It’s been a few decades since I’ve seen The Incredible Hulk Returns. In a weird coincidence before I recently revisited it I watched Thor: The Dark World, which just happened to be on TV. I can only imagine the strange alternate universe where, instead of big budget Thor and Avengers movies, we had the Thor TV series. If it was picked up after this 1988 TV movie aired there would have had potential multiple seasons of adventures with Thor being summoned by his geeky doctor “master” Donald Blake and righting wrongs. All done within the confines of an insanely low budget!
The Incredible Hulk Returns is unevenly paced but fun, albeit in a nostalgic campy way. From the familiar opening credits explaining Bill Bixby’s Dr. David (not Bruce) Banner’s lab accident that caused him to transform into the beast it seems like just another episode. This is a made for TV movie though, a “very special episode” that typically introduces a new character. And that new character is none other than The Mighty Thor! And the pretty terrible Donald Blake.
It’s been two years since his last transformation. Dr. Banner has in that time settled down with a widow named Maggie. He now works at the Joshua-Lambert Research Institute, where he has been building a Gamma Transponder to end his Hulk transformations. Just as he’s about to zap himself with what he hopes is his salvation a geeky former student named Donald Blake shows up and turns off the Transponder. Blake has apparently been tracking him down and is dying to tell him about his archaeological adventures in “The Savage North”, where he stumbled upon an ancient Viking tomb while mountain climbing. In this tomb was none other than Thor’s corpse! Blake explains that the corpse also came with Thor’s hammer, which Blake picked up and then managed to briefly summon the blonde Viking spirit.
Blake then demonstrates to Banner how he does it by holding up the hammer and yelling “Odin!”, kind of like Billy Batson’s whole “Shazam!” summoning of Captain Marvel. Except where Batson disappears and Marvel appears, annoying Blake is still hanging around. This causes Banner to transform, and all of a sudden Lou Ferrigno appears. As per usual he’s covered in green paint and flexes a lot. I forgot how much slo-mo is employed to convey the intricate action sequences. These consist of Hulk flexing and Thor hitting him once with his hammer. Next thing we know Thor is being thrown through a window and the cops show up, fight over. Not quite as epic as their match from The Avengers.
From this point forward I will stick to highlights. There are some goofball scenes which I assume would have been the norm in the Thor TV series. One involves Thor going to a bar, drinking a lot, arm wrestling some bikers, and dancing with a bunch of ladies. Another is Thor in a bath towel drinking a giant mug of beer and shooing away annoying reporter Jack McGee (played by Jack Colvin), who comes sniffing around Banner’s apartment. I never really understood why McGee was a regular presence on The Incredible Hulk, but then again it’s best not to question the logic and decisions made on old TV series.
A plot by some Nogoodniks to steal Banner’s Gamma Transponder pops up, and an attempt to kidnap Banner fails because The Hulk happens, so they nab Maggie instead. There’s a showdown between Thor, Hulk, for some reason Blake, and the bad guys. The bad guys are stopped in another clumsy fight sequence and Maggie is rescued. Thor and Blake realize that they have to solve crimes together and go on their merry way. Despite Maggie knowing what’s up (and being ok with it), Banner leaves her and goes walkabout to that familiar sad music, never finishing the Transponder.
Like I said earlier this episode is fun when Thor and/or the Hulk are onscreen. There are some really slow scenes that basically function to move the plot along. Eric Alan Kramer is actually pretty great as Thor, and while his portrayal is somewhat goofy and moronic it’s not TOO different from how how Chris Hemsworth plays the Norse God. Steve Levitt as Donald Blake is meant to offset the cool macho drunkeness, but instead comes off like an annoying parent who makes Thor disappear when he gets too rowdy. Where does Thor go? There’s no mention of Asgard but I guess the TV show would have addressed this, or we just have to accept that Thor is some kind of viking ghost. Ah, 80s television…
The Incredible Hulk Returns was a big ratings hit after it aired. This lead to two more TV movies, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk and The Death of the Incredible Hulk. Another backdoor pilot was attempted with Trial for Daredevil but nothing ever came out of it. While a fourth film entitled The Revenge of the Incredible Hulk was in development but Bill Bixby’s unfortunate passing due to cancer in November 1993 derailed any further development.
As a kid watching all of these when they originally aired I remember thinking how awesome these movies were. It’s hard to imagine but at the time there wasn’t much superhero stuff out there, especially of the live action variety. The Hulk and Spider-Man were Marvel’s biggest properties at the time, and really only the Hulk had any success outside of comics and cartoons. Seeing other Marvel characters like Thor and Daredevil pop in to hang out was beyond awesome, even if they were slightly cheapo knockoffs. Comic fans were more forgiving in this regard, and we’d take almost anything for a live action adaptation of any superhero. I guess that’s why I can’t dump on this movie too much. While it’s insanely low budget there’s a lot of fun being had on the screen, and sometimes it’s infectious.
Still, I’m glad things worked out the way they did and Marvel didn’t release their stable of heroes upon us until more recently. Special effects for this kind of superhero action wasn’t quite there in the late 80s. To pull off any kind of cool looking special effects you had to shell out the big bucks, which no TV show was going to do. The Incredible Hulk Returns serves as a reminder of how far things have come for live action superhero fare. It also serves as a reminder of simpler times when all you needed to get big ratings was to paint a bodybuilder green and put a guy in a viking halloween costume.