Waaayy back at the beginning of time, circa 1977, Marvel Comics brought forth the pilot episode for the only superhero to have a really successful translation to live-action television. That hero was the Incredible Hulk. Featuring Bill Bixby as Dr. David Bruce Banner (as opposed to the comic book, which starred Robert Bruce Banner), the nuclear scientist caught in a gamma radiation experiment gone awry, The Incredible Hulk lasted for five glorious years on network television, and has seen a happy life in syndication ever since.
As a result of the experiment, Dr. Banner changes into a giant green monster (the aforementioned Hulk, played by Lou Ferrigno) whenever he becomes distressed. Presumed dead in a lab accident caused by the monster, Banner is forced to roam from town to town, searching for the one armed man. Oops, wrong show! He's actually looking for a cure to his condition.
Six years after the cancellation of the television series, Bixby and Ferrigno returned to the Incredible Hulk to film this tie-in television movie. It was actually a sneak attack vehicle for a proposed new television series, also based on a Marvel comic hero: Thor, God of Thunder.
In The Incredible Hulk Returns, Banner now works under the name Banyan at the Joshua Lambert Institute, where he has surreptitiously led a scientific team in the development of a "gamma transponder." The gamma transponder will aid in the production of cheap, clean energy while also offering Banner a way to get rid of the Hulk once and for all -- if it works. Banner has been keeping his newfound soulmate, Dr. Maggie Shaw (Lee Purcell), in the dark about his condition. He tells her that he must rid himself of his "monster" before their relationship can progress any further.
Banner's experiment is interrupted by the sudden appearance of an old colleague, Dr. Donald Blake. Blake has recently come into possession of a mystical hammer which summons forth the spirit-made-flesh of an ancient Viking warrior named Thor. As usual with comic book characters adapted for the screen, the makers of this movie took what made Thor a popular comic book character (he's a god with cosmic powers and a cosmic outlook) and threw it out, instead portraying Thor as a gutter dwelling barbarian more concerned with getting drunk and getting laid than anything else. Thor, God of Sleazy Bikers seems to have been the concept. Seeking Banner's help, Blake demonstrates the use of the hammer, which accidentally leads to the re-emergence of the Hulk. A battle between Thor and the Hulk wrecks the lab. Each man must contend with his own "monster," especially when Maggie is kidnapped and held for a high ransom -- the gamma transponder.
Although it's hard to imagine what convinced the network executives to approve this movie, The Incredible Hulk Returns is quite possibly the best thing to come out of the series. After years of wandering and running away from each Hulk incident, Banner suddenly gets responsible and decides to find his own cure and build a new life. It's one of the first times we ever felt really sorry for David Banner, and although his love interests were many and varied over the length of the TV show, this was the first one that we figured ever really had a chance. The Hulk can't settle down in the middle of the series, despite 1979's Bride of the Incredible Hulk, but in a TV movie six years later? Why not?
The Hulk teaches Thomerson a lesson.
Alas, this is not the case (there were two more TV movies left to make), but Purcell does a convincing job of playing Dr Shaw. All of the actors performed credibly, including Steve Levitt as Blake and Eric Kramer as the overblown, super-macho Thor. Thor's lines are perhaps the best in the movie -- he certainly has more fun than Ferrigno, whose part limits him to flexing and roaring.
Credit must also go to the ubiquitous Tim Thomerson as Jack LeBeau, the mercenary in charge of stealing the gamma transponder and kidnapping Dr Shaw. Thomerson proves again that there is no part he will not take if the money's good enough. "You want me to play a cajun? Sure, but that will be $500 for every line you want me to deliver with an authentic accent." Our guess is that the producers ponied up about a grand. One of our favorite movie moments is when the Hulk wraps a steel beam around LeBeau while Thor laughs heartily in the background. Unforgettable, in a fever dream-nightmare kind of way.
Also worth mentioning are the special effects. Someone actually spent some money on this movie, because the special effects were actually consistent. It couldn't have cost too much money to paint Ferrigno green, but special attention was paid to matching the "clothes splitting" scenes to the actual clothes Bixby was wearing. Thor's lightning effects, too, were surprisingly well-done -- for TV, anyway.
Although the plot is slightly contrived and the acting not much better than your average prime-time soap opera, The Incredible Hulk Returns is at least an interesting resurrection of one of the few successful superhero shows on television. And as Hulk episodes go, it's definitely one of the best.