Superheroes crossing over into each other’s comics is certainly nothing new, the comic book Marvel Team-Ups was founded on that very premise, but when it came to live-action versions of these four-colour heroes that simply wasn’t the case, that is until the New World Television produced this made-for-television movie that brought the Asgardian hero Thor to the small screen, in what they had hoped would lead to a series of his own.
The original CBS series The Incredible Hulk had a successful five-year run but the show never got what one would call a series finale, the last episode simply ending with David Banner walking away as sad piano music played in the background and thus he remained a “fugitive” in search of a cure for his gamma-irradiated condition. Enter New World Television a studio founded by legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman and who had recently acquired the Marvel Entertainment Group which led to them taking over the Hulk television franchise from former broadcaster CBS with a series of made-for-television movies. Now, a person may think that a studio partnered with Marvel Comics would be the ideal caretakers for The Incredible Hulk but that person wouldn’t be taking into account the fact that New World Pictures was mostly known for making exploitation films like Student Nurses and Caged Heat, and thus making a film about a giant emerald monster and an Asgardian god was a little out of their wheelhouse.
Certainly, the idea of pitting the Incredible Hulk against the Thor, the Norse God of Thunder seems like an ideal project, something that had occurred in the pages of Marvel Comics time and time again, but for this movie comic book fans wouldn’t be seeing the Thor they were familiar with, instead, they were treated to a disgraced Viking king, who Odin had condemned to never enter Valhalla until he’d perform a heroic enough deed to make up for being a bit of an arrogant dick, and so we aren’t dealing with the Son of Odin but just some random Viking dude who pissed off the All-Father. In this version, we have Doctor Donald Blake (Steve Levitt), a doctor for a Norwegian expedition, who stumbles across a cave containing the skeletal remains of a Viking king and a Viking war hammer. Sadly, the hammer had no inscription stating, “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor” to which Blake would then raise the hammer and it would revive the Viking King. Thor is basically enslaved to Blake, stuck in some kind of limbo until he is called forth by Blake, and I must say that the idea of Thor being a lapdog to someone as lame as Donald Blake is a tad disappointing.
Comic Note: In the original “Journey into Mystery” Donald Blake was simply a construct created by Odin to teach his son humility and when Blake found the hammer Mjölnir he was transformed back into the God of Thunder and reclaimed his memories pertaining to being the son of Odin. In this film, they are two completely different people, one being a mopey idiot and the other a brutish jerk.
But what has any of this got to do with the Incredible Hulk? Well, as the movie opens, we find David Banner (Bill Bixby) working for the Joshua-Lambert Research Institute on something called a Gamma Transponder, which is supposed to be the next best thing to nuclear energy, but it’s a device that Banner has secretly outfitted with the secondary purpose of curing him of his tortured existence of being the rampaging Hulk. Now, it’s been two years since his last “Hulk Out” and he’s fallen in love with Dr. Margaret Shaw (Lee Purcell), a beautiful geneticist working at the same institute, yet he is willing to risk this cure killing him if there is a slight chance that he could lead a happy Hulk-free life with Shaw. Unfortunately, a late-night visit to the Gamma Transponder is interrupted by Donald Blake, who has tracked down Banner in the hopes that he could help him with his Viking problem, but when he calls forth Thor (Erik Kramer), to prove to Banner that he’s not crazy, the Viking acts like a complete dick and this results in Banner transforming into the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) and the fight between them trashes part of the lab.
The actual plot of this movie finally gets going when a criminal organization within the Joshua-Lambert Institute seeks to kidnap Banner and the Transponder, they want to turn the Transponder into a weapon because of course they do, only to have the Hulk easily thwart such an attempt, but when the syndicate leader Jack LeBeau (Tim Thomerson) targets Dr. Shaw instead of Banner it’s up to our two heroes to put their differences aside and rescue the fair damsel, thwart the villainous plot and save the day. Overall, this is a fun enough adventure story but we still get an embarrassingly downgraded Hulk, he’s briefly brought low by a tranquillizer dart which wouldn’t even have pierced the skin of his comic book counterpart, and the random collection of thugs here are as generic and as lame as all the mobsters and such that he was forced to fight back in the original series, but his teaming up with Thor does freshen things up a bit, even if this isn’t the Thor we know from the pages of Marvel Comics.
We also get the return of reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin) but his snooping around for evidence of the Hulk’s involvement comes across more as filler than anything pertinent to the plot as he’s more a holdover from the series than anything organic to the story they were trying to tell here. The final fight is also on par with what was seen in the five seasons of the original show, made more embarrassing by the villains having automatic weapons yet they can’t seem to hit the Hulk at point-blank range, and as one of the henchmen was played by the always entertaining Charles Napier I give the film an extra bonus point or two, but the end result is still a film that wears its television budget on its sleeve and remains a the less than stellar adaptation of the comic book.
• We find David Banner gainfully employed at a high-tech research facility, which is not first as this kind of thing happened a lot in the series, but wouldn’t this kind of company do a thorough background check for any prospective employee?
• Why would Donald Blake seek out a believed dead expert in gamma radiation to help him with his mystical problem surrounding a cursed Viking? There doesn’t seem like much of a crossover in those two fields.
• In this film Thor’s hammer is not the mighty weapon Mjölnir, which could only be picked up by someone worthy, it’s just the trigger that wakes up this cursed Viking.
• Donald Blake helps fix the damage that Thor and the Hulk caused in the lab but Blake’s last job was field medic for an archaeological expedition, did he have a side hustle as a computer repairman that we were not made aware of?
• Blake takes Thor to a biker bar so he can partake in food, drink, and women but after a night of partying they leave together sans women, you’d think a Viking who has been in forced abstinence for centuries would have left with at least one biker chick.
• Banner is relieved that Hulk and Thor’s fight was considered a publicity stunt by the institute, with Blake pointing out that it only made page two in the paper, but what kind of publicity stunt would two giants fighting in a lab be? How would it be marketed?
Erik Kramer provided a solid performance as Thor, his pain and sadness over being trapped by Odin on this “task” has a surprising amount of depth to it, unfortunately, he was saddled by Steve Levitt’s obnoxiously annoying Donald Blake and I just can’t see how this dynamic would have worked as a television series, lucky for us we never had to find out. It should also be noted that The Incredible Hulk Returns also suffered from that “reset factor” as the movie ends just like any of the many episodes of the series with things returning to the status quo, Banner leaving behind the woman he loves so that he can continue his search for the cure, which makes this seem more like an extra-long episode than it does a stand-alone movie. To be fair, there are some fun moments to be had, such as Thor trying to figure out how a fridge works and marvelling over modern conveniences like hot and cold running water, and Erik Kramer definitely had the physique for the part, but it was not enough to make the whole project work.
NBC was certainly happy enough with the fact that The Incredible Hulk Returns was a major ratings success for them but somehow that did not translate into Thor getting a series of his own, thus this made-for-television movie joined the list of several Marvel backdoor pilots that failed to provide the needed “kick” to launch a new show. Could it be that audiences didn’t like the idea of Thor being depicted as being a servant of Blake or that they were two separate entities, possibly, but more likely than not, it was the network who failed to see the “comedic” pairing of Erik Kramer and Steve Levitt leading to a successful series, and on that, I couldn’t agree more.
Note: It would take over two decades before we’d see another live-action version of Thor and his eventual ultimate team-up with the Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
Movie Rank - 5.5/10
It was nice to see Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno return to their iconic roles but The Incredible Hulk Returns didn’t have much in the writing department to make this anything more than a tired movie-of-the-week offering, and their depiction of Thor could only piss off fans of the comic book.