Julien Neaves, Editor
A couple months ago I watched a YouTube video discussing the history of the Incredible Hulk films (I can’t remember the name or I would have linked it). Now it was not about the messy Ang Lee 2003 film nor the slightly underrated MCU 2008 film, but rather the trilogy of TV movies based on the popular television series that ran for five seasons from 1977 to 1982. Actors Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno reprised their roles for the films as Dr David Bruce Banner and Hulk respectively, while Jack Colvin returned as dogged reporter Jack McGee in the first film only.
I am a huge fan of the series and I remembered the three films—The Incredible Hulk Returns, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, and Death of the Incredible Hulk—with fondness. I hadn’t seen these films in a couple decades so I thought it would be cool give them the old retrospective review treatment. With a giant green SPOILER ALERT let’s turn our eyes green, burst out of our clothes and shoes, and roar our way through the original Hulk trilogy:
The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988)
I suspect the first TV film was done on something of a budget as the title sequence is the exact same as the TV series except for “Returns” in red after “The Incredible Hulk”. We are introduced to David, once again using a fake last name but retaining the “David”, romancing it up with his girlfriend at her beach house. Said girlfriend, scientist Dr Maggie Shaw, is just kind of there and later is a prototypical damsel in distress. It was nice to see David enjoying life though you know it’s just not going to last. As David Banner, Bixby again displays the wonderful charm and haunted nature which made the character so popular and the beating heart of the TV series. He is easily the best actor in all these films. As Hulk, Ferrigno does his usual flexing and growling and throwing stuff, and is enjoyable as always. Colvin is his usual grating self as McGee and it was pleasant seeing him in the role again in what would turn out to be his final appearance.
In the film Banner is working at a scientific facility and secretly trying to cure his Hulk condition. And though he is one of their top scientists he keeps to the background seeing that he is presumed dead and the Hulk is wanted for murder. Banner’s quiet life is upset when he is visited by Dr Donald Blake, a young doctor he met years before and who has come into a possession an ancient hammer that allows him to summon the immortal warrior Thor. The film was a backdoor pilot for a Thor series that never materialised.
Now comic fans will recall that in early Thor comics Blake was Thor’s alter ego and the doctor would stomp his cane on the ground to transform it into Mjolnir and him into the Thunder God. But in Returns, Blake (Steve Levitt) and Thor (Eric Kramer from Robin Hood: Men in Tights, The Hughleys) exist at the same time and function as an odd couple. This is best exemplified in a biker bar scene where Thor chugs pints of beer, romances women, arm wrestles and punches a guy out while Blake is completely out of element. It’s extremely corny and not all that funny, but it’s not too bad. And the two do eventually build up to having mutual respect for the other. Levitt is okay as the nerdy Blake who finds his courage and Kramer has the bombastic aspect of Thor down and leans into the ridiculousness of it all. But that costume? Ugh. He looks like a bad Viking cosplayer. And his hammer, which is never called “Mjolnir”, is easily lifted by both Blake and Banner (everyone’s worthy!), and lacks the variety of powers seen in the comics. This hammer summons Thor like a genie and has a lightning effect when it hits stuff. That’s it.
More than two decades before Hulk and Thor clashed in 2012’s The Avengers they had their first live action clash in Returns. And it looked like you would expect for the 80s but it was decent enough. Thor declaring “This will send you back to hell you ugly troll” was a highlight. The action overall was okay, and I did enjoy seeing Thor and Hulk pulling a helicopter down and Thor wrecking a car by throwing his hammer. The main villains are played by low budget genre actor Tim Thomerson (Trancers franchise, Dollman) and Charles Napier aka the guy who got his face eaten by Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. And they are serviceable if not all that memorable.
Overall, The Incredible Hulk Returns was an okay watch with cool 80s action and some funny moments. The best aspect is the novelty of seeing Thor and Hulk fighting together and it is difficult to watch without smiling.
Returns Score: 6 out of 10
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)
The sequel a year later apparently had a bit more budget as they had an original title set over David Banner’s narration. Bixby not only starred but directed this one (and the final film Death of the Incredible Hulk) and it is a darker plot compared to the silliness of Returns. A bearded Banner has moved to a large city looking for work and while on the subway he defends a woman named Ellie Mendez (Marta DuBois) from two thugs and ends up turning into the Hulk. Unfortunately the thugs had just pull off a heist for the city’s crime boss Wilson Fisk (aka Marvel comics villain Kingpin, though he is never called that here) and Banner is framed for attacking Ellie. Fortunately blind attorney Matt Murdock (Rex Smith) takes on his case. Murdock moonlights as the vigilante Daredevil and has his sights set on taking down the Kingpin.
This one was my favourite of the three and I had a time with it. Banner takes something of a backseat here and more focus is thrown on the Murdock/Daredevil character. And if you think that’s because this was a backdoor pilot for a Daredevil TV series that never materialised then DING DING you are correct! But I did not mind the shift in focus as Smith is very good in the role and the portrayal of the character is spot on in terms of origin, personality, abilities and weapon (billy club). Sure, he doesn’t have the comic-accurate suit but the black, ninja-looking outfit was an okay compromise and even got a spiritual successor in the black suit featured in the excellent Daredevil Netflix series. I would even rate Smith above Ben Affleck’s Daredevil in the extremely bad 2003 film.
But returning to Trial, the action here is the best of the trilogy as well as it is a mix of Daredevil’s martial arts and Hulk smashing crap. Whether he was beating up an assassin posing as a nurse, intimidating a snitch, or beating the crap out of Fisk’s minions, Daredevil’s fisticuffs never got old. A scene where he threatens to punch a guy’s heart out was a bit much though. In terms of smashing, the most memorable scene was actually a dream sequence where Banner imagines he is in a courtroom and Hulks out, destroying everything in sight and tossing people around like ragdolls. There’s a funny part where a juror tosses a chair at Hulk. And I’m like, “Seriously dude?” In response Hulk lifts up the entire jury area and slams it down. He did say you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. This scene is also important as the very first live action cameo of the late great Stan The Man Lee (he plays a startled juror).
Also on the positive column is the chemistry between Bixby and Smith. The two have something of a mentor/mentee relationship and it is well done. The scene where Murdock is recovering from a savage beating by Fisk’s henchmen and Banner encourages him to get up and keep fighting was particularly impactful. But the film is not without its flaws. I’m a big fan of John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones films, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sliders) but his version of Wilson Fisk just seems off. Fisk is supposed to be this gritty, streetwise underworld boss but his take is this cold character with a penchant for looking at multiple cameras via high tech shades. It’s just weird. And the climax lacks an actual face-off between Daredevil and Fisk and features a very fake-looking plane in which Fisk makes good his escape. What is this? Thunderbirds?
Despite these issues, Trial is a solid film and highly entertaining. And while a Thor series might have been interesting I am more disappointed we never got a Daredevil series with Rex. Because that would have been some 90s awesomeness.
Trial Score: 7 out of 10
Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990)
While Trial was the best of the trilogy I found Death to be the worst. Now, it’s not a bad film, but it just doesn’t have much going for it. First off there’s no comic book supporting character. The closest we get is Miss America 1982 and future Highlander actress Elizabeth Gracen as Russian spy and human chameleon Jasmine, who could have been Black Widow with a few tweaks. Jasmine interrupts an experiment conducted by kindly scientist Dr Ronald Pratt to cure Banner of his Hulk condition as she attempts to steal files for a Russian spy network led by her steely sister Bella.
Secondly, the plot is just not that good. The early stuff with the scientists trying to cure Banner and keeping Hulk in a force field was actually interesting, and I especially enjoyed the scene of Banner watching the Hulk on tape and commenting this was the first time seeing the creature. But things kind of fall down from there.
Gracen is great as Jasmine by herself and the spy stuff with Banner is fun but they force a romance between the two and it simply does not work. Bixby was 27 years her senior at the time and they look more like father and daughter than lovers. And the romantic chemistry is about as fiery as a wet sock, especially with cringe lines like, “Don’t be afraid to hold me.” Yikes! They also try to up the sex factor here with not one, not two, but THREE naked back scenes of Gracen. Now two of the make sense—being interrupted in the shower and a very PG sex scene with Bixby (again, ugh!) But the third is where Banner is stitching a wound on her arm and she has no top on. Why? Couldn’t she at least wear a bra or something? And then Bixby has to do some awkward holding to rest her down on the bed without having her flash the camera. Just why? Now I understand they wanted to build up their relationship quickly to make his sacrifice at the end more impactful (figuratively speaking) but it feels rushed and unnatural and just unearned. What is it with having the Hulk in forced relationships with spy characters? Yeah, I’m looking at you Age of Ultron.
On the Hulk action, we have a cool opening scene of him beating up some gangsters and crashing through walls. There’s also a later scene of him bursting through the top of a van and holding two tractors at bay. But that’s about it. In terms of villains, Andreas Katsulas does a menacing job as spy handler Kasha and John Novak is believable as sadistic psycho Zed. But Anna Katarina is the epitome of bleh as Bella, making the whole sister-you-thought-was-in-danger-but-is-really-the-main-baddie plot twist fall flatter than the Hulk out of an exploding plane. Too soon? But let’s talk about the big death scene.
I just have to say that running someone over with a small aircraft has to be one of the least effective ways to kill someone. But that’s the danger poor Jasmine is in and why Banner Hulks out to save her and ends up on said aircraft which Bella accidentally shoots and explodes. Hulk survives and then falls in super slo mo with a dumb look in his face to super sad music to his super sad and awfully dramatic death. Now earlier in the film Banner said that it would take something catastrophic to kill the Hulk and I guess being exploded and falling many feet is pretty bad. But this is the strongest character in the Marvel Universe and seeing him die from a fall just feels off. And while Bixby does his best to sell his “I am free” line Gracen’s “David don’t die” is less believable.
Death marked the true end of The Incredible Hulk series and sadly it was more of a whimper than a roar.
Death Score: 5 out of 10
While not the greatest films and very much products of their time I was still entertained by the trilogy. It was a fun time seeing Bixby’s Banner and Ferrigno’s Hulk again, and it did have me wondering about an alternate world with a 90s Thor, Daredevil and Black Widow series. Maybe somehwere in the multiverse.
So are you a fan of these classic Hulk TV movies? And which one is your favourite? And you can check out more classic superhero content below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.