"I'm Free Now – The Incredible Hulk (1988-1990)"

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Paul Brian McCoy

This time around, we’re going to be taking a look at the three Incredible Hulk TV films that aired between 1988 and 1990. The first two, The Incredible Hulk Returns and The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, actually served as backdoor pilots for possible Thor and Daredevil series that never materialized. The third film, The Death of the Incredible Hulk was originally supposed to be the same sort of experiment, introducing She-Hulk, with Iron Man scheduled for the following film, however when it finally came together, it instead served as a swansong for Bill Bixby and focused on one last attempt at a cure for Banner’s Hulk-itis. Unfortunately, even though it wasn’t intended to really be the end of the Hulk on television (the plan was to have him return from the grave with Banner’s mind in the Hulk body), Bill Bixby’s health went south and he died before a proposed Rebirth of the Incredible Hulk film could get underway.


 

The Incredible Hulk Returns


It had been six years, almost to the day, since The Incredible Hulk TV series had aired its final episode, and the television landscape hadn’t been very accommodating of Super Hero concepts in that time. Neither Marvel nor DC had any live-action presence in that time, and no original concepts had lasted more than a season.

For some reason, Bill Bixby felt it was time to return to the character to which he was so closely identified with and his production company Bixby-Brandon Productions tried to branch out and use this opportunity to introduce new characters to the Hulk Universe, expanding Marvel’s entries in the live-action world (which, frankly, wasn’t looking so good at the time, with the failure of Howard the Duck and both Captain America TV movies - The Punisher hadn’t been released yet, but as we now know, it wasn’t destined to do any better).

Thor seems like a decent idea on the surface, as the character shares a similar dynamic as the already-proven Huk concept of splitting the main character into two identities played by two actors. In fact, it seems like it could be even more successful since the Thor identity actually has a personality and wouldn’t be required to appear only as a problem solving deus ex machina. The only real problem I can see is the fact that Thor, at least in the comics and the original mythology, is a literal god and that could play a little oddly on American TV. This problem is avoided in the script, however, by asserting that Thor is actually an ancient Viking King, rather than the son of Odin.

It doesn’t side-step the idea that there are Viking gods out there, as Thor is cursed to do heroic deeds until Odin deems him worthy for entrance into Valhalla, but it doesn’t shove the concept up into the forefront of the narrative.

The plot for the film is pretty standard for your traditional Incredible Hulk TV adventure, which should come as no surprise given that the writer/director, Nicholas Corea, was a veteran of the TV series, serving as supervising producer as well as writer and director of various episodes.

As this film opens, Banner is working at the Joshua Lambert Institute in Los Angeles under an assumed name as the resident radiation genius behind the newly constructed Gamma Transponder, which is designed as a source of unlimited energy (with the added benefit of being a possible cure for Banner’s transformations). As usual, there are bad guys (a Cajan gang led by Tim Thomerson) interested in the technology and ready to kill to steal it. And, as usual, Banner gets in the way and the Hulk plays a pivotal role in shutting them down.

The only real spin on the standard plot is the inclusion of Dr. Donald Blake and Thor, and this is the only real interesting element to the film. The origin story shared here is vaguely similar to Thor’s origin in the comics, in that Blake discovers Thor on a trip to an unnamed Scandinavian country and he can summon the Viking hero when trouble strikes. However that’s really where the similarities end.

This Donald Blake is a screw-up who signed on as the team doctor for an amateur archaeological group rather than the lame but honorable and successful doctor of the comics. Instead of finding a magical stick that, when struck against something, transforms into Thor’s hammer, Blake actually finds a tomb with a skeletal warrior inside along with the magic hammer.

The most distinct difference between the two stories is that rather than sharing an existence like in the comics, where the appearance of one identity means the other disappears, in the film when Blake summons Thor, he holds out the hammer, shouts “Odin!” and in a flash of lightning, Thor appears alongside him. Blake and Thor are both living beings existing at the same time, interacting and working together to fight crime.

Blake has dominance over Thor, though, having been “chosen” by Odin to guide Thor from arrogance to nobility. This provides for an interesting dynamic as Blake learns responsibility on a parallel track with Thor’s heroic quest.

This film is actually a little better than one might think after hearing the description, but then again, the Incredible Hulk series was always of a higher quality than expected. The performances of Steve Levitt as Blake and Eric Kramer as Thor are energetic and believable, given the material they have to work with. Levitt’s only real claim to fame before this was a recurring role on The Paper Chase, but this was just Kramer’s second credited television appearance. Kramer would go on to a steady career, usually guesting as a biker on TV shows and even assuming the mantle of Ator in Ator III: The Hobgoblin. His longest running role was as Dave Rogers in The Hughleys, but is probably most recognizable for playing Little John in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

As I said earlier, there’s not a lot to this story and the moments that shine are actually character moments between Blake and Thor. Kramer gives everything he’s got during a speech where he explains to Blake just how horrible, and vaguely horrifying, it is to exist as a disembodies spirit waiting to be summoned into flesh. And it’s hard not to like a guy who’s list of needs includes beer, food, women to laugh with, and men to fight. He’s just a big lovable Viking goof.

This is emphasized with the bonding montage, as Blake takes Thor out to a biker bar where the Viking enjoys arm-wrestling contests, slamming entire pitchers of beer, dancing with the ladies (two at a time, of course), and tossing around a bully or two. Someone in the crowd even shouts, “You’re the best, Thor!” during all this. And the evening ends with Thor demonstrating his awesome cab-calling skills.

Is there nothing this man can’t do?

Add to all that a little bit of beefcake as Thor strolls around Banner’s apartment wearing only a towel after a shower (again, with an entire pitcher of beer in his hand), and they were clearly pulling out all the stops to appeal to a wide audience in the hopes of getting picked up for a series. Sure, Thor’s not as cut as the Hulk, but he’s got the long blonde hair going for him.

Unfortunately, a series was not to be.

The last thing of note about this film is that it marked the last appearance of Jack Colvin as persistent reporter, Jack McGee. Colvin didn’t do much film or television work after this, instead spending the rest of his life teaching acting until his death in 2005.


 

The Trial of the Incredible Hulk


While The Incredible Hulk Returns wasn’t successful enough to launch Thor into his own regular series, it did win the night in the ratings which proved motivation enough to try again a year later with another backdoor pilot; this time for the Marvel superhero, Daredevil.

While this might have seemed like an odd choice to mainstream audiences, by 1989 Frank Miller had already revitalized the character, making Daredevil one of the most critically acclaimed Marvel comics of the Eighties. The focus on street-level action and the development of Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin, as Daredevil’s central nemesis have become ingrained into the character and stories ever since.

This attention to more realistic action and narratives probably played a part in choosing this direction after the more mystical approach to introducing Thor failed to garner the desired effect last time out. Ironically, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is the most faithful to the comics when it comes to establishing the origin of Daredevil and his antagonistic relationship with the Kingpin.

As in the comics, Matt Murdock, played by Rex Smith (Solid Gold, Street Hawk, The Pirates of Penzance), is the son of a boxer and lost his sight as a boy, after saving an old man from a runaway truck and being struck across the eyes by a radioactive liquid. He has the same radar sense as in the comics and is a crusading lawyer determined to bring down crime lord Wilson Fisk. Fisk is altered from his comics counterpart only slightly. Rather than being huge and bald, he is played by John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sliders, The Lord of the Rings) as an utter bastard, obsessed with video technology and unifying all of the crime families under his rule. DD even intimidates information from a local hood named Turk.

Nearly the entire film is focused on the conflict between Daredevil and Fisk, with Banner and the Hulk relegated as minor players. This does allow for a fresher approach to the narrative, and the script, by Gerald Di Pego, feels less like a traditional Hulk TV adventure and more like what we have to assume they wanted a Daredevil TV series to be like. Bill Bixby also works behind the scenes as the film’s director and does a solid, if unremarkable, job, until the final moments, where the script takes a more science fiction turn than is expected. It’s the weakest part of another surprisingly watchable Hulk adventure.

This film picks up shortly after the previous film’s conclusion and Banner is back to the old familiar of manual labor. And as usual, being a quiet type makes him a target of bullying, despite his styling new beard. Also as usual, Banner decides to move on rather than confront the hostility. He moves on to The City, an unnamed metropolis that is, we find out, under the thumb of Wilson Fisk, the crime lord who’s Fisk Tower looms over the entire landscape.

We’re introduced to blind lawyer Matt Murdock almost immediately, along with his work associates, partner Christa Klein (Nancy Everhard, who’s doing Marvel double duty with her appearance here and over in The Punisher) and assistant Al Pettiman (Richard Cummings, Jr. of Northern Exposure and Thirtysomething fame). I enjoyed the sort-of subtle touch of having “Daredevil” graffiti spray painted on backgrounds around town as we meet our main characters.

The plot mainly hinges on the attempted rape of Ellie Mendez (Marta DuBois), and its aftermath, by one of Fisk’s henchmen after a successful diamond heist. Banner witnesses the attempt and after a lot of hesitation tries to intervene, only to be beaten down and to Hulk up. Oddly enough, his beard disappears when he transforms, which misses an awesome opportunity for the appearance of a huge, green beard. Anyway, once the action dies down Banner is captured and framed for the attack, while Mendez is intimidated into going along with it.

Enter Matt Murdock and his crusade against Fisk.

There’s a pretty fully realized world at work here, with the history between Fisk and Daredevil, as well as with the working relationship between DD and Detective Tendelli. This helps to make the new additions and the new narrative approach more effective. This actually feels like a Daredevil pilot rather than a new Incredible Hulk TV film, unlike the previous Incredible Hulk Returns.

There’s also a distinctly different approach to the look of this film. Not only do we spend a lot of time in Murdock’s expensive apartment, there are quite a few scenes set in Fisk’s headquarters. I’m talking about a lot of heavy shadows, dramatic lighting, and futuristic technology focused mainly on video screens and electronic equipment.

Daredevil’s costume is a visual departure from the comics, solid black instead of red, with no DD logo or horns. It’s a bit more ninja-inspired and, in the right lighting, doesn’t look half bad. Although, the lack of eye holes in the mask are a bit of a giveaway that there’s something strange about this masked vigilante. There’s also a very brutal feel to the violence that Daredevil inflicts on Fisk’s henchmen that is refreshing compared to the exaggerated (and usually slow-motion) fights of the Hulk and Thor.

In fact, it’s this emphasis on more realistic costuming and violence combined with a more high-tech visual style that makes the final moments seem like a step too far.

After following the traditional hero’s quest from almost getting killed and losing his faith, to getting back on that horse and going uptown to kick some major butt, Daredevil chases Fisk toward the roof of Fisk Tower. That’s when Fisk and his Second-in-Command fly away in a weird sci-fi car-thing.

Seriously.

I’m really not sure who thought that was a good idea. But it allows for a workable conclusion, but leaves the Kingpin available to return as the central villain when the show gets picked up to become a series. Except, of course, it didn’t get picked up.

Sadly, Lou Ferrigno didn’t even make an appearance in the final quarter of the film, allowing Rex Smith to take center stage completely upon his shoulders, effectively eclipsing the title characters in the attempt to launch Daredevil. According to various sources, the next attempt at an Incredible Hulk TV film would introduce She-Hulk and a film after that would feature Iron Man. However, perhaps with the failure of both Thor and Daredevil to garner any studio interest, the plot for their next outing shifted back to the more traditional and expected type of Hulk film.


 

The Death of the Incredible Hulk


The writing and directing team of Gerald Di Pego and Bill Bixby returned the following year with a film much more like what one would expect from them.

Once again Banner is working at a research facility under an assumed name, however the twist this time is that he’s pretending to be mentally handicapped and working as a janitor.  He has been befriended by the lead scientist, Dr. Ronald Pratt (Philip Sterling (Doctor Strange), who is working on developing the power of Self-Healing through genetic manipulation.  Banner is sneaking in after-hours, tinkering with, and improving, Dr. Pratt’s research in the hopes of, you guessed it, finding a cure for his own Hulking-out condition.

On a parallel narrative track, we are introduced to Jasmin, a sexy Russian spy, and her handler, Kasha.  They’re played by two actors who would gain a fair amount of geek cred throughout the Nineties, Elizabeth Gracen (Highlander: The Raven) and the late, great Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar from Babylon 5), and both do decent jobs avoiding the traditional, mustache-twirling Russian villain stereotypes.  Or maybe I’m just biased in my love of the work of Katsulas (G’Kar was one of the greatest characters in sci-fi television history in my book, plus Katsulas was awesome in Philippe Mora’s film adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s Communion).

It doesn’t take long for these two tracks to start converging, as Jasmin wants out of the Spy biz, but Kasha essentially blackmails her into one last job.  In order to save the life of her sister, Jasmin agrees to steal Dr. Pratt’s research, as both the Russians and the American government want to use it to create the ultimate Super Soldier.  They call it the Perfect Soldier, but I think we all know what they’re referencing there.

In the meantime, Dr. Pratt realizes that someone’s helping him out and discovers Banner’s true identity.  Together they continue working on the dual purpose of completing Pratt’s research and Banner’s cure.  Unfortunately, Jasmin interrupts their last-ditch effort at the cure, and, in the process gets Pratt injured.  She actually saves him from being killed, but he ends up in a coma and the authorities begin hunting for her, Banner, and the mysterious Green Giant who was also on the scene at the lab.

The Russians are after Banner, too, and adding to the suspense, Jasmin is going to be thrown to the wolves along with him.  To complete the Russian Espionage trifecta of plot twists, Jasmin’s sister is revealed to be the new head of the agency, code-named Voshenko, and has ordered her own sister’s execution.  Needless to say, Banner and Jasmin end up on the run together, eventually tumbling into bed, as well.

The final third of the film is mostly sex, running from killers, and violence.  Dr. Pratt is revived from his coma, then kidnapped by the Russians.  Finally, everything comes together at a small airport as the Russians, the police, and the Incredible Hulk all collide.  It’s a surprisingly violent shoot-out that seems to just begin with no warning as soon as the police arrive.  This inspires a last-minute escape attempt by Voshenko via small single-engine plane, but not before the Hulk climbs on-board.

After doing damage inside, the plane begins to crash and the Hulk is tossed out, falling and falling and falling, smashing into the concrete of the runway below.  After landing, he transforms back into Banner as Jasmin, Dr. and Mrs. Pratt gather around.

“Don’t die.  We can be free now,” Jasmin cries.

“Jasmin.  I am free,” Banner chokes out, then dies.

It’s a surprisingly powerful scene that, even given the title of the film, comes as a bit of a shock.  The only bad part about it is the cheesy song that plays over the closing credits, which might not even be that bad if Bill Bixby didn’t duet with the female singer over the chorus.  

And while we now know that another installment in the series of Hulk TV films was being planned and that Bill Bixby’s death put a halt to it, the conclusion of The Death of the Incredible Hulk is still one of the most satisfying of the Marvel TV movies so far.  It’s surprising sometimes to realize how the open-ended nature of series television undermines a good, fully-realized conclusion.

The rest of the Nineties wouldn’t be good to live action Marvel projects, and this would be the last made-for-TV film until 1996’s Generation X (not counting the unaired Power Pack pilot from 1991) and 1998’s Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., as over the next few years, Marvel’s feature-film prospects crashed and burned with Captain America (1990) and The Fantastic Four (1994).  Neither film would actually be released, with Captain America going straight to video and Fantastic Four being put on a shelf somewhere, only available, to this day, as a low-quality bootleg.  

On the bright side, once we make our way through this next leg of Marvel Film History, a new day dawns with the release of Blade in 1998.

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