Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). This spin on the Rack takes us back to the small screen as we look at a TV movie that features the very first live-action Marvel team-up: The Incredible Hulk Returns!
Do you remember when the Hulk was easily the most famous Marvel Comics character of them all?
Y’see, in 1977, the Hulk broke through a barrier that had only been breached by Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman before him: he made the jump to mainstream pop-cultural notoriety, by appearing in a prime-time television series.
The Incredible Hulk was an hour-long weekly drama on CBS which took considerable liberties with the source material; the show starred Courtship of Eddie’s Father headliner Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner1, a scientist who irradiates himself with gamma rays in an effort to find the key to the extraordinary strength that people can summon in cases of extreme emotional stress2. Unfortunately, his experiment proves TOO successful… so whenever Banner gets “angry or outraged”, he metamorphosizes into an enormous green powerhouse of muscle: the Incredible Hulk, as played by professional bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno (slathered in green greasepaint, a prosthetic forehead and nose, and a green fright wig).
An accident causes the death of his fellow scientist Elaina Marks (played by Susan Sullivan) and the Hulk is blamed for it. So Banner—also believed dead—goes on the run, desperately seeking a cure for his condition while being hounded by a newspaper reporter, Jack McGee (Jack Colvin), who was eager to bring the Hulk to justice.
The show ran for five seasons before being unceremoniously canceled in 1982. As such, the series didn’t get to resolve any of its dangling plot threads; David Banner never found a cure for his condition, and Jack McGee never managed to catch up with him. But the Hulk had been introduced to the world, and he’d been a smash (no pun intended) hit; for decades afterward, the Green Goliath was the de facto most popular character in the Marvel pantheon. Your average Joe on the street might not know what a Spider-Sense was, or whether Iron Man was a robot or not… but he’d know what you were referring to if you said “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
The show’s pop cultural footprint was so big, in fact, that only two years after the show’s cancellation, Bill Bixby’s own production company began development of a TV movie revival—ultimately resulting in three productions in 1988, 1989, and 1990.
Interestingly, the original pitch for the first TV movie wasn’t just going to be a revival of The Incredible Hulk, but ALSO a revival of the much shorter-lived 1977 live-action Amazing Spider-Man series starring Nicholas Hammond! Bixby had negotiated an agreement between Universal Television (which owned the Hulk rights) and Columbia Television (the Spider-Man rights holders) to co-produce the telefilm; Bixby was set to direct, and Hammond was on-board to reprise his role as Peter Parker/Spider-Man (which would have apparently featured him in the then-contemporary black costume)!
Unfortunately, the project fell apart because Lou Ferrigno was shooting a Hercules movie in Italy at the time, and Universal wasn’t willing to delay the production for him, or move forward WITHOUT him.3
Ultimately, the problems in negotiating the rights issues between the two studios led to the Spider-Man crossover being scrapped… but the germ of an idea remained: why not team up the Incredble Hulk with ANOTHER Marvel Comics character? Maybe even using the popularity of the Green Goliath to prop up a backdoor pilot for a new superhero TV show, starring a less well-known hero (that no one else had bought the film rights to yet)? And so we got…
… Whoops! … Uh, that’s actually a poster art piece for the West Germany home video release. DOMESTICALLY, the movie was called…
The Incredible Hulk Returns was written and directed by Nicholas J. Corea (a prolific television writer/director/producer who’d worked on the original series) and reunited Bixby, Ferrigno, and Jack Colvin in a continuation of the original series’ narrative. But ALSO joining the cast was Steve Levitt as Banner’s nebbish-y former student Donald Blake… and Eric Allan Kramer (a stuntman-slash-actor who’s since appeared in Robin Hood: Men in Tights and True Romance) as Marvel’s God of Thunder, the Mighty Thor!
Thor was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1962—based on the Norse mythological god of the same name, of course. Son of All-Father Odin and guardian of humankind, Thor is the god of lightning and thunder, wielding the enchanted hammer Mjölnir that grants him the powers of flight and control over the weather (and also, y’know, is a giant f%$#ing hammer).
In the comics, the premise was that Thor had been banished to Earth by Odin to learn a lesson in humility—taking the form of a partially-disabled medical doctor by the name of Donald Blake. But one day Blake is drawn to a cavern in Norway, where he discovers a gnarled walking stick… and upon striking it on the cavern wall, the stick transforms into Mjölnir, and Blake is magically transformed into Thor again. From that point forward, he could change back and forth from Thor to Blake by striking the stick into the ground… at least, until the Blake identity was written out entirely and Thor was allowed to just be Thor in perpetuity4.
Now, these days, a lot of people are familiar with the Odinson, thanks to his MCU film franchise and the fact that he was a charter member of the big-screen Avengers… but in 1988? No one outside of the nerdiest comic buffs would be all that familiar with the guy—so the creators behind this TV movie took some… ah… liberties with the source material.
The movie aired on NBC on May 22nd, 1988, and it turned out to be a ratings smash! (Okay, THIS time the pun was intended.) Viewership was higher than the network had expected… but surprisingly, a Mighty Thor TV series never materialized from the success. No, instead New World and Bixby focused on developing follow-up Hulk TV movies: The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (in which Banner ends up teaming with a jumpsuit-clad Daredevil to battle the Kingpin) and The Death of the Incredible Hulk (which didn’t NECESSARILY feature a superhero guest-star, but does include a Russian femme-fatale spy who could easily have been swapped out for Black Widow)5.
A planned fourth film—The Revenge of the Incredible Hulk—was canceled before it could go into production due to the poor ratings on Death. Then, sadly, Bill Bixby’s health went into decline, and he passed away in 1993 from prostate cancer.
Today, the Hulk TV movies are, at best, a footnote—not even collected with the complete series DVDs, because they were produced by a different studio6. But Incredible Hulk Returns was nonetheless historic in being the first on-screen team-up between Marvel characters in live-action—AND for being the first mainstream depiction of Thor outside of cartoon shows. So I suppose the question at hand is: does this low-budget, edited-on-video TV revival movie live up to what Marvel and its characters have grown into? And is there anything more to it than just two brawny guys grunting at each other for ninety minutes?
IN THIS ISSUE: A Reagan-era treatise on masculinity and heroism. No, seriously!
But to start with, I should probably talk about the Incredible Hulk stuff—since that’s technically what’s driving the narrative. David Banner, now going by “David Bannion”, is working on the down-low at a research institute on a revolutionary piece of technology called a “Gamma Transponder”, which he hopes will cure his condition once and for all (aside from that, though, we’re really given no idea as to what the damn thing even DOES). It’s been two years since Banner’s had a Hulk-out, and he’s happily involved with Dr. Margaret Shaw (Lee Purcell), a fellow scientist at the institute who happens to be considerably, noticeably younger than him (did I mention that Bill Bixby produced this himself)? She wants a commitment, but he refuses to tie the knot until he can be cured… but on the night that he tries to “Gamma Transpond” himself into a Hulk-less existence, a former student of his, Donald Blake, shows up in his lab looking for help with an unusual problem—and before you know it, everything goes to Hell in a hand-basket.
Now, if you’ve watched the old series, this should all sound pretty familiar to you. “Banner nearly finds a cure, but then some schmuck ruins everything” was the plot of, like, 70% of the episodes of the TV show. So far the basics are exactly the same, except the wood-panels and flannel aesthetic of the ‘70s has been replaced with the pastel sweaters, beach houses, and soulless office parks of the ‘80s.
Bill Bixby is still a charming presence as Dr. David Banner/Bannion, even if much of his role in this movie is relegated to exasperation and annoyance at Donald Blake. The sad truth about this movie is that, title notwithstanding, this is simply not Banner’s story; his relationship with Dr. Shaw, his work on the gamma transponder, and his friendship with millionaire philanthropist Joshua Lambert (the head of the Lambert Research Institute, played by John Gabriel) are all sketched in loosely so that the plot can hold together, but they’re perfunctory. He’s just here to ground the story in a character we like already, so we’re more likely to accept the new stuff (which we’ll get to shortly).7 Similarly, Jack Colvin’s presence in the movie as dogged reporter Jack McGee feels almost like an afterthought… (except, that is, in a single scene—but we’ll get to that, too.)
The one character that HASN’T taken a back seat in this adaptation, though, is the Big Guy himself: Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk! Between the original series and the TV movies, Ferrigno amazingly managed to get even BIGGER—his upper body swollen to absurd proportions (in some shots you don’t even see his abs; it’s like his pecs extends down to his waist). And the guy is obviously relishing every moment he has back in the green make-up; Ferrigno is 100% committed every moment he’s on screen, even if all he’s doing is just flexing his muscles and roaring at people.
Unfortunately, like in the show, Hulk is more of a punctuation mark than a character—a big, fun action spectacle to mark the end of an act. No, the ACTUAL main characters of THIS movie are indisputably Donald Blake and Thor… who are presented as VERY different from the comic-book iterations.
For one thing, Steve Levitt’s Donald Blake isn’t an older, partially-paralyzed doctor, but a young man fresh out of med school—presented here as a listless troublemaker who doesn’t take responsibility for his messes. Don’s gawky, anxious, a bit of a whiner… introverted, acerbic, and something of a defeatist—and pointedly, he has no strong sense of moral conviction (“this is the ‘80s! I don’t even know what a good cause IS!”). He’s the ultimate embodiment of the Reagan-era fear of lost masculinity as a deteriorating force in society. The Nerd as a cautionary tale.
So Blake joins this amateur archeological expedition into a Nordic mountain range (which we see through judicious use of painfully obvious stock footage8)… and, led by a mysteriously otherworldly force, discovers a cavern that was used as a tomb for a “great Viking warrior”. Inside a great stone sarcophagus9, Blake finds a moldering skeleton and “a Viking war hammer”—which, when he picks it up, summons a burst of light and a flash of electricity… and from the electricity steps Eric Allan Kramer’s THOR, clad in winged helm and fur-lined Viking armor! THOR: square-jawed, brawny hero from a time long since passed! THOR, the Ultimate Jock!
Now mind you: unlike their print counterparts, Donald does not transform into Thor, but rather he uses the hammer to SUMMON him—this Thor is a totally separate individual. Banished from Valhalla by Odin for “the sin of arrogance”, Thor is forced to do heroic deeds until he’s earned his way into the afterlife; he is bound by the hammer to follow Donald’s commands, but “only if it’s legal”10. This Thor is a Viking through and through: boisterous, lunkheaded, quick-tempered, and always spoiling for a battle to wage or a keg of beer to down (and Eric Allan Kramer sinks his teeth the role with gusto; he’s remarkably charming in the role).
Thor’s brash, thoughtless demeanor creates a lot of chaos… but he’s also framed as exactly the kind of guy Don needs to learn assertiveness from, while also learning from Blake how to get by in the modern world and how to dial back his destructive enthusiasm for smashing.
If they’d actually launched a TV series from this pilot, it’s not hard to guess where they were going with this. They’re the superhero Odd Couple.
But what’s telling here is that the value at which Thor and Donald are at opposite ends of is masculinity… and which end of that spectrum the film chooses to valorize.
Don is framed by the film as being what modern manosphere followers would label a “beta”—and the script clearly sees this as a failing to be corrected. Donald is the guy who the movie depicts as lacking in character; as such, Banner repeatedly lectures Don about cleaning up his own messes and learning responsibility (Banner himself being framed as a patriarchal authority figure who gets fed up with Blake’s lack of moral certitude). But when Thor shows up—a pillar of unchecked destructive machismo who starts fights at every opportunity—the film lionizes him as being a good person at heart, despite his anachronistic Viking attitudes towards violence, women, and property damage.
In fact, if anything, those archaic “heroic” attitudes are what’s being celebrated here; when, during the climactic battle of the movie, Don clumsily picks up an assault rifle and manages to blow away one of the bad guy’s henchmen, Thor cheers him from the sidelines: “You’ll be a hero yet, Blake!” The film explicitly yearns for the simpler, black-and-white view of morality and essentialist view of masculinity that Thor represents. It’s a very conservative viewpoint… but coming from the decade that gave us Rambo and Schwarzenegger, I guess it’s not a shock.
I’d argue that the conservatism isn’t limited to JUST the macho stuff, though. There’s a bizarre, seemingly calculated approach to the way the telefilm handles theology, too!
For instance, Thor in this movie is, from all evidence, NOT a god himself. Blake, a Norse mythology buff, never refers to him as such, and no one else brings up the mythological figure of the same name. Instead, his sarcophagus simply refers to him as a great warrior—and he mostly just seems to be a somewhat super-powerful man with a big hammer that occasionally generates electric sparks (they never even call the hammer “Mjölnir”… likely because no one on the production would know how to pronounce “Mjölnir”).11
But pointedly, no other Norse gods are invoked in the telefilm save for Odin, the All-Father… the one god we KNOW has to exist in-universe, because he exiled Thor from the afterlife and charged him with his quest. And in terms of gods that may or may not be offensive to a right-leaning American audience, especially in a decade where evangelical Christianity was becoming a powerful political and social force… it’s a safe bet to make the one god you DO commit to portraying be an unseen, all-powerful patriarch, who may very well be the Judeo-Christian God Himself operating under a different name.
On the other hand, the answer may be a bit simpler: maybe the reason they didn’t make Thor a god is because they simply couldn’t afford to show him using god-like powers.
The Incredible Hulk Returns is a TV movie, after all—operating on what was likely a microscopic budget. What corners there are to CUT, have been cut. For instance, there are several sequences in the film in which the Hulk is shown in slow-motion to emphasize his size and power. But tellingly, the filmmakers didn’t actually film the Hulk’s scenes in a higher frame rate when they were shooting the movie12 (which would have eaten up extra film stock and cost the production money); instead, they filmed his scenes at regular speed and slowed them down in the edit, resulting in a distractingly cheap, jittery slow-mo effect that nearly all the Hulk scenes are saddled with.
So yeah: Thor doesn’t fly. Neither does his unnamed Viking war hammer. There’s no summoning of storms, nor use of lightning as a weapon (though they do embellish a couple of the hammer’s hits with some cheesy, low-effort lightning VFX). Like Hulk, Thor is just an inordinately strong brawny dude who runs around tackling people, uses a make-shift shield to defend himself against gunfire, and whose great, triumphant moment in the climax is causing a car to wreck by throwing his hammer at it.
Credit where it’s due, though: the practical stunt work on display isn’t too bad here. Lots of guys getting thrown across rooms… guys falling through glass, smashing through doors… a stunt fall from a tall building… lots of wire pulls… Hell, they even managed to get a helicopter for a single set piece that ends with Hulk and Thor awkwardly dangling from its landing struts!
… Aw, crap—I just realized I haven’t been talking about the main plot at all!
So, uh… the brother of the millionaire philanthropist running the research institute decides to hire some mercenaries to steal the Gamma Transponder™ so they can sell it on the black market and make a fortune. After the Hulk foils their first attempt to steal it, the mercs kidnap Dr. Shaw and use her as a bargaining chip to negotiate for the device—because as long as we’re telling the most conservative version of this story we can imagine, why NOT top it off with a damsel in distress, huh? And so (after destroying the Transponder to keep it from falling into the wrong hands) Thor and Hulk beat up the bad guys and save the girl. That’s… ah… that’s it.
The story ends with Banner forced to go back on the road to seek out his cure elsewhere, leaving behind yet ANOTHER adoring love interest who watches wistfully as he hitchhikes out of her life (this happened a lot on the show, too). McGee (remember him?) ultimately accomplishes nothing and gets chewed out by his editor for chasing down Hulk stories again—and considering he’s not in either of the following movies, I gotta assume the National Register finally fired his ass. And Donald and Thor seem poised to move on to their own exciting adventures, each and every week… but as we know, those adventures never materialized, so the last we see of Thor is him casually hitting on a sexy bikini babe on the beach, and the last we see of Don is him pedaling hard on an exercise bike, presumably trying to catch up to the macho ideal that is the
God of Thunder Blonde Viking Dude with the Hammer.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Eh, you could do worse! The messaging is reactionary and dated, but the production quality is so chintzy that you probably won’t even notice (and it really isn’t THAT problematic). But there’s something charmingly hokey about watching this generic Viking fighting crime with a roaring bodybuilder at his side.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.50
- Hulk vs. Thor: The one way that this movie stays truest to its Marvel Comics roots is that, when Thor and the Hulk first meet, there’s a dumb misunderstanding that inevitably leads to a big fight between our heroes! After Don summons Thor to prove to David that he isn’t crazy and Thor accidentally knocks Banner into an electrical panel, Banner finally loses his cool and hulks out, the Green Goliath immediately zeroing in on Thor and moving in to tear him a new one. Thor, elated at the chance to fight a “warlock’s troll”, nails Hulk with some solid blows that actually give the Big Guy pause and knock him back13! But then Hulk picks himself up, snarls, and charges Thor, who pales with shock and mutters, “I think I’ve made him angry” before getting hurled out of a window. It’s cheesy, it’s cheap… it’s a big dumb fight between two big dumb heroes, and it’s undeniably the best reason to WATCH the darn movie!
- Baddies from the Bayou: To be fair, the mercenaries are played by some top-notch B-movie talent! The main baddie, Jack LaBeau, is played by Tim Thomerson, whom you might recognize as the rugged cops from Full Moon productions Trancers and Dollman, or as Barry Allen’s ill-fated brother in the 1990 Flash TV pilot! He’s great here—a very intense presence in a very stock villain role. But playing his second-in-command is veteran character actor Charles Napier (the go-to guy to play cops or military men in everything from Rambo: First Blood Part II to Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) as Mike Fouche, doing the most jaw-droppingly terrible Cajun creole accent I have ever heard. Probably my favorite moment in the bad guys’ subplot is when these two are having an argument and Mike jams a finger into Jack’s chest, growling “You jus’ as Cajun as me, man!”
- Thor Hits the Town: When Don starts to warm up to Thor halfway through the movie, he decides to indulge the Viking in a night on the town, somewhere where he can enjoy “food, drink, women, and the company of men like [him]self”… which leads Don to bring Thor to a biker bar! There, we’re treated to a musical montage of Thor downing pitcher after pitcher of beer, arm-wrestling the leatheriest guy in the joint, and dancing with a woman in each arm before casually starting a bar fight—all while Don looks on in awkward exasperation from the sidelines. By the end, Don is plastered (because he’s a lightweight, of course), Thor is ecstatic, and the two finally start bonding as buddies in a way you can tell was supposed to lead into a weekly comedy adventure series.
- Donald Blake – Man of Mystery: So when we first see Don Blake in the movie, we aren’t really given a clue as to who he is; he’s just sitting in a car outside the Lambert Institute, ominously watching as David and Dr. Shaw’s car pulls into the driveway. Then later, when Banner is working after hours at the lab in order to Transpond his Hulk problems away, we see Blake in the bushes outside, hiding from the security guard before pulling out a grapple hook and throwing it up the wall! He sneaks into the lab, framed in every way as some kind of spy or military agent… until finally he interrupts Banner’s experiment, revealing who he is, and asks for his help. But, like… why did Don Blake, nebbish-y doctor, decide that the best way to talk to Banner was to scale the wall after hours and break into the building in the middle of the night instead of, I dunno, walking up to him and saying “hi”?
- Thor Meets McGee: There is ONE scene where Jack McGee’s presence in this film is almost justified, and it’s an hour in. McGee manages to track “David Bannion” to his apartment, where he, Don, and Thor (fresh out of the shower) are hatching a plan to rescue Dr. Shaw. Banner sees McGee coming up the complex walkway, though… so when McGee knocks on Bannion’s door, Thor answers, dressed only in a towel and clutching a pitcher full of beer like a coffee mug, and demands to know what he wants. McGee, sensing his grave error, stammers out “I’m, uh, looking for a man…” to which Thor coolly responds “YOU HAVE FOUND ONE” before taking a draught from the pitcher. He then advances on the stammering newsman, growling that he looks like a “rat-tailed Saxon or a thieving Celt”; when McGee manages to get out the name David Bannion, Thor declares “well you have found him, mush-spine! I AM BANNION.” Finally, McGee goes scurrying off with his tail between his legs. This is a great showcase for Eric Allan Kramer, who absolutely nails the comic timing of the exchange—and it’s the one time in the movie that Thor actually gets to be clever.
NEXT ISSUE: I was going to wait to do this one until it had a chance to settle a bit, but HOLY CRAP, I simply cannot stop thinking about the enormous pile of dogsh*t that was Black Adam—so next time, we’re gonna talk about that!