Thor Week: The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)

Thor Week continues with the 1988 live action film featuring Thor: The Incredible Hulk Returns!



I never would have heard of this film if not for Nash.  When Thor Week was originally intended to be spread out over a month, I was trying to find a way to have the same number of pre- and post-2007 films for it.  Ultimately, I decided that this was too structured an approach for a blog that I was doing on my off-hours, not just for my own time and budget constraints, but because readers aren’t necessarily going to want to go through a month of something before moving on.  This was especially noticeable when I went through some topics that are largely pre-2007 (such as Harrison Ford movies that I’ve watched) and others that are largely post-2007 (such as superhero movies).  The end result is what we have here: as close to three film reviews, a comic, a TV review and a book review per week as I can reasonably achieve without sacrificing what I’m trying to do at any particular time.

In order to seriously discuss The Incredible Hulk Returns, there is a lot of baggage to get out of the way. This is even more necessary considering the fact that I am not reviewing the television show that preceeded it, The Incredible Hulk, and a lot of the strange things and complaints that can be leveled against this film are directly inherited from that show. The Incredible Hulk is a live action television series from 1978 to 1982, that looked like it was made in 1968. The show refers to David, instead of Bruce Banner, for some odd reason. To be fair, sometimes when I listen to his lyrics I mistake David Banner for the Hulk myself. Like Green Lantern, the Hulk is one of those characters who has a very straightforward basic origin story that every source seems to need to change to try and make more sense, resulting in this version of the Hulk having a relatively unique origin, as Hulk stories go.

The made-for-TV film begins with the premise that The Incredible Hulk has been off-air for several years, and David has gone on with his life. He has not become the Hulk since the last episode in 1982. His former classmate Donald Blake wants to start a new show about Thor, and the best way to do this is to treat this as a return of the original Hulk series. Judging by the fact that neither a Thor show nor a Daredevil show were produced, you can imagine just how successful The Incredible Hulk Returns and The Trial of the Incredible Hulk a year later were.

It’s clear that despite not understanding how pedantic superhero fans are or how to make a show look like it has a budget, the writers clearly put some effort into distinguishing the new premise from the original Hulk. Whereas Banner transforms into the Hulk, they decided to have Blake summon Thor. While this contradicts the comic, it does make sense in several ways. For starters, having a superhero that can actually be reasoned with and can speak to the main character works a lot better for a television show that having a rampaging monster take up much of the time on screen. The second thing about this is that the comic version never made all that much sense. Two living men must share one body because…superheroes have secret identities! At least, that’s the closest thing to a reason I’ve ever seen. I’m sure eventually some story about Asgardians being unable to live on Earth was written into the story, but even that seems like more of an excuse than a story element that makes sense.

Now that we’ve gotten the changes to the comics out of the way, there are still going to be plenty of people watching this movie who didn’t watch the original run of The Incredible Hulk six years before it was released. Which means that a movie released during the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation that has the production values of a Star Trek episode is not ideal. This is the last time I’m going to say this: The Incredible Hulk Returns looks like crap. It’s a little hard to believe that this is not a fan film that someone made on their days off from working at the Quickstop.

As for the writing, it’s fairly straightforward. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Or at least, it does exactly what everybody knows it was made for, ignoring the actual title. Which is to say, it uses the last vestiges of “hey, didn’t I use to watch that when I was younger?” in order to introduce a new main character, a new hero and concept. We open with the old, retired show that somebody might still want to see, set up a conflict, introduce our new cast, and then the two work together. It’s not much more complex than that. Banner is brought into light by his job, and as a result of the events of this story he is forced to leave his relationship for anonymity. None of this is any surprise, either for longtime fans who know that this is how Bruce Banner lives his life, nor for new people who watch the film and discover that David hasn’t even told the girl he loves about the Hulk.

It’s hard to look at the concept for The Incredible Hulk Returns and where it came from, and not see where it went. With 20/20 hindsight, we can easily see that the era of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Trek: The Next Generation had no room for something as simple, bland and plain-looking as Incredible Hulk Returns. The last legs of a dead television show weren’t enough to sustain an average pilot that gave little indication of great excitement for even the easiest to please children in the audience. The result is a TV movie that will enrage serious fans of Hulk and Thor comics and will be quickly forgotten by anybody else. Now it is a film that critics and superhero enthusiasts seek out in order to say they’ve watched it, and not much more, and that’s precisely what it deserves.

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