Title: The Incredible Hulk Returns
Director: Nicholas Corea & Bill Bixby (uncredited)
Writers: Nicholas Corea (Based on the character created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)
Distributed By: Bixby-Brandon Productions & New World Entertainment
Starring: Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Eric Allan Kramer, Steve Levitt, Lee Purcell, Tim Thomerson, Jack Colvin
Release Date: May 22, 1988
In the immortal words of Stan Lee, “Face front, true believers!” It’s HULK MONTH here at Movie Mondays! The new THOR movie, Thor: The Dark World, is coming out next month, and this critic had an epiphany. Thor’s getting a sequel, Iron Man has had sequels, Captain America’s got a sequel on the way, but where’s the love for The Incredible Hulk?! With no foreseeable Hulk movie on the horizon, Movie Mondays will be offering up a month-long tribute to the Jade Giant, covering all of ol’ Jade Jaws forays into feature films!
In 1977 Marvel’s big green hero was given his first live-action adaptation in the pilot movie for the television series The Incredible Hulk, which would continue until 1982. Then, from 1988 to 1990 three made-for-TV movies would be made continuing the plot of the series. The first of these movies was The Incredible Hulk Returns. This was a momentous occasion for two very important reasons. One, it marked the return of the cast and characters from the beloved television series; and two, it marked the fifth ever Marvel character to get a live-action adaptation… as The Incredible Hulk joins forces with The Mighty Thor!!!
As the film begins, Dr. Banner (Bixby) has seemingly found a bit of peace and happiness, having managed to not transform into the savage Hulk (Ferrigno) for over two years now. Working with a new colleague and love-interest, Dr. Margaret Shaw (Purcell) on a new invention that could mean a cure for his “condition”, everything is looking up for the good doctor… when all of a sudden, his life is thrown back into chaos. Dr. Donald Blake (Levitt) comes to Banner in the hopes of dealing with a “condition” of his own. Blake has been magically bonded with the Norse warrior deity Thor (Kramer). To make matters worse, the corporation that Banner is working for is suffering from a bit of industrial espionage, as a group of badguys team up to kidnap Banner’s partner and steal the invention they’ve created. Now, the good doctor must use his monstrous alter-ego and team up with Thor to rescue his lady love and put a stop to badguys’ evil schemes. It’s all just so… incredible! (couldn’t resist the chance for a pun)
For what was a made-for-TV movie sequel to a television show, this film pulls out all of the stops. For instance, in the TV series, Hulk could never really hit anything. He could toss enemies around like ragdolls, but he never hit any of them. Well, no more of that! In this movie, Thor hits villains with his hammer and Hulk even snatches up a steal girder and uses it like a baseball bat to launch some baddies across a warehouse. And of course, Hulk lives up to his comic book catchphrase “Hulk smash!” as he gets to wreck a good bit of stuff throughout the film.
The acting is all terrific, with the exception of some of the minor incidental roles, like a few moments of overacting and under-acting from the secondary villains and random henchmen. Bill Bixby is to Dr. Banner what Christopher Reeve is to Superman; he perfectly embodies the character and after having done it for so many years he just feels completely natural in the part.
Eric Allan Kramer is delightfully entertaining as he presents a melodramatic and over the top performance as Thor, yet still manages to rein it in when conveying the torment he suffers when not allowed into the corporeal world, which leads to one minor gripe about the accuracy of this adaptation. In the comics, Thor is cast out of Asgard to learn humility by living in the body of a human counterpart, Dr. Donald Blake. In the film, Thor is banished from Valhalla and is summoned (much like a genie) in service to Blake, instead of being one in the same. While being different from the comics, it provides an interesting dynamic as the two characters can now interact with one another. So, it’s a positive and a negative change.
The only other complaints that need to be addressed in regard to this film are three-fold. The first stems from the overly cheesy way the action is handled, with lots of poorly executed slow-motion, and the 80’s television style of neutering the onscreen action. Much like the TV show this is a continuation of, the fights don’t actually feature a lot of real fighting from our two main heroes, which is annoying considering that Donald Blake actually shoots a few henchmen. It’s rather preposterous that a side character gets to shoot people, but it’s too much to ask that our two stars get to throw a punch!
A second grievance is in regard to the costuming and make-up effects. Now, you might be thinking that they’d have The Hulk all figured out by now, but you’d be wrong. There are a few scenes where Lou Ferrigno’s make up is fading in spots which make the film feel low-budget. And his wig, my god his wig; in the show The Hulk had a few different wigs, but they finally nailed down a decent look for the monster’s hairpiece. I don’t know what the creators of this film were thinking, but they have Hulk sporting a gnarly looking mullet in this film and it’s so laughable and appalling that it unfortunately distracts from what should be an entertaining performance. Another costuming issue is that of Thor’s look. His armor is just lousy and looks nothing like it does in the source material.
The third and final criticism is that the film’s musical score is simply abysmal. The music, created by Lance Rubin, for this feature is a cheesy overly-synthesized set of tunes that just bring to mind the worst of 1980s video game music. It’s even more noticeable because of the fact that the opening and closing of the film use the television series’ fantastic score created by Joe Harnell.
Aside from limitations with the production values, problems with the action that clearly stem from the era in which the film was made, and the major detraction that is the film’s music, the movie as a whole is surprisingly good. Even with it’s few shortcomings, it’s all very entertaining. When all is said and done, it’s the sincerity of the acting from our main performers that make the film worth watching. All in all, the film is a real treat and should be seen by anyone and everyone who happens to be a fan of The Incredible Hulk, Marvel in general, or any of the talented actors involved.