The Incredible Hulk Returns
US (1988) Dirs. Nicholas Corea & Bill Bixby
Thanks to the Horror Channel here in the UK I’ve been able to relive a part of my childhood with the repeats of the entire run of the Incredible Hulk TV series. Five series were made from 1977 to 1982 relaying the tragic tale of a scientist whose ill-fated exposure to gamma radiation left him with a curse that sees him transform into a large green monster when angry or placed under extreme duress.
It was camp 70’s TV at its best but a valiant attempt to bring Stan Lee’s comic book creation to life with arguably greater success then some adaptations of the time. Nowadays the transformations and the Hulk itself are handled by CGI but in the 70’s they had neither the budget or the technology but what they did do would be become iconic for a generation of kids and comic book nerds alike.
Six years after the TV series was cancelled a trilogy of TV films were made to resume the story in the hopes of rekindling that old magic and attract a new fanbase but the landscape had changed as was far more sophisticated and demanding of their superhero action. The first of these films was The Incredible Hulk Returns, set two years after the events of the TV series despite everyone looking a decade older.
David Banner, using the surname Bannion (Bill Bixby), is now living with Dr. Maggie Shaw (Lee Purcell) and works for the Joshua-Lambert Research Institute, where they head a team of scientists developing a Gamma Transponder. Unbeknownst to everyone else, Banner hopes to use the transponder to cure his Hulk problem. One night while working on the transponder, an ex-student of Banner’s Donald Blake (Steve Levitt) sneaks into the lab.
Blake claims that whilst out in Norway he found the tomb of Thor buried in the snow and when he picked up a hammer laying nearby it responded to him and resurrected Thor (Eric Kramer). Blake then demonstrates this and produces Thor, whose arrogant actions provoke Banner to change into the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), for the first time in two years. Meanwhile a criminal gang headed by Institute member Jack LeBeau (Tim Thomerson) fail to steal the transponder so they kidnap Maggie instead to bully Banner into handing it over.
In essence this film marks the first time two members of The Avengers were brought together in a live action medium although no-one will ever confuse this with the recent blockbuster movies. For starters the pairing of Thor and Blake is almost comedic the former being the nerdy mortal and the latter being his convenient muscle. Whether this was meant to lead to a series for Thor remains unknown but we definitely dodged a bullet on that one.
To be honest the presence of Thor and Blake is not just incongruous but unnecessary all told when the Hulk is more than a match for the baddies. Plus it raises a number of questions about Banner’s ongoing plight to remain anonymous since an ex-student from a decade ago can track him down, break into a high security building and expose his identity which even his current love doesn’t know!
Not only is the Hulk now known to Thor but the staff at the Institute and LeBeau’s baddies are aware of him too, which brings one Jack MacGee (Jack Colvin) out of the woodwork to resume his investigation of the Hulk. And a scene where Blake takes Thor out to a biker’s bar which involves him showing off his inhuman strength should surely raise some eyebrows but doesn’t.
Much like its TV predecessor the budget for this film wasn’t extravagant so Thor’s hammer didn’t fly and nor did he; he would be summoned by Blake holding the hammer out and yelling “Odin!” after which some cheesy electricity effect would envelope the hammer, there would be a lightning flash and Thor would appear. For the Hulk’s transformation it was business as usual with Banner’s eyes signalling the change, the clothes ripping and then the Hulk would stand up and flex.
Unfortunately the trademark aural motif that accompanied change is absent here which I’ve become used to hearing after 80 plus TV episodes of this occurring – in fact I would say it was an integral part of the experience. It should also be noted that the Hulk’s make-up is slightly different – the hair is longer and wilder, the teeth are more pronounced and the nose is sharper; when he flexed he reminded me of the late wrestling legend Ultimate Warrior!
The story isn’t much cop but to its credit is in line with some of the plots from the TV show so it doesn’t stray too far from the remit of being a convenient backdrop for the Hulk to wreak his unique brand of havoc. Another aspect which hasn’t changed is the contrivance of the set ups for the transformations; for instance the first one sees Thor roughly shove Banner into a bank of electronics to set off a little explosion, powerful enough to trigger the metamorphosis.
What made the TV show such a success was the earnest performances of the late Bill Bixby as David Banner, who could make even the cheesiest of stories and situations believable. Bixby had lost none of that gravitas here while muscle man Lou Ferrigno was still in great condition to resume his role as The Hulk as if the prior six years were just six weeks. However to say Eric Kramer as Thor was no Chris Hemsworth is either damning one with faint praise or giving the other a backhanded compliment!
For long time fans of the TV series The Incredible Hulk Returns would be seen as a fun if occasionally daft nostalgia trip while newer fans won’t be able to get past the rudimentary presentation and essentially human aspect of the Hulk in contrast to its modern CGI descendant. Oh and they kept the plaintively sad piano music too!