Not to be confused with The Return of the Incredible Hulk, which confusingly was the alternate title for The Incredible Hulk: Death in the Family (1977), aka. the second TV movie they made to follow up the pilot before making the Bill Bixby television series. Couldn't they have chosen another title? The Incredible Hulk Returns is the first of the three TV movie sequels and another backdoor pilot for a fellow Marvel superhero, this time The Mighty Thor.
I'll say that again. Thor. The Norse god of thunder. Yes, that was my reaction too.
It's similar to 1989's Daredevil-Hulk crossover
in that it's surprisingly good with actors who are doing quietly impressive work where you'd least expect it, but with a script that's been sucked from a dead dog's arse. It's badly written in a different way, though. Trial only fell apart at the end. Returns is instead a mish-mash of random plot elements shoved together as if it's just another TV episode rather than a full-length movie. There's Banner and his new life as a nuclear research scientist. (At last the TV series catches up with the comics.) There's Thor. Thor! There's a reporter called Jack McGee, who gets absolutely nothing to do but shows up anyway because he used to do that in the TV series too. There are some villains who pop up without warning at the 35 minute mark, despite the fact that one of them works at the research centre and it would have been easy to do some foreshadowing.
So it's a mess structurally. It's also stupid. The bad guys shoot their employer to keep him quiet, yet leave him healthy enough to be taken to hospital and tell everything he knows to Banner. Then the next thing we know, he's died! Banner's girlfriend is only there to get kidnapped. (Trial also did this, except that there she wasn't his girlfriend.)
However most ludicrous of all is a fight scene between Thor and some gunmen. He doesn't seem to be bulletproof like the Hulk, yet the villains give up anyway when he charges in anyway with his trusty... um, dustbin lid. One of them even resorts to throwing his gun at him! Even Thor's introduction makes him look like a dick. He provokes Banner into Hulking out for the first time in two years, then for no reason at all starts a fight with him. This trashes the laboratory which has been Banner's lifeline for the past two years and incidentally gets Thor tossed through a plate glass window. This disappointed me. I'd wanted to see the idiot's head squashed to strawberry jam. On top of all that he has to go around saying things like, "My master waits in his metal chariot." Gyaah.
You wouldn't think the poor actor stood a chance... yet astonishingly Eric Allan Kramer makes him likeable anyway. As with Daredevil, this would have made a good series. The big lunk just doesn't know how to slow down. It's his job to go for everything 100% and he loves his job. He's good-natured, almost psychotically enthusiastic and can even be funny. Kramer's astonishingly good for someone who seems to have been cast for his height, especially if you bear in mind how heavily the deck had been stacked against him. Yet again in this series, it's the actor pulling it out of the bag.
If you're wondering about the mythology, this film never confirms or denies his godhood. They don't even address it. He's huge, he's blonde and he has a warhammer for an Aladdin's lamp. That's all you need, really. There's also a Donald Blake, as in the comics, but the two of them are distinct individuals with nothing connecting them except the hammer. "Don" can summon or banish Thor by shouting Odin's name. That's it. The pair have good chemistry and work well together, even though the two of them screw up pretty much everything Banner had going and could easily have become hate figures for the audience. Thor also looks better alongside the Hulk than Daredevil would. They think alike, i.e. they don't think. Hulk smash. Thor smash. They're big. That's all you need to know, really.
Meanwhile David Banner is living in a beachside apartment in Los Angeles, with a woman who loves him and a job that pays him big bucks to do research that might find a cure for his condition. He's happy. Bixby isn't very convincing at happy. He's a bit wooden, not helped by his lack of chemistry with Lee Purcell. However I liked him again once the story got under way and he had to get serious as everything went wrong for him. The curious thing is that Bixby's far from being grizzled and tough-looking. I'm sure in his youth he was downright pretty. You'd want to put him alongside David Hasselhoff. For me, that just makes the weight he brings to this role all the more impressive.
The Hulk's a bit lacklustre, although that's not Ferrigno's fault. The green guy just doesn't seem very effective in this incarnation. People get away from him as he just growls and snarls a bit. Nevertheless he's still entertaining, with one particularly funny Hulk-out as a thug just stands there looking puzzled as this green monster transforms behind him. I still think the bystanders' facial expressions would be more appropriate in the Adam West Batman TV series, though.
This film is more fun than 1989's Trial
, but less convincing. Its script is poor from beginning to end, although I've probably gone a bit overboard in my criticisms and the final results are still very watchable. It could also be argued that consistency is better than going belly-up like a poisoned fish in the final act. I'm not so happy with Don shooting people with a machine gun during the big fight at the end, especially since the two big lunks are doing such a good job of smashing everything apart with their bare hands. Was there any need to shoot them at all? However it's not as if that's the only wrong-headed bit of action and personally I don't think the director can have had much of a clue. You can see what the scriptwriter had in mind, but... hang on. The director was the scriptwriter. Okay, there's no excuse.
This isn't a particularly good film in many ways, but it's also an entertaining and sincere vehicle for some surprisingly good actors. I'm tempted to pick up more of these.