The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)

In 1979 the gray hairs at CBS shocked the world by unleashing The Incredible Hulk on prime time television. It was revolutionary in a post-Superman America, where comic book properties were thought either too expensive for television (unless they were animated), or just too damn campy. The tragicomic failure of TV’s Spider-Man the year before only worked to shore up these illusions. And yet…

On one level, The Incredible Hulk was a horrific Franken-show. Its cast and crew of soap opera veterans had little idea how to run a superhero series. Its producers could barely drum up enough money to keep the green paint on Lou Ferrigno’s skin. And the network insisted on changing the main character’s name from “Bruce” to “David” because “Bruce” was just sooo gay. Even in 1979.

And yet it ran for five years with respectable ratings. The fan base seemed to grow and grow. People just couldn’t get enough of the not-so-jolly green giant and his puny human alter-ego. This marked a spike of hope in that superhero dead zone. Not bad considering every show featured exactly the same plot.

Then in 1982 The Incredible Hulk vanished. And silence covered the sky. With their mainstay gone, Marvel Comics seemed to fold in upon itself, shying away from live action film production. Just look at the ratings, they told themselves: people were getting bored with it, we were getting bored with it. Better to fade away than burn out. Could’ve been worse. They could’ve hated it.

But they loved it. We loved it. We still love it. At its best, Hulk was wonderfully soapy superhero drama. At its worst, the show was fun. Campy, melodramatic, miles away from the comic (especially in the early ’80s), but still better than anything else on late-70s TV.

So, in 1988, NBC decided to revive the Hulk, see if the old Jade Giant had any life left. Thus, The Incredible Hulk Returns. After the standard Hulk title sequence we are reacquainted with Dr. David Banner, physician, scientist. Boy, do we ever. Fair warning: the first ten minutes of the movie are filled to the brim with big, meaty chunks of exposition. I suppose writer/director Nicholas Corea felt all of this was terribly necessary. I mean, its not like half of America tuned in every night for five years to watch David Banner’s saga or anything. Oh, wait. They did. Silly me.

It seems that after five years of rehashing The Fugitive, Our Hero has decided to take some responsibility for himself. For the last two years, Banner’s kept the Hulk dormant, gotten a new job at the Joshua Lambert Institute, a new love interest in Dr. Margaret Shaw (Lee Purcell), and a shiny new piece of Super Science, the Gamma Transponder, that just might cure his little “problem.”

And wouldn’t you know it? Just as Banner is about to “step behind the death ray” Something Goes Horribly Wrong. Personified in this case by the appearance of Dr. Donald Blake (Steve Levitt), an old friend of Banner’s from Harvard. Blake’s tracked Banner down because he has a little problem of his own and he brought along some handy flashbacks to help explain.

It seems Blake was the doctor on an ill fated archeological dig into “the north.” “And I’m talkin’ way north.” While spelunking, Blake stumbled across and ancient Viking grave, complete with corpse and magic war hammer. Whenever Blake holds the hammer and sends The Call the heavens part and Thor, the (ahem) “warrior-king,” materializes to do Blake’s bidding. Sorta.

See, Thor (Eric Allen) is not particularly happy with the 1980s, and he takes some of this ire out on “Banner the Warlock” once Blake calls him forth to prove himself sane. As anyone who’s grown up in this culture will tell you, taking anything out on David (or Bruce) Banner is a Bad Idea. The Hulk and Thor wind up having a budget-conscious fight in Banner’s lab. Cue commercial.

The next day, Thor and Blake find Banner in a deserted ally. Blake agrees to help Banner fix up the lab and then get the heck out of dodge before anyone notices the Hulk’s return. Too bad Joshua Lambert, Banner’s boss at the Institute, has hired aging Cajon Jack LeBeau (Tim Thomerson!) to hi-jack the Gamma Transponder for…ransom or something. Something really stupid. When an attempt to steal it from the Institute fails (courtesy of the Hulk), LeBeau decides to go the FARC route and kidnap Dr. Shaw instead. With his love interest in jeopardy and dreams of a normal life fading fast, Banner teams up with Blake and Thor to stop LeBeau “without anyone getting hurt” (yeah, right).

As you’d expect, technological and monetary limits required a few things be scaled back. Specifically Thor. For over fifty years, the Mighty Thor’s been a Marvel Comics staple; the Norse Thunder God, with a Godly outlook on right and wrong and enough Godly super powers to back himself up. Cool? Most definitely. Expensive to show on film? You bet. Far too expensive for 1988’s CBS. So instead of Thor, Norse God of Thunder, we have Thor, Norse God of Mullets and Bar Fights. Odd, but 1988 seems to have been the Year of the Mullett: across the continent that same year, raw Mullet Power saved us all from our elite alien masters in They Live.

Not as if that’s a  bad thing. In fact, Thor’s is one of the best comic-to-small-screen translations I’ve seen. Eric Allen does a superbly hammy job portraying Goldylocks, getting all the best lines and obviously having the most fun. If you find yourself wondering why he has so much screentime in what’s nominally a Hulk film, don’t panic. You’re seeing signs that The Incredible Hulk Returns was actually a not-so-cleverly disguised pilot for a Mighty Thor TV series. But director Corea never allows this to detract from the plot, and the ten minutes we spend with Thor and Bake are just long enough to remind us why we’re all here in the first place.

Not that the plot is anything you’d call “intricate.” (Unless you used sarcastic quotation marks, the way I just did.) One can almost hear Corea thinking, We need more padding or we’ll never make it to ninety minutes. (Hence, the inclusion of Jack McGee, the Hulk’s own Inspector Javert, in a completely useless subplot.) After all, this is a made-for-TV-movie. It might have been a movie-of-the-week for all I know. I’m a bit too inebriated right now to bother checking, so sue me. Or, better yet, offer me money to sober up and assume some air of “professionalism.”

All of the actors do decent turns, with Bill Bixby (per usual) leading the pack as the movie‘s emotional anchor. I’ve never felt much of a connection to David (or Bruce) Banner, but I can always count on Bixby to portray him consistently. Ol’ Bill spent five years in Banner’s shoes and you can tell he knows his role. Especially when you put him next to Steve Levitt, who stumbles through the movie obviously trying to get his character to fit just right before he has to go out in public. One can assume Levitt had visions of his own five year prime-time stint dancing in his head. That can be distracting. Eric Allen has much more to do as Thor. His jocular energy is damned infectious on a very base, very guy level. What can I say? What guy wouldn’t want to be a hard drinking, good looking, two-fisted do-gooder? The stalwart Mr. Ferrigno once again donned his Hulk gear to give us our daily dose of roaring and flexing. Without him, this movie wouldn’t exist, so I wish I had more to say about him. There’s just never much to comment on when it comes to the Hulk he’s portraying. If it helps, I’ve always preferred his grimacing, mute Hulk to the more chatty incarnations you’ll find in the comic books or cartoons. (Save for a period under Peter David, during the 90s.) There’s just something damned unsettling about those eyes…

Despite a lackluster script (“We’ll find your woman, Banner. I’ve sworn to Odin on that score!”) and pedestrian direction (we love that slow motion, don’t we, Corea?) The Incredible Hulk Returns is a fine capstone to a series that had more crests and troughs than Lou Ferrigno’s back. Everyone involved deftly avoids all of the major pitfalls that dogged the series, giving us a fun piece of cinematic junk food. I suppose this’ll have to tide us over until someone gets around to releasing the rest of The Incredible Hulk on DVD. Or at least until Ang Lee’s Hulk reaches the second run movie house down the street…

GGG

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