Marvel introduced a lot of popular comic book characters in the sixties but a handful of those characters transcended mere popularity to become something iconic and legendary in pop culture history. Hulk was one of them.
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and first introduced in the comic book The Incredible Hulk # 1 in 1962, the Hulk is a huge, green and uncontrollable monster fueled by rage, but his alter ego is a scientific genius named Bruce Banner. While Bruce was testing a gamma bomb, a teenager named Rick Jones entered the testing field. Bruce saves Rick just in time, but Bruce ends up getting hit by the blast of gamma radiation, which ends up altering his genes and causing him to transform into the Hulk when he experiences too much stress or anger.
Soon the Hulk was seen as a menace to society by U.S. Military general Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, who also happens to be the father of Bruce’s love interest Betty Ross, and this has inevitably caused some father-daughter conflict over how best to handle the Hulk situation. Meanwhile Rick Jones, grateful for Bruce saving him, became Hulk’s teenage sidekick for a while.
While the Hulk is seen by many in the Marvel Universe as a short-tempered and uncontrollable beast, over the years Hulk has joined forces with various groups such as the Avengers, the Defenders and S.H.I.E.L.D., and Bruce has even learned how to retain his human mind while in Hulk form, and with help from green-haired psychiatrist/superhero Doc Samson, Bruce and the Hulk have even been able to physically separate into two co-existing beings. Plus it’s revealed later that Bruce actually has had Dissociative Identity Disorder long before becoming Hulk, due to the abuse Bruce suffered at the hands of his father.
When Hulk joined the Avengers and started working with the likes of patriotic hero Captain America and billionaire tech genius Tony Stark (who funded many of the lab experiments that the U.S. Military oversaw), it’s safe to say that General Ross backed off on his Hulk hunt, but it isn’t just the Military that has a problem with the Hulk. At one point, the Illuminati (which you may remember as that group from the movie Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness that included Captain Carter, Mister Fantastic and Professor X) decided that the Hulk was so dangerous that they sent him on a rocket to the planet Sakaar where he was banished (as seen in the “Planet Hulk” storyline) before he eventually returns to Earth with an army of aliens and attacks the humans (as seen in the “World War Hulk” storyline).
The Hulk has faced off against a number of foes regularly, including janitor-turned-mutant genius the Leader, the hulking reptile-like Abomination, and Red Hulk, which is Thunderbolt Ross’s genetically modified alter ego.
Hulk has also battled the Thing, Thor, Iron Man and Wolverine at various points, but he has also teamed up with the Avengers, Thor, Hercules, Doctor Strange and the Fantastic Four. Plus Bruce Banner’s cousin Jennifer Walters is also a superhero who teams up with the Hulk occasionally. She became known as She-Hulk after becoming injured and receiving a gamma-radiated blood transfusion from Bruce to save her life. The super-powered lawyer has her own series of comics and has become popular in her own right.
Stan Lee sights Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as inspirations for the creation of the Hulk, as well as the huge popularity of Fantastic Four’s the Thing, which did a lot to convince Lee that flawed antiheroes are more likable than perfect and flawless heroes.
Hulk was originally colored grey (as seen on the cover of the first issue) but his skin color was changed to green because colorist Stan Goldberg had difficulty keeping the shade of grey consistent, so they simplified the color scheme.
The original run of The Incredible Hulk in the sixties was short-lived, but the character made appearances in Fantastic Four, Avengers and Tales to Astonish and gained a significant amount of popularity with readers from childhood to college. Hulk was Marvel’s second-most popular character after Spider-Man, some scholars and historians seeing characters like Hulk as a reaction to the anxiety of the atomic age and his popularity among students in the sixties as representing a conduit to their anger at the U.S. Government during the Vietnam War. He just happened to be introduced at a time in history when rage became the rage.
But it turns out rage is timeless because the character really entered the zeitgeist when he was adapted to the screen. Hulk made his television debut in 1966 as part of the animated series The Marvel Super Heroes, where he was voiced in his Bruce Banner form by Paul Soles and in his Hulk form by Max Ferguson, starring alongside other characters like Captain America, Iron Man and Thor.
This was followed by the most famous screen adaptation of the character in the seventies with the live-action TV series The Incredible Hulk, which was developed by Kenneth Johnson (creator of V and The Bionic Woman) and ran for five seasons, beginning with two TV movies in 1977 and a series that lasted from 1978 to 1982 on CBS. It starred Bill Bixby as David Banner and professional bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk while introducing “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” to the pop culture lexicon. The popularity of the series led to further TV movies like The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) featuring Thor, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989) featuring Daredevil and Kingpin, and finally The Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990).
Other appearances that followed include an animated Hulk series that ran for 13 episodes from 1982 to 1983 on NBC starring Michael Bell as the voice of Bruce, Bob Holt as the voice of Hulk and Stan Lee as the narrator, a few cameo appearances in the animated Fantastic Four and Iron Man series from the nineties where he was voiced by Ron Perlman, and another cameo-studded animated series that ran for two seasons from 1996 to 1997 on UPN that featured Neal McDonough as the voice of Bruce and the return of Lou Ferrigno as the voice of Hulk.
A mindless and destructive beast does not make for a compelling lead character so the Hulk did not often star in his own TV shows and movies, but he did receive a straight-to-video animated double feature called Hulk vs. (2009), an animated adaptation of one of his most popular comics Planet Hulk (2010), and his own animated Disney XD series Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. (2013-15). Plus he has appeared regularly in Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2010-12), Avengers Assemble (2013) and the anime shows Marvel Disk Wars: The Avengers and Marvel Future Avengers, in addition to guest starring in Ultimate Spider-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man (2017) and Spidey and His Amazing Friends, and appearing in the animated films Ultimate Avengers: The Movie (2006), Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise of the Panther (2006) and Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow (2008). He is often voiced by Fred Tatasciore in these appearances.
Hulk’s first major Hollywood big screen adaptation came in 2003 when Universal released Hulk, directed by Ang Lee and starring Eric Bana as Bruce Banner and the Hulk, Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross and Sam Elliott as Thunderbolt Ross. It received mixed reviews but decent box office. Some people criticized the Hulk’s look in this film as “Gumby on steroids” but I had more of a problem with the average writing.
Marvel Studios, the creative forces behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, made a deal with Universal for them to distribute their own Hulk film which would serve as a reboot, The Incredible Hulk (2008) directed by Louis Letterier and starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross, Tim Roth as the Abomination and Lou Ferrigno once again voicing Hulk. Norton had originally turned down starring in Ang Lee’s Hulk film due to his disappointment with the script, but Marvel Studios convinced Norton to star in and even rewrite the script for their movie to his liking. Although Norton didn’t like the direction of the final product so Marvel Studios later replaced him with Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo plays Bruce Banner and the Hulk for the first time in The Avengers (2012) and he reprises the role in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019) and the Disney+ shows What If…? and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.
Do I get the appeal of the raging monster whose teammates ironically refer to as the “jolly green giant?” Do I feel cathartic watching someone “hulk out” with wreckless abandon when I’m in an angry mood? Absolutely! But I have always found that the Hulk works better in a team than as a lone hero. I wasn’t a huge fan of either of his live-action solo films but I loved The Avengers, and when I first watched that movie I remember thinking at the time that it was the first time I ever loved a screen representation of the Hulk. Although as Betty Ross will point out, he is more than just a monster. Like Frankenstein’s creation, Quasimodo or King Kong, if we just left him alone, he wouldn’t hurt anyone, and the Hulk as a threat would cease to exist, and we may even see his humanity more often. Which kind of makes the Hulk’s story a tragedy. Mankind just can’t help making the Hulk angry no matter what. Superman may be the superhero we want, but Hulk is the superhero we deserve.