Hulk pens love letter to Bill and Lou

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The Incredible Hulk opens Friday, and you may have heard that it's far more fast-paced and action-oriented than Ang Lee's intellectually ambitious but sluggish, overthought 2003 treatment of the raging green giant. In 2004 The Onion tweaked the film's lack of popularity with a faux Op-Ed from the Hulk himself, "Why No One Want Make Hulk 2?"

In fact, Marvel Studios (the movie-making division of the venerable comic book company) showed remarkable confidence in the Hulk as a potential screen star (not to mention faith in Transporter 2 director Louis Leterrier as a filmmaker) by buying back the rights to the character and essentially making the film "in-house," much like it did with Marvel's other superhero movie of this summer, Iron Man. So far, Marvel's two-for-two in making films, although Iron Man has more across-the-board appeal, while The Incredible Hulk will please action fans and followers of the comic book.

The surprising thing about the film, however, is that it's such a love letter to "The Incredible Hulk," the 1978-1982 TV series that starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. Here's the opening credits, including that famous catch-phrase:

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It's hard to imagine studio executives or movie audiences clamoring for a big screen version of the Bixby/Ferrigno show, which kept the Hulk's superheroic roots at arm's length. If you wanted to see superpowers and special effects fight scenes, "The Incredible Hulk" played more like a remake of "The Fugitive," punctuated by rampages from a muscleman in green body paint.

Even if it wasn't a classic, as a weekly TV series, "The Incredible Hulk" worked, at least by the standards of 1970s action program like "The Six Million Dollar Man." Banner's lonely travels had an appropriate level of pathos, given the Jekyll and Hyde premise. Meanwhile, Banner's enraged "hulk outs" could be unexpectedly funny: these clips show Banner transforming into the Hulk based on such mundane triggers as a traffic jam and an uncooperative telephone operator. Who wouldn't want to hulk out and trash stuff, just once?

Leterrier's Incredible Hulk offers footnotes and shout-outs to everything in the original series from its opening credits, the sad "Lonely Man" piano music, dogged reporter Jack McGhee and even the late Bill Bixby. Ferrigno not only has an on-screen cameo, he provides the six or so words of the Hulk's spoken dialogue. Partly this serves as straight-up nostalgia, but it has storytelling value, too. Leterrier's film turns the show's fugitive elements into a manhunt tale equivalent to The Bourne Supermacy for the first act. It's sort of like the way Jon Favreau's Iron Man partially emulates the James Bond films: a comic book story can benefit from following a proven cinematic (or television) narrative model.

It's just as well, though, that The Incredible Hulk didn't dig this up:

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