there was no budget or the technological ability to have the Green Goliath go out in a blaze of glory like we’d see in the comics, making for an inconspicuous death that’s really selling the Hulk short. Long-term fans of the TV show, however, or those with little knowledge of the character outside of the show, would potentially have more to gain from this final outing. The story being told is decent enough; Banner has clearly reached a point that’s beyond desperation where he’s willing to accept the freedom offered by death if it means being rid of his curse. The exploration into the Banner/Hulk dynamic was interesting, and one not really explored in the same way in the previous two films, but isn’t capitalised on as well as it could have been. I think I would have preferred to see a less literal death and maybe more of an understanding between the two where Banner accepted that the Hulk was part of him and thereby, maybe, overcame his rage and hinted towards a merger of the two characters. Instead, that’s kind of swept aside in favour of reinforcing what we already know about the Hulk; he’s once again a rage-filled monster who’s ruined Banner’s life but it’s pretty clear that he just wants to be left alone, only lashes out at those who seek to harm him (or were harming Banner), and goes out of his way to protect others. Ultimately, the Hulk chooses to pursue those who’ve hurt his friends and loved ones and it costs him his life, but I think it might’ve been equally interesting if the Hulk had sacrificed himself to allow Banner to survive the fall, thereby proving Amy’s theory that he’s more human than anyone would care to admit. Sadly, we never got to see Bixby reprise his iconic role or to see the surely bat-shit crazy way that the producers would have undone this ending, which remains a relatively tragic finale for the character that really belongs in a far better movie.
Could Be Better
Have you ever seen The Death of the Incredible Hulk? What did you think to the relationship between Banner and the Pratts? Were you hoping to see Banner finally cured of his affliction? Did you enjoy the spy subplot and what did you think to Jasmine? Did you believe her romance with Banner? What was your reaction when the Hulk plummeted to his death? What’s your favourite Hulk story, character, or piece of media? How are you celebrating the Hulk’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on the Hulk, feel free to leave them below after signing up or drop a comment on my social media.
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