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“It was fucking great and talking about it makes me want to cry because it was so cool and it never saw the light of day.”
Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War just had the biggest domestic and global opening of any movie ever made. Looking at the scores of elaborate CGI driven sequences, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have conceived of any Marvel movie prior to the advancement of digital special effects. But, long before the ubiquity of CGI and the existence of the MCU, legendary special effects master Steve Johnson worked on five separate Marvel projects, all of which were to consist of almost exclusively practical effects. Most of these projects never came to fruition but nonetheless, had fascinating stories behind them.
Johnson, who has created effects for an endless list of classics including Fright Night, Poltergeist II, The Abyss, Big Trouble in Little China, An American Werewolf in London, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and Night of the Demons, details these projects and more in Rubberhead: Sex, Drugs, and Special Effects; a half autobiography, half coffee table art book that documents his prolific career through hundreds of stunning photographs and ‘tell all’ stories about the golden age of special effects makeup that are equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. The second installment of Rubberhead: Sex, Drugs, and Special FX, is currently in its last few days of crowdfunding on .
Despite his reputation as a master of horror, Johnson was attached to such Marvel projects as Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, and both Spiderman 2 and 3. However, the most elaborate of Johnson’s Marvel projects was a 1998 version of The Incredible Hulk. From the late ’70s/early ’80s Lou Ferrigno TV show to the Ang Lee film production, The Hulk has gone through countless evolutions, finally being somewhat righted on the big screen by Louis Leterrier’s 2008 version starring Edward Norton. Shortly thereafter, the character joined his fellow heroes in the MCU and was played by Mark Ruffalo in 2012’s Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon.
But few are aware that one of the earliest incarnations of The Hulk’s standalone movie was going to be an extravaganza of incredibly elaborate characters and special effects, almost all of which were going to be achieved practically.
“This was in the infancy of digital, nobody trusted digital back then so we were only going to use digital for really wide shots where The Hulk and these creatures were going to do things that you couldn’t possibly do otherwise,” Steve Johnson explained to us.
Fresh off of his work on Tim Burton’s failed Superman Lives project, Johnson and his team were contracted by Universal to begin development on an extensive bevy of elaborate characters for The Incredible Hulk, including giant villainous insectoids, gamma ray exposed freaks, and multiple elaborate Hulk suits, which were going to consist mostly of full body suits, prosthetics, and animatronics.
Marvel executive Avi Arad (Blade, X-Men, Spider Man, Iron Man) and Gale Ann Hurd (The Abyss, Terminator, The Walking Dead) were producing the project while Jonathan Hensleigh was set to make his directorial debut, having previously written a significant amount of screenplays for the action genre including Die Hard with a Vengeance, Jumanji, Armageddon and The Saint. Hensleigh even penned the script, which found Bruce Banner experimenting with gamma-irradiated insect DNA on a trio of convicts before he himself gets exposed. His experiments end up turning the three already dangerous men into insectoid mutant villains, which he then must battle after his own transformation into The Hulk.
With the prevalence of today’s ‘let’s fix it in post’ mentality, filmmakers forget how complex the creation of compelling practical effects used to be when there was next to no dependence on digital. Johnson details his team’s complex creation of The Hulk suit: “He had an animatronic head and his arms were crossed over his chest inside the suit, and we had these huge arms that were strung and kinetically weighted so that as he walked they would just swing naturally while he walked on lifts, it was fucking amazing. Amazing! It was so cool.”
If deadly insect humanoids weren’t strange enough, one of the most bizarre additions to this particular Hulk story was a basement of gamma exposed mutants; “in the basement of the laboratory was all of the rejects, all of the scientists kept their failed experiments down there. There were all of these big fat humans that couldn’t even stand up so they had to lay in hammocks, kind of like an Island of Dr. Moreau kind of thing. There was all this weird shit down there!”
The ambitious scope of the project had Johnson and his team developing some of the biggest animatronics ever imagined, the pièce de résistance being a 30 foot tall, fully animatronic ‘Super Hulk’ who was going to be the film’s most formidable villain.
Johnson details, “Then there was Super Hulk! In those days one Hulk wasn’t enough, you had to have a Super Hulk for the climax. Super Hulk was some abomination of the gamma rays that was Hulk’s nemesis, and it was four times the size of Hulk and we were actually building that as well. Can you believe it? I mean it was Jurassic Park kinda shit. It was thirty feet tall, it was crazy!”
“We were breaking new ground on that film, we really were… It was fucking great and talking about it makes me want to cry because it was so cool and it never saw the light of day.”
The scope and therefore budget started mounting, spooking Universal executives and marking the beginning of the end for a Hulk project that was already pushing past its then-unheard-of budget of $100 million. Shortly thereafter, Universal cancelled the project.
“It was a smorgasbord of amazing effects and the rug got pulled out from under us and it was a very sad day,” Johnson recalls getting the call from Hensleigh and the devastating effect it had on the morale of himself and his company.
“John called me up one afternoon and he goes ‘Universal just pulled the plug on The Hulk.’ You want to know what the worst thing about it was? I then had to go out to my team of fifty artists and engineers and say, ‘the movie’s over, go home.’ It was devastating, and it wasn’t about the money, it was about the passion for our art and not being able to show the world what we had been so excited to come to work and do every day for six months.”
The heartbreaking plight of special effects mavericks who, alongside their dedicated teams, passionately pour their blood, sweat, tears, and dollars into projects only to have the plug pulled or the project awarded elsewhere, is a plight all too familiar to Johnson and other industry veterans. As a means to commemorate projects like these that were never fully realized, Johnson has dedicated an entire section in his Rubberhead books to them called ‘The Ones That Got Away,’ meant to immortalize the work for posterity. This section includes accounts of other unfinished gems such as Clive Barker’s Mummy, Joe Dante’s Jetsons, Ghostrider, The Creature from The Black Lagoon remake, and even
Despite the bottom falling out of his Hulk project, this was not the last Johnson was to hear from Marvel as he later went on to successfully design and create the mechanical tentacles for Doctor Octopus on Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 2 (2004). While on set for Spiderman 2, Johnson was even in talks with Marvel producer Avi Arad about an Iron Man project; more on that later this week.
Check out more exclusive images from the aborted Hulk project below!