The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) — Also starring Thor, why not

“Fine battle we had, eh, Banner? Me and your troll!”

Justin’s rating: Thor smash!

Justin’s review: Superhero fans in from the ’60s through the ’80s didn’t exactly have a whole lot of cinematic options to feed their fascination outside of the comic book pages. The technology and funding wasn’t quite there to prompt the creation of such movies — apart from the Superman and Swamp Thing franchises, mostly — television was more than game to take a stab at Spider-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, and, yes, the Incredible Hulk.

I didn’t grow up with the famous Incredible Hulk TV series that ran from 1978 to 1982, although I’ve been aware of the pop culture footprint that it left behind. The series took quite a few liberties with the source material that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created in 1962, but the core concept — a gamma radiated scientist now turns into a raging monster when he gets angry — stayed put.

Thanks to some rights getting transferred, the cancelled series was resurrected for a trio of made-for-TV movies, starting with The Incredible Hulk Returns in 1988. A noticeably aging Bill Bixby returned as Dr. David (not Bruce) Banner, who has gone two years without a ‘roid-related mishap thanks to a relationship with the widow Maggie Shaw. Banner’s also created a “Gamma Transponder” that may reverse his condition entirely.

Complicating this situation is Banner’s former student Donald Blake (Steve Levitt), who shows up to reveal that he’s gained the ability to summon Thor (Eric Kramer). Yeah, that Thor. In fact, this movie marks the last time both the Hulk and Thor appeared together until The Avengers in 2012, which is a fun little fact you can insert into dead pauses at parties. The two of them end up fighting some criminals who steal the Transponder for the purposes of Evil Science and War.

That sounds pretty fun, don’t it? And it kind of is, in a very cheesy way. Thor’s a total jerk, ripping up labs looking for drinks, and Hulk makes a bad mullet look trendy. It takes over 25 minutes for both of them to appear, but after that we get some slow-motion fights, dorky posturing, and loads of green makeup. This is the sort of crossover that the comics loved to do, so it instantly becomes the main attraction.

The problem is that when we’re not doing some sort of shirt-ripping temper tantrum, Incredible Hulk Returns asks us to wade through poorly paced, terribly acted, and screechingly scored TV nonsense. At times, this looks and sounds like it’s right out of the ’70s, not in the same year that Die Hard and Beetlejuice released.

At least Thor is snarky and magnetic. He’s got that same swagger and Viking-themed cockiness that Chris Hemsworth would bring to the character. It just feels weird that he’s constantly summoned and dismissed by a total dweeb. Allegedly, this TV film was meant to be a backdoor pilot for a Thor series, but what ended up happening is that they made more Hulk movies instead.

I feel it’s a misstep that the Hulk is shown up in his own movie, but that’s the truth of it. The Thor parts are far more interesting and make enduring Bill Bixby’s creaking bones somewhat tolerable. I mean, Banner would rather hang out in his lab grousing about how bad he has it as an accidental superhero, but Thor’s over there in a biker bar arm wrestling and pounding down beer. Who would you rather be your companion?

Didja notice?

  • How to thoroughly underwhelm viewers with your introduction
  • “You smell delicious” is a creepy compliment no matter how you give it
  • A CD-ROM drive! This was truly the future
  • Viking warhammers are “very serious weapons”
  • Thor will do whatever Donald asks, “as long as it’s legal”
  • Thor LOVES to say “Odin’s beard”
  • The office drone scooting across the lab in his rolly chair made me laugh
  • Thor likes hanging out at biker bars
  • Thor’s got super-shouting
  • Hulk coming up behind the bad security guard is a good moment

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