Marvel Comics… Man, what more can I possibly say about how awesome they are? Obviously, they know what they are doing with their movies. Over the past 20 years, Marvel has, for the most part, cranked out great superhero movie after great superhero movie. Starting with 1998’s Blade all the way up to today’s Thor: Ragnarok, no other movie studio has come close to recreating their source material into a major motion picture.
However, there was about 20 years before the release of Blade that things were pretty lean for Marvel getting their intellectual properties into movies. So, I’ll be looking at four of these attempts this month. There’s no better place to start than right here with The Incredible Hulk Returns.
There are two very good reasons why I start here. First, The Incredible Hulk was a pretty successful TV series for Marvel than ran from 1978 to 1982, then returned as a trilogy of made-for-TV movies in the late 1980s. This was the first of them (the second featured Daredevil and the Kingpin and the third resulted in the death of both the Hulk and David Banner).
The second reason is because, much like today’s Thor: Ragnarok, The Incredible Hulk Returns features a team-up of the Hulk and Thor. This time, Thor was played by Eric Allen Kramer who was fairly new on the scene at the time and ultimately became a fairly popular character actor who still works to this day.
The movie premiered on NBC on May 22, 1988. I was really, really excited for it. Back then, I was buying comics whenever I had a spare $1.05 ($1 cover price plus 5% Indiana Sales Tax back then). My favorite comic series at the time was Thor. Knowing Thor would be making his live action debut I was losing my mind. I could not wait to see the mighty Thunder God in his classic dark blue top with the metal circles and that flowing red cape and those yellow boots and light blue tights… But…
Well, I’ll get that in a little bit. But for now, let me get to what the basic synopsis is for the movie. David Banner believes he is about to find a cure for his little green problem, but he runs into a former student, Donald Blake, who tells Banner that he found this magical hammer that summons the Norse God Thor who is bound to serve Blake (sigh). Thor is a dick and ends up pissing Banner off enough to bring out the Hulk. After the two make nice, they battle a criminal organization.
Let’s get this started so I can talk about how frustrating this movie was for me as a kid.
I find it kinda funny that the movie starts with the classic television series opening with shitty text overwriting it with the cast showing the characters as they were a decade ago. Banner still faces nightmares of being the Hulk even though he hasn’t transformed into him for a while. He’s a man in love with Maggie Shaw, a widow he met a couple years ago. Banner is working at a scientific institute under the name of David Bannion.
Things seem to be going pretty well for ol’ Banner.
David is working on a Gamma Transponder which will help cure gamma radiation in people. Despite the opportunity to be made famous and have all his past problems cleared up by his boss, David refuses to take any credit for his leading work on the transponder. After the transponder is unveiled, David decides to be his own test subject. He’s designed the machine to be something of a puzzle that only he knows how to work fully to be able to reverse the effects of gamma radiation on his own cells.
Just before the transponder goes off, it is shut down by Donald Blake, a former acquaintance. Blake tells Banner that he’s no longer practicing medicine after he went on an expedition to Scandinavia that didn’t go so well. He recalls that the team was held up by a giant snow storm. In the middle of the night, the storm broke, and Blake was called to a cave. There, he found a tomb stating it contained Thor. Thor had been banished and not allowed to enter Valhalla until he completed a series of heroic feats. When Blake took the hammer found inside the tomb, lightning shot from the hammer and brought Thor back to life. Blake says that he can summon Thor anytime he needs help to complete a “good cause”. If the deed is not good enough, Thor will not help.
First, goddammit… Donald Blake was not a real character. Or at least not at this point in history. Odin sent Thor to Earth to learn humility. He created the Blake identity to hide Thor’s true self. Blake was a doctor who generally did good things. He was also crippled and weak where Thor was strong and perfectly healthy. He was not a goof off who was an archaeology buff who is a separate person from Thor. They are one and the same. (NOTE: Donald Blake is now a separate entity from Thor Odinson in the comics at present, but you get my drift.)
Okay, maybe you need to have some sort of new backstory and characterization for Donald Blake now to make him work for the 1980s. Sure, this was intended as a possible backdoor pilot to have a Thor TV series all his own and maybe you needed to have the two characters separated, but it’s kinda not a good change. Donald Blake was meant to be a Clark Kent type of character who really was a god. This was frustrating to 11 year old me. Also frustrating was this…
If the Hulk could look like this:
Why did Thor have to look like this:
That is immensely disappointing when I grew up loving the adventures of this guy:
Maybe it’s a nitpick of mine. Maybe it is a legitimate gripe. Either way, I didn’t dislike the guy playing Thor, but I sure hated how he looked.
Additionally, everyone can pick up and carry around Mjolnir, Thor’s magical hammer (of pure Uru, I might add). That isn’t supposed to be possible by anyone who isn’t worthy enough to possess the power of Thor. Even worse, the first thing Thor does is start fucking up Banner’s gamma transponder looking for something to drink. Yes, Thor likes his mead. He might ask for brewskies as soon as he arrives, but he wouldn’t trash someone’s shit for it. This guy is a fucking asshat. He demands Banner show respect and then do everything he wants – which is break the bond between Blake and Thor. When Banner asks to be left alone, Thor starts throwing him around the place. This is not exactly the best way for anyone to like the hero you want to give a fucking television series to.
Banner responds appropriately:
Thor and Hulk fight, which leads to the gamma transponder being totally fucked. Sometimes, Thor just fucking breaks shit to break shit. Thor gets tossed outside where he then decides to try to become Hulk’s friend. When sirens are heard, Hulk makes off into the night and Blake sends Thor back into Mjolnir.
The next morning, Thor approaches Banner like nothing happened the night before. Apparently, everyone is just fucking cool with everything. Banner says Blake has to help him fix the computer banks that got messed up in the fight. The story in the paper brings out a former adversary of Banners in newspaper reporter Jack McGee who chased Banner all throughout the original run of the television series.
Zachary Lambert, brother of the man who runs the institute Banner created the transponder for, decides to hire a criminal organization headed up by Jack fuckin’ Deth himself, Tim Thomerson, to kidnap Banner and the transponder for resale or ransom. McGee arrives at the Institute as well to find out more about the place and the incident. After a tour, Banner sees McGee and beats cheeks to get out of there before his old nuisance sees him.
Thor and Blake have a heart-to-heart about each other’s place in their relationship. Thor talks of being stuck inside the hammer in a place of darkness without form and being awake and experiencing it all. He tells of how he feels truly alive again when he hears the call to come forth. Blake never really thought about how Thor can no longer be with his friends and fellow warriors. He never really thought about how Thor doesn’t get to eat or drink. So Blake takes him to a biker bar to drink all the beer and wrestle all the arms.
I will say that I really do like Eric Allen Kramer as Thor. He doesn’t have an accent or speak the familiar Shakespeare like talk, but he looks and fits the part of a rebellious viking. He makes friends with the bikers at the bar and feels pretty great. It’s not a bad little scene with a character I’m mostly not liking that much due to my disappointment for how he was initially portrayed and the way he looks.
At the lab, Banner realizes something is up and he’s confronted by some of Jack LeBeau’s (Thomerson) men who are there to take the transponder and Banner. In the struggle, the Hulk is unleashed and chases away the thugs. LeBeau decides that if Banner proves to be a problem, then they need to go after Maggie Shaw. They go to her place to kidnap her and despite Thor and Hulk both being on the scene, they do succeed in taking her.
McGee is on the scene with witness accounts from around Maggie’s house saying the green monster seen at the lab was on the scene. He tracks down Banner’s apartment. Banner and Blake hide while Thor poses as David Bannion wearing nothing but a towel and drinking a giant beer forcing McGee to flee terrified – which was a pretty great scene.
Banner gets a call from the kidnappers who demand he hands over the transponder in exchange for Maggie. Knowing that the device could be turned into a terrible weapon, Banner says he has to disassemble everything, wipe the machine clean, and set up a delivery of the device without it being a potential weapon, therefore freeing Maggie with no one getting hurt. Thor promises that no one will be hurt this day and heads out into action.
Lambert is not terribly pleased that LeBeau kidnapped his friend Maggie. LeBeau is bullied into going forward with the plan as LeBeau says the transaction is still with David and she’s not going to be hurt. At the lab, Banner and Blake scrub the computers clean, erasing Banner’s hope of finding a cure. Lambert has been shot and in bad shape and asks to see David. He tries to learn the location of where Maggie’s been kept, but Lambert first comes clean about why he betrayed his brother. I dunno… Something to do with sibling envy or something. He finally tells David where she is, and Banner, Blake, and Thor go to the warehouse LeBeau is hiding out.
Joshua Lambert arrives with a gun angry at LeBeau after Zachary dies. David pleads with him to not give into his anger, but Joshua pushes him down and decides to go for it anyway. This causes David to turn into the Hulk. The Hulk stops Joshua, and in a rage runs into the hideout. Thor joins the battle and starts tossing and hammerin’ fools.
With his men either clubbed by a steel beam or a hammer, or shot by Blake who picked up a machine gun and started blowing assholes away, LeBeau uses Maggie as a human shield. Hulk ends up capturing him by bending a steel pipe around him and letting him live… But… But Blake was blasting goons and henchmen with a machine gun! You… You’re just gonna let LeBeau live and face the justice system when the others were mortally wounded?
Banner says goodbye to Thor and Don who have come to terms with their partnership. Banner and Maggie enjoy a beach fire, and proclaim they will always love each other. The next morning, Banner hits the road in classic, sad piano theme style just like the TV series, leaving Maggie behind and hopes to find another way to cure himself.
You know, there always was a sadness to the TV series that was well portrayed in the character of David Banner that was only ever seen as subtext in the comics of the era. Yes, Bruce Banner would always lament that he couldn’t be taken as anything but a dangerous monster and was always being chased by those who wanted him caged, but it was rarely explored on the surface like the series did. That still remains here. No matter how well he can control the monster, something always comes along to bring it out of him. This time it’s that dufus Blake and his viking asshole.
However, the closeness to the series is also the problem with this movie. It’s, at best, a fair two-part episode. As a movie, it’s really light on story, character development, and budget. There were a few nice moments with Thor learning to not be a total jerk, but ultimately, it was cheap. If it was just Hulk by himself, then we could have learned more about what David had been up to for the past several years. We could learn to feel something when he left by showing more of how truly happy he is. We’re shown some, but mostly told that he’s found some zen with Maggie. The point I’m trying to make was that on top of Thor being a bit of a dud (even though I felt Kramer was very good as a viking – just not exactly the Thor I hoped for), there’s not much to really grab onto. I could imagine a lot of people excited to watch a new Incredible Hulk movie sitting down on a warm spring Sunday night, watching this movie expecting to reconnect with a hero they used to watch all the time, then, two hours later, just shrugging and saying, “Well, that was a thing.”
And that had to be somewhat sad. Younger viewers like me would be confused about why Thor is in drab brown instead of his iconic colors, but our disappointment would have probably been tempered a bit because our connection to the Hulk would have been a little different. Yes, I totally understand that the original series was a bit hokey and had to be made somewhat on the cheap, but that did help bring out some of the character struggles that did deepen the sadness of this guy who just wants to be left alone to find a cure but only finds trouble wherever he goes.
Next week, I take a look at another iconic Marvel Comics property turned movie that also led to a great deal of disappointment. It wasn’t in how the movie was made as much as how the movie wasn’t seen. So check back in as I take a look at the notorious Roger Corman produced The Fantastic Four!