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Top 5 Forgotten Marvel TV Pilots (Part 3): The Incredible Hulk Returns

3. The Incredible Hulk Returns

hulk returns

  By the mid-eighties, live-action superhero adventures were in a bit of a lull. The third and fourth cinematic outings of Superman, had been unmitigated disasters, leaving audiences to contemplate if it really needed anymore larger-than-life comic book adventures. However, by the close of the decade, studios were ready to try again, with big-screen versions of Batman, Dick Tracy and The Punisher all greenlit for production. Superheroes were back on the rise and Marvel sniffed an opportunity to once again take over the airwaves with a whole host of super-powered titans. The Incredible Hulk would return, and this time he was bringing some super-powered pals.

Affection for the show, cancelled in 1982, remained strong throughout the eighties, so studio heads, in search of success, decided to resurrect the green-skinned giant for a series of TV movies. As well as reintroducing Hulk-hounds to the adventures of Dr David Bruce Banner and his emerald-hued alter-ego a few years down the line, the TV movies were also intended to serve as pilots for potential new shows based on other Marvel characters. First aired in 1988, The Incredible Hulk Returns was to act as a backdoor pilot for a new series featuring Norse god of thunder, Thor, the first time another super-powered character had cropped up in the milieu of the show. This concept opened the door for the appearance of Daredevil in 1989’s Trial of the Incredible Hulk and though plans were put in place to introduce new incarnations of She-Hulk, Iron Man and The Chameleon in subsequent sequels, audiences never really took to Banner’s new fantastic friends.

hulk thor

Returns… is an interesting beast, introducing mystical elements to a show that had always strived to root its fantastic lead character in reality. Two years after the end of the Hulk series, Bill Bixby’s Dr Banner lives a peaceful life, shacked up with a pretty lady and is close to curing himself of the jade giant with the Gamma Transponder, a device he helped create. Just as Banner prepares to flick the switch, into his world walks Don Blake (Steve Levitt), a former colleague in possession of a mystic hammer which can summon ancient Norse warrior, The Mighty Thor.  Bad timing, as before you can say ‘Mjolnir,’ Blake summons the reckless, muscle-bound Asgardian who, looking more like a ludicrously fur-trimmed WWF wrestler than his comic book counterpart, starts acting like a big, dumb child. Acting more like a Scotsman than a Scandanavian, the petulant hammer-hurling hero (Eric Kramer  - Mr Belvedere/Bear from American Pie: The Wedding!) wrecks Banner’s lab, ruining the experiment, whilst in search of ‘a drink.’ This, of course, makes the good doctor quite angry, which ardent viewers will know is a really bad idea.

After Banner’s demented Lou Ferrigno-shaped Mr Hyde makes an appearance, the two titans do battle in an frightfully choreographed encounter. Under Nicholas Corea’s mediocre direction, Hulk moves perpetually in slow motion, and though Thor raises a few bushy eyebrows by actually being able to hurt the emerald-hued brute, the fight is a poorly-conceived damp squib yawn-fest. This Thor can’t fly or control lightning, rendering him little more than Hulk-with-a-hammer, so the fights resemble piss-poor wrestling matches with some sparks flung in for good measure.

Stan Lee, Lou Ferrigno, Eric Kramer

The two champions quickly kiss and make up when sinister baddies, eager to get their mitts on the Transponder, kidnap Banner’s missus, forcing the doc to abandon hope of being cured in order to save the day. The show’s producers can barely disguise their eagerness for a spin-off, as what should be a fairly straightforward story, rapidly turns into The Thor Show, with the Norse warrior hogging screen-time, stealing Hulk’s thunder.

thor

Testing the waters, laying foundations for a regular show, a laboured subplot follows Blake and Thor on a night out, offering more insight into their unconventional dynamic. Thor is adamant that “I need to drink, eat, laugh with a woman and fight with a man!”, so Blake takes him to a bikers bar, where the big fella pretty much fits right in. Interestingly, in his chirpy demeanour, brash behaviour and jolly smile, Kramer’s interpretation of Thor is an interesting forebear of Chris Hemsworth’s hugely successful 2011 big-screen take of the character. Smiling in the face of danger and punching men for fun, the affable character, though initially irritating, does kind of grow on you after a while. Levitt’s Blake, however, is less likeable, his floppy-haired, guffawing geek coming across as a bit of a weenie who, though sharing a quirky dynamic with the thunder god, may have been difficult to tolerate week-in, week-out.

These scenes are vital in conveying if a regular series could work and though they are fun, tonally they feel a little off. This is not the Hulk show we fondly remember – though the show’s concept was always fundamentally silly, audiences bought into it and accepted it with a degree of seriousness. Thor is a little too larger-than-life to fit in here, and the presence of the helmet-wearing, hammer-hurling goliath makes Hulk look even more absurd than usual.

hulk thor silly

Luckily, Ferrigno remains reliably awesome, still possessing the power to terrify with the sheer brute force of his imposing physicality. Sadly, his sturdy performance is failed by poor filmmaking decisions that render the Hulk an impotent passenger in his own film. There are some memorably cool action scenes, like when Thor and Jade Jaws combine forces to pluck a helicopter out of the skies, but the show’s budget never stretches far enough to make these scenes truly sizzle.

hulk ferrigno

Suffice to say, though ratings for Return… were pretty solid, the Thor show never materialised. 2012’s Avengers Assemble would finally give audiences the Marvel Team-up they deserved, with modern filmmakers like Joss Whedon realising that to do these extraordinary heroes real justice, studios would need to gamble and make a really solid investment. It would have been interesting to see if a weekly Thor series could have worked, but with Hemsworth returning this year with Thor: The Dark World, it seems the thunder god is in safe hands for now.

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