Title: The Death of the Incredible Hulk
Director: Bill Bixby
Writer: Gerald Di Pego (Based on the character created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)
Distributed By: Bixby-Brandon Productions & New World Entertainment
Starring: Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Elizabeth Gracen, Philip Sterling, Barbara Tarbuck, Andreas Katsulas, Anna Katarina, Chilton Crane
Release Date: February 18, 1990
Welcome back for another installment of Movie Mondays true believers! This week we finish our look at the trilogy of Made-for-TV movies starring everyone’s favorite not-so-jolly green giant…The Incredible Hulk!
The Death of the Incredible Hulk picks up some time after the events of the previous films, with Banner (Bill Bixby) posing as a mentally challenged janitor working at a Government Research Facility. He’s picked this particular facility because a geneticist named Dr. Pratt (Philip Sterling) is conducting research that may lead to a cure for Banner’s condition, and the good doctor has been slipping past security late at night to help Pratt along. Of course, nothing ever goes well for Banner, and suddenly Russian spies want to get their hands on Dr. Pratt’s research. Now Banner must use his super-powered alter-ego The Hulk to save the day once again!
With a title like The Death of the Incredible Hulk, it’s a little difficult not to jump to conclusions about how this film will turn out, which has an interesting effect on the viewer. By possibly spoiling the ending with the title, the film automatically garners added levels of tension and dread as the viewer is left wondering if the titular “death” is literal or metaphorical, and how it will all play out. Unfortunately, it has the additional and unwanted side-effect of sapping all of the fun out of the film, as the viewer constantly waits for the death to happen.
The regrettable side-effect of the title isn’t the only downside to this film. The Death of the Incredible Hulk suffers from bad direction, bad editing, bad visual effects, bad acting, and generally just bad everything. Bill Bixby takes another shot at directing a Hulk feature and misses this time around. He seemed to do a rather superb job directing the previous feature, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, and co-directing The Incredible Hulk Returns, but everything seems to fall flat with the third installment. The general rule of trilogies is that the third entry is always (with very few exceptions) a major disappointment, and this film is no exception.
The only person that gives a truly thoughtful and meaningful performance in the film is Bill Bixby. Having performed as this character on and off again for nearly a decade has seemingly given Bixby an unwavering confidence in how to tackle the role of Banner. The only other players to come close to giving worthwhile performances are Elizabeth Gracen, Barbara Tarbuck, and Philip Sterling, but even those are usually so theatrical and melodramatic that it’s irritating. Every other member of the supporting cast just gives this sort of phoned-in, “I’m just here for the paycheck,” lackluster performance. A few of the standout scenes occur when Dr. Pratt (Sterling) tells off a Military official who wants to corrupt his genetic research to make super-soldiers, and generally whenever Pratt has a scene with his wife Amy (Tarbuck). Lou Ferrigno’s performance is downgraded to a routine of “flex, break something, and run off-camera.” Considering he has shown what a heartfelt performance he can give as The Hulk multiple times in the past, it’s a real shame that he isn’t given more to do in this film.
This film marks the return of the same sort of cheesy, generic musical score utilized in The Incredible Hulk Returns, coupled with an absolutely abysmal piece of kitschy pop music that plays during what should have been the film’s heart-wrenching conclusion. The emotional centerpiece of the film is ruined by all of the cheesiness surrounding it.
This notion can be used to essentially describe all of the problems with the rest of the film. It’s as if the actually decent parts of the film are struggling to emerge from under the impressive amount of mediocrity that’s been piled on top of them.
The biggest problem with this film stems from the overall production values. The film is far cheesier and even more melodramatic than even the worst parts of the two previous films or any episode of the series. A perfect example would be one scene where armed security guards chase The Hulk through a building. At one point the guards run down a flight of stairs and off-camera, only to come running back up the stairs being chased by The Hulk as the camera speed is slightly sped up. It feels like something out of an episode of Scooby-Doo.
Another problem with the production values is that of The Hulk himself. The makeup is poorly done in every scene, ranging from being far too vibrant, to fading to the point that you can see Ferrigno’s real skin underneath the faulty paint job. Also, he’s sporting an atrocious wig that looks even worse than the horrible hairpiece he wore in The Incredible Hulk Returns. And during one “hulk-out” scene when Banner is in a car being crushed by a bulldozer, there is noticeable use of stock footage from the courtroom “hulk-out” in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.
An important thing to take into account is that this film is not just the end of a few made-for-TV movies, but this film serves as the overall finale to a long-running television series for which these films serve as direct continuations. In the immortal words of Bill Nye the Science Guy, “Consider the following”: for almost a decade’s worth of adventures (series-wise) spanning twelve years (story-wise), Banner has been seeking a way to live a life free of The Hulk, and the final solution presented in this film is to simply kill him off?! This is not only an enormous disservice to the fans, but a colossal disservice to the character himself. Not only is the ending to the film a sad note for the good doctor to go out on, but the film as a whole is just a sad note on which to end the series.
Fans of the comics know that there are only two possible outcomes for Banner’s life, and really truly only ONE of those outcomes is actually satisfying. Outcome 1) Banner finds a cure. Outcome 2) Banner finally accepts that The Hulk is a force for good and comes to peace with what he has become, acknowledging that his “condition” is a mixed blessing. Neither of these choices is utilized in this film, instead opting for an ending that feels like a massively frustrating missed opportunity.
Fans of the comics also know that The Hulk is practically impossible to kill. In his most recent film outing with The Avengers, the good doctor explains that he tried to kill himself by putting a bullet in his mouth only to have The Hulk spit it back out. The Hulk emerges when Banner is stressed, angered, or hurt, sort of like a built-in defense mechanism. What could possibly be more stressful than your entire body shutting down? So, to simply kill off the character marks a glaringly unfaithful interpretation.
Apparently, there were plans for a fourth film titled The Revenge of the Incredible Hulk, showing that The Hulk’s physiology had allowed for Banner to survive his death and merely slip into a coma, only to awaken for yet another adventure. However, Bill Bixby’s death from cancer would mean that The Death of the Incredible Hulk was truly the end of the series.
All in all, this film is quite simply a regrettable disappointment. If you want to say you’ve experienced the end of the Bixby/Ferrigno Hulk series, then check out this film. Otherwise, the only reason one can think of as to why you should watch this film is to see another great performance from the late, great Bill Bixby.