THE INCREDIBLE HULK (AND SHE-HULK): Darkness and Light in the 1996 Animated Series

The Incredible Hulk (Season 1) and She-Hulk (Season 2) – 2 seasons, 21 episodes – Starring Neal McDonough, Lou Ferrigno, Genie Francis, Luke Perry, John Vernon, Matt Frewer, Mark Hamill, Shadoe Stevens, and Cree Summer.

The 1996 animated show THE INCREDIBLE HULK is one of those shows that doggedly refuses to succumb to awfulness. There is a lot to like here and every time I want to knock the show down a few pegs for Matt Frewer’s ridiculously exaggerated vocal work for the Leader, or for Mark Hamill’s ridiculously exaggerated vocal work for the Gargoyle, or for the decision to include the ridiculous super hero costume for Doc Samson, the story ends up pulling the show back to make it a rather enjoyable effort.

At least for season 1. But more on that in a bit.

The Hulk is a rather hard character to have star in a TV show for kids, given his dark, destructive nature. Combine this with the often depressive, manic, “I don’t want to keep turning into the character you’re all turning in to see” Bruce Banner character, and it can be a tough sell to keep people coming back. I don’t think it’s a coincidence (though it would be going too far to say it’s a given) that the most popular HULK storyline in the comics in recent years has been the PLANET HULK storyline where Banner was absent. (They turned this story into a movie of the same name.)

The makers of THE INCREDIBLE HULK do a good job keeping this story interesting, and the show plays out like one long story.

At least for season 1. But more on that in a bit.

Right from the start, the Hulk is cast as a misunderstood monster who only attacks people when they attack him first. This is the “HULK SMASH!” Hulk, and he’s got allies in Betty Ross (Genie Francis), Rick Jones (Luke Perry), and Doc Samson (Shadoe Stevens) and enemies in General Thunderbolt Ross (John Vernon), Major Glen Talbot (Kevin Schon), and the Hulkbusters. What works is when all of these pieces are put into motion together because it enables us to see not only Bruce as a victim but the Hulk as one, too.

This is not high literary storytelling by any stretch, of course. It’s a kids’ show, and so a good deal of the drama here skids over into melodrama territory. Characters make larger pronouncements than the situation really requires – a constant reinforcement that kids need more than adults.

HULK works best when the producers give the storylines room to grow, such as they do with the series opener “Return of the Beast,” a 2-part story that introduces the major players. Thankfully, the show doesn’t start with an origin episode. We get a Hulk that’s young enough in his career that Rick Jones still wears the same outfit he did the day Bruce saved him and became the Hulk (literally the same outfit), but not so long that people in Canada have heard of him, mistakenly calling him a Sasquatch. The season ends with a 3-part story called “Darkness and Light” that sees the season-long quest of Bruce to rid himself of the Hulk come to fruition thanks to Betty and Samson.

In between, we watch Bruce (Neal McDonough) chase down scientist after scientist to ask for help, which leads to guest shots from Tony Stark/Iron Man and James Rhodes/War Machine, Walter Langkowski/Sasquatch, and the Thing (the rest of the FF isn’t home). This would get old, so the producers wisely have other guest stars come looking for either the Hulk or Bruce, including Ghost Rider and Dr. Don Blake/Thor, and then some random appearances from the likes of Dr. Doom and Wendigo. It’s a good mix of characters and most of them are used well.

The main villain of season 1 is the Leader, with Gargoyle as Lackey #1 and Abomination as Lackey #2. It’s a solid technique to have this backbone of villainy to work with through the season because it gives the show three separate alpha-male led camps: Hulk, General Ross, and the Leader. Midway through the first season, Bruce heads to Washington, D.C. to meet up with his cousin Jen. One Doctor Doom intrusion later and Jen Walters has become the She-Hulk.

The inclusion of the She-Hulk is a marked improvement over the inclusion of Rick Jones. For one, it puts someone closer to the Hulk’s level to hang with, and Shulkie’s bright, outgoing personality is a better fit in the show than Rick’s concerned whining. (Rick is not helped by having the voice of Luke Perry, who is just not the right match for this character.)

She-Hulk is such a good fit that she gets co-billing in the second season. UPN ordered this move, as well as a lightening of the overall tone.

Which sort of makes you wonder if they’d ever heard of the Hulk.

Anyway, the second season is largely a disaster. She-Hulk’s personality gets a bit grating after a while. It’s too much ego and too little fun. The episodes become largely stand-alone, and while we get a decent appearance from Dr. Strange, and while we do get some nice bits from the Mr. Fixit, everything is a clear step back from the previous season. We do get some resolution on the Thunderbolt/Hulk issue in the last episode, but on the whole, season 2 is a disappointment. Things like Gargoyle’s attraction to She-Hulk is kinda funny in season 1, but aggravating in season 2.

I was pleasantly surprised with season 1 of THE INCREDIBLE HULK, however, with the high points of the show overcoming the low points. Compared to the disappointing SILVER SURFER cartoon produced in 1998, HULK does a much better job handling a dark, less-than-heroic character. There’s plenty here to get annoyed about (for some reason it irks me that Banner and Better both have the bodies of supermodels) but you can see the overall attempt is a good one. Yeah, you might want to punch Rick Jones every time he shows up on the screen, but Betty’s drive, determination, and loyalty more than overcome it.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK is a good cartoon.

At least for season 1.

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