Way, way back before 2012’s “Avengers Assemble”, The Hulk and Thor came face to face in “The Incredible Hulk Returns”, the first in a trilogy of TV movies reviving the much-loved show.
David Banner (Bill Bixby) has been living quietly, without the emergence of the Hulk, as Dr David Bannion, a research scientist at an institute researching Gamma radiation. As far as disguises go, it’s hardly the most cunning but it seems to have foxed supposed ace reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin). Close to a cure, Banner is recognised by an old student of his, Donald Blake. As if being recognised wasn’t enough of a risk, Blake has a secret of his own: he is mystically bonded to an ancient Norse warrior called Thor, who he can summon using an enchanted hammer. As Thor and The Hulk come to blows, a criminal gang sets their sights on stealing the new Gamma reactor and selling it as a weapon.
There’s no doubting the ambition of this TV movie, just as there’s no denying its ambition far exceeded the grasp of its budget. “The Incredible Hulk” was always cheesy in its portrayal of Marvel’s green giant but thanks to the performances of Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno it succeeded despite the production limitations. This time around, in trying to do justice to two superheroes, it can’t quite hide the strain.
It’s an interesting twist on the Thor we generally know. In this interpretation, Thor and Donald Blake are completely separate entities and Thor is, like The Hulk, very much a depowered version of his comic book incarnation. Mjolnir (never named as such in the movie) is smaller and free of any worthiness small print. It’s the result of an attempt to use this as a backdoor pilot for a new weekly TV series focussing on Thor, only reimagined as an “Odd Couple” buddy comedy crime fighting procedural. As daft as it sounds, there’s enough to Steve Levitt’s Donald Blake and Eric Kramer’s Thor that suggests that it might have worked, even if it would have been kitsch as hell. Kramer’s performance as Thor might be fine but his costume is abysmal. At least “Game Of Thrones” makes its use of Ikea rugs hard to notice whereas here it looks like the production stole a discarded seventies sheepskin rug from a dumpster on the way to the set.
Filled with the usual pathos and propped up by Bixby’s committed performance and Ferringo’s fright-wigged flexing, it’s an entertaining enough addition to the TV series. It was successful enough to justify two further TV movies before Bill Bixby’s untimely death brought production to a final halt. It may look painfully dated by today’s standards but it plants the seeds of what would eventually blossom into the Marvel Universe we know and love today.