I know I hinted that I was going to review Roger Corman's roaring shite-fest "Fantastic Four" for the next installment of 'B-Movie Marvels', but I didn't want to clear out all of the really terrible Marvel movies in one swoop. Instead, I decided to review a movie that I actually kind of like (or rather, one I've seen a lot and isn't as gut-wrenchingly awful as shit like "Captain America"). Don't worry, though. "Fantastic Four" is coming.
"The Incredible Hulk Returns" is one of the three made-for-TV movies that followed the iconic television series starring Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner (they changed his name from 'Bruce' to 'David' because reasons) who after being exposed to intense levels of gamma radiation would transform into a raging, muscular, green-skinned behemoth known as the 'Hulk' (played by bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno). The TV show, while formulaic and a bit repetitive (every episode saw David Banner on the run, drifting into different cities, taking on various odd-jobs to support himself, getting into adventures that invariably resulted in him transforming into the Hulk, rinse, repeat) is really great, because it jettisoned out all of the junk that made the comic so hokey (multiple Hulks, multiple modes of transformation, crap villains and varying levels of intelligence for the Hulk) and streamlined it down to what made the core of the character so great: a man trying to control his inner demons, channeling them into more positive outlets.
Without going into too much detail about why I like the series, I think the best thing about it was the casting. Bill Bixby is magical as David Banner. Instead of playing him as the whiney milksop of the early comics, his Banner is a wise, father-like, ironically calm figure who guides the guest-characters to safety by using reason and rationale to fight the villains. While Banner is clearly haunted by his situation, unlike the comics character, he never feels sorry for himself; always resolving to keep moving to find a cure. I was reminded of this approach in Edward Norton's performance in "The Incredible Hulk" movie in 2008.
Like a lot of great superhero shows, The Hulk himself only appears when it's time for action rather than words. Lou Ferrigno was similarly awesome as the Hulk, even if his wig and prosthetic nose looks a bit silly today. Ferrigno's Hulk was a raging beast, certainly, but he played him with child-like sensitivity and curiousity, and a warmth towards animals, women and children (which was no easy feat, as unlike in the comics, the Hulk had no dialogue).
Anyway, one of the most noteworthy things about the show was how the plots were mostly toned-down affairs, different from the high-concept shenanigans of the comics. In keeping with this lower-key atmosphere, there were practically no appearances by characters from the greater Marvel Universe in the TV series. However, in the 1987 telefilm "The Incredible Hulk Returns" this all changed, when the Hulk met Thor.
Unfortunately for fans, Thor is irritatingly different in this telefilm, compared to his comic-book counterpart. Instead of actually being the frikkin' Norse God of Thunder, Thor is just a simple Viking who was denied access to Valhalla, by the Highfather Odin. In order to be granted access, he must complete a number of noble deeds on Earth. The most prominent difference in this movie though, is that Thor must be 'summoned' by Dr. Donald Blake, who magics him into existence using Mjolnir, Thor's hammer (sort of like how Ash summons his PokéMon with PokéBalls). In the comics, Donald Blake himself transformed into Thor, but in this movie, they exist separately of one another, allowing for a 'comedy' rapport between them.
At this point, it becomes obvious that "The Incredible Hulk Returns" is a back-door pilot for a possible Thor show. Frankly, as enjoyably cheesy as this version of Thor is, I'm glad they didn't make a TV show. It's clear that they felt they really had to dial back the comic-book trappings of the character even more than they had to for the Hulk, and the show would have just been sad to watch.
Newcomer Eric Kramer played Thor himself in the movie and admittedly, he's really good at playing Thor as a valiant warrior, as well as a big, confused goof; a man out-of-time. His dialogue is mostly cheesy, but it seems to be intentional and it works. Less effective is Steve Levitt as Donald Blake. Throughout the film he over-acts and comes across as annoying. The highlight of the film where Thor and Blake are concerned, comes when the two go to a biker bar so that Thor can blow off some steam, drink some beers and have some arm-wrestles. Of course, Thor can plough through entire pitchers of beers with little or no difficulty while Blake can't hack the sesh and is drunk after just one. Curiously enough, there's a scene vaguely similar to this in the actual "Thor" movie from last year (which is another instance where Thor and Donald Blake are distinct individuals; although Blake is only mentioned in that film).
The plot involves Banner living under an assumed name, happy and free with a beautiful girlfriend while he works in a research lab. He is tantalisingly close to exorcising the Hulk from his body with the help of a plot device he has created called "The Gamma Transponder". Unfortunately, for reasons that are never made clear, Don Blake has figured out where Banner is and just has to show him his new Viking friend, before Banner can use the transponder on himself. This is the most problematic part of the film. Blake shows up hoping Banner will know how to separate the link between Blake and Thor (this is only loosely mentioned once in the exchange)...but why? Why would a medical researcher know what to do with a supernatural Mjolnir? And couldn't Blake just keep Thor in the hammer and not release him? Is he subconsciously tempted to release him, like Stanley Ipkiss is tempted to put on Loki's Mask in "The Mask"?
To make a long story short, the plot involves Bad Guys (featuring classic henchman-actor Charles Napier) kidnapping Banner's girlfriend in exchange for the Gamma Transponder. Blake and Banner have to retrieve the girl and defeat the bad guys. Spoiler Warning: The Hulk and Thor do most of the defeating. Although Blake does shoot a couple of bad guys (surprising for a family TV movie).
All in all, while this TV movie really dumbs-down the Marvel Comics version of Thor (it's as if they didn't think Americans would know what 'Norse Gods' were), Eric Kramer is a delight as Thor nonetheless, and it's always a joy seeing Bixby/Ferrigno as Banner and the Hulk. This telefilm is a refreshing change from most of the really crap Marvel movies I've subjected myself to.
Next week, I'm going to take a look at one of the most reviled chapters in the history of one Peter Parker.