Upon finding a happy loophole in Disney’s misguided treatment of its Marvel animation properties, Liberation Entertainment has announced it will be releasing the contents of its various Marvel cartoon library on DVD, starting with this first volume of The Incredible Hulk from 1996, which lasted two season on the now defunct UPN network.
The set presents the opening six episodes of the season. Liberation tentatively plans to release the rest of the season over the course of a further two volumes. The cover art is not reflective of the show’s character models but is nice enough.
The show follows the story of scientist Bruce Banner and his search for a cure for his monstrous alter-ego while the on the run from the Military and The Leader, the scientist who sabotaged Banner’s original experiment and causing the accident which causes him to transform into a being with child-like intelligence, unlimited strength and unsurpassed rage. To make matters more interesting, he is infatuated with Betty Ross, the daughter of his main antagonist, General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross. She works night and day on a cure for her tormented boyfriend but still can’t solve the genetic puzzle, which only adds to the pair’s further heartache.
The show doesn’t begin with the character’s origin (it is shown in a flashback sequence), but the point is made and we see how Banner’s illness has ruined everyone’s lives. In a new twist, the Gamma Reactor explosion was deliberately sabotage by Samuel Sterns as he failed to halt the experiment as Banner ran onto the testing field to warn Rick Jones of the impending explosion—which, of course, poisoned Banner’s adrenal system and caused him to transform whenever he becomes stressed or angry, or when a fight sequence is needed. While this origin is closer to the comic book story, I consider if inferior to the scientist-looking-to-tap-into-the-hidden-strength-all-humans-possess story, which was recently demonstrated so well in The Incredible Hulk live action movie, and which was taken from the 1970s live action The Incredible Hulk starring the late, great Bill Bixby.
From there the show enters a more formulaic route, as Banner shows up in a different city each episode while searching for another cure, where he usually runs into another hero while inevitably failing to find a cure, which results in him fleeing the town to avoid the wrath of Thunderbolt Ross. Luckily, it’s not as cut-and-paste as it sounds and actually works a lot better than a lot of the tiresome villain-of-the-week shows that aired at the time, and this first season is actually one of the better Marvel cartoons. Banner’s plight is interesting, and the characters take the stories to great heights. One might question the inclusion of Rick Jones in the show, however, as Banner’s quest for a cure is one which would’ve been better had he borne it alone—he is, after all, a lonely man. (Alas, no tear-inducing theme at the episodes’ conclusion here, as the younger ones would’ve surely cried their eyes out!)
If the above doesn’t make it clear enough, allow me to summarise The Incredible Hulk in simple terms. The show is dark. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for our mild mannered scientist: he is transformed into this creature through no fault of his own and is constantly hounded because of it. The romance is well-done, because as with all great love stories, it’s doomed: Bruce and Betty don’t get the happy ending, which only results in more heartbreak as the weeks go on, which makes for a greater drama and a better quality show.
Unfortunately, the creative team also chose to have the villains act as the show’s main source of comedy. This doesn’t work, with the bumbling, arrogant Leader working too far against the tone of the show. His inclusion in the Hulk’s origin is an interesting one, but it’s not really followed up on. I only personally believe he was miscast and again, in personal preference only, I thought the Leader model used in the Iron Man cartoon was vastly superior to his orange and black outfit here. To their credit, they added Gargoyle as his sidekick, who seemingly found The Leader more irritating that I did, and he occasionally gets in a few good lines at his master’s expense, and (strangely enough) becomes the show’s best villain. Although you might struggle to recognise it, he is voiced by none other than Mark Hamill, who naturally shines in the role.
As for the rest of the cast (Leader blunder aside), they are stellar if not spectacular in their roles. Neil McDonough brings a great deal of sympathy and likeability to Bruce Banner as well as a man overwhelmed with stress and genuinely sounding as if he is in agony when the metamorphosis finally occurs and overcomes him. Lou Ferrigno finally gets to voice The Hulk this time around and again brings a good roar to the Hulk. But is actually more memorable for the quieter Hulk moments and makes you sympathize with a creature who, for all intents and purposes, just wants to be left alone.
The animation is strong throughout the show – there’s the odd gaffe here and there, but Marvel learned from their prior mistakes on X-Men, Spider-Man and the first season of Marvel Action Hour about the importance of visuals, and The Incredible Hulk improves upon the later seasons of Iron Man and Fantastic Four, which can be seen by how much better the Golden Avenger looks in this show than he did in his own.
A strong selection of episodes is included here, and Liberation are clearly more generous than Disney, who’ve so far released a measly four-episode collection in the many years they’ve had the rights to the show. The highlight is “Helping Hand, Iron Fist” which sees Bruce travel to California in hopes that Tony Stark can help him with his problem, which leads to the inevitable rematch between Hulk and Stark’s alter ego, the Invincible Iron Man (thankfully returning from his earlier, outstanding show). As previously mentioned, there’s a slew or excellent offerings here, including a Ghost Rider guest appearance in “Innocent Blood”, the aforementioned origin episode in “Return Of The Beast, Part One” and a good smackdown with Sasquatch in “Man To Man, Beast To Beast”. Downers include “The Return Of The Beast, Part Two”, which strangely becomes a comedy follow up to the darkness shown in part one and “Raw Power”, which isn’t bad per se, but is underwhelming.
There’s only one feature on the disc: a simple demonstration of the show’s restoration. There’s nothing especially remarkable about it, as the show is just over a decade old, but I suppose it’s better than nothing, and it’s nice to see that Liberation actually care about the quality of their output. Another point worth noting is that the episodes are unedited from their original broadcasts, which should be standard for all DVDs but sadly isn’t.
The Incredible Hulk was a highly entertaining show, and I personally highly enjoyed the disc and would recommend it to any fans of the medium or the character. While I would’ve preferred a full season set, given the price of the disc and, after many years of fans requests falling on death ears, I can forgive the show’s single disc treatment, especially as the following volumes have already been announced. Spider-Man: The Animated Series next please Liberation!