Anyone who has seen Thor: Ragnarok would agree that the combination of Chris Hemsworth’s Norse God and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk makes for a great double act, but it’s not the first time the two Marvel characters have been paired together in their own movie.
Back in the 1980s, the idea of adapting comic books for the big screen was not all that appealing. Instead, superheroes like the Incredible Hulk found a home on the small screen. From 1977 through to 1982, he was the focus of CBS’s The Incredible Hulk, starring Bill Bixby as Dr. David -- not Bruce -- Banner and Lou Ferrigno as Hulk.
The show was markedly different to the comics -- this Hulk never fought another superhero or even came into contact with one. Instead, Hulk / Dr. Banner travelled across America under assumed names, helping those in need combat the kind of criminal elements seen in other shows like The A-Team.
The Incredible Hulk ran for five seasons, totalling 82 episodes, before the series ended. However, fans were never given a definitive conclusion with Dr. Banner left on the run and seeking a cure for his condition.
Six years after the show finished, they finally got their wish with The Incredible Hulk Returns – a TV movie that saw the Hulk team up with Thor. It was a crossover few who saw it would ever forget.
With that said, here are the 15 Things You Never Knew About The Failed Hulk/Thor Crossover.
While MCA and Universal produced The Incredible Hulk TV series, New World Television and Bill Bixby’s own production company had picked up the rights to the show by the late 1980s.
New World owned Marvel at the time and were exploring ways of launching other characters from the comic books into the world of television. They eventually struck up a deal with NBC who agreed to broadcast three Incredible Hulk TV movies: The Incredible Hulk Returns, Trial of The Incredible Hulk, and Death of The Incredible Hulk.
These movies were not supposed to serve as a revival of the original Hulk series though, but instead provide a definitive ending to the original show, while serving as backdoor pilots for two new series focusing on two other Marvel heroes: Thor and Daredevil.
While Thor features prominently in The Incredible Hulk Returns, Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, plays a prominent role in The Trial of The Incredible Hulk. Despite these initial plans, neither character would go on to get their own series on NBC.
Kenneth Johnson made it a point to avoid any and all supernatural elements when adapting The Incredible Hulk for TV. That may have been down to the popularity of shows like Knight Rider, which featured lone vigilante’s on quests for justice.
Hulk/Dr. Banner play a pretty similar role on the TV series, but it’s all change for the film. With Johnson no longer involved, writer Nicholas Corea had the characters embrace the supernatural in a way not previously seen during the series.
Donald Blake only encounters Thor thanks to an enchanted hammer – a notion that goes against the more realistic tone Johnson strives for on the TV show. That may go some way to explaining why he had no involvement in this project with New World Television evidently keen to introduce Thor by more fantastical means.
Eric Allan Kramer gives it his all as Thor, but there’s no denying the fact that this incarnation of the character is a bit of a jerk. This Thor is a brutish, arrogant, beer-swilling slob who only feels at home when he’s taken to a biker bar for a drink.
It’s a portrayal that’s more in keeping with Thor’s Norse mythology roots than the character from the comics. It’s also a performance that’s deliberately abrasive – in this version of the story, the Norse Gods of old have cast Thor out.
He's no God either - this guy is just an ordinary viking who happens to share his name with Thor and is cursed and sent to Earth with the task of becoming a humbler, kinder man. Only by helping mere mortals like Dr. Blake, will Thor earn his place back in Valhalla.
It’s setup undoubtedly put in place with a view to a series. With Blake a much more measured, considered character, TV bosses evidently envisioned an Odd Couple style double act with Thor tasked with finding new ways to help people each week. Unfortunately, fans never got to see that.
Kenneth Johnson may have been the genius behind The Incredible Hulk TV series but, for whatever reason, he played no part in The Incredible Hulk Returns or any of the TV films that followed. The story goes that Johnson only found out about the project after seeing several adverts promoting its return on NBC.
It’s difficult to know why Johnson was excluded. Though it may have had something to do with his constant desire to move away from the source material while making the series.
Johnson was no fan of the Incredible Hulk comics and made several controversial changes to the character’s name and origins. It could have been worse too – he once lobbied to have the Hulk turn red rather than green.
Despite always having Stan Lee’s backing, producers at New World Television may have felt Johnson, who by this time had created the critically-acclaimed sci-fi miniseries V, wouldn’t be interested in resurrecting the Hulk for what was essentially a series of backdoor pilots.
The Incredible Hulk Returns is a significant chapter in the story of The Incredible Hulk TV series for the simple fact it features the last appearance of the character, Jack McGee, played by Jack Colvin. McGee was created by Kenneth Johnson to serve as an adversary of sorts for Dr. Banner.
On the series, McGee worked as a journalist for The National Register and spent much of the show’s run pursuing Banner/the Hulk in search of the truth but never fully aware that the two people are one and the same.
Colvin reprised his role as McGee for The Incredible Hulk Returns but suffered a minor stroke after completing work on the film. He was forced to step away from acting as a result, with the character of McGee sadly written out of the two follow-up Hulk TV movies as a result.
Eric Allan Kramer may not be a household name but he puts in a good performance as Thor in The Incredible Hulk Returns and may be familiar to anyone who has ever watched the American Pie films or, more specifically, the third entry in the franchise: American Pie: The Wedding.
Kramer has 97 acting credits to his name, including appearances in films like True Romance and Robin Hood: Men In Tights. His biggest TV credits include the role of Dave Rogers on The Hughleys and Bob Duncan on Good Luck Charlie.
However, to a whole generation of one-time adolescent teens, he’ll forever be known as Bear, the big guy who takes Sean William Scott’s Stifler on in a dance-off during the guys' visit to a local gay club. His character is later forced to assume the identity of "Mr Belvedere" when Jim’s future in-laws accidentally crash their stripper-led after party. He makes a great Thor though.
Given the lack of superhero movies or TV shows on offer back in the 1980s, the inclusion of Thor in The Incredible Hulk Returns might have seemed like an unusual choice. After all, there were plenty of other notable Marvel characters around at the time and crying out for a big or small screen adaptation.
However, the 1980s represented something of a golden era for Thor. It was the era of Walt Simonson’s legendary four-year run from 1983 to 1987 on The Mighty Thor. The TV movie therefore arrived at arguably the peak of Thor’s popularity, with TV executives evidently eager to explore the possibility of a TV show based around the Norse God.
It didn’t quite end up going to plan though, with the TV movie’s production team making some, shall we say, interesting changes to the character and his origins.
One of the most striking aspects of the Thor that appears in The Incredible Hulk Returns was his relationship to Dr. Donald Blake. In the comics, Dr. Blake is actually created by Odin, Thor’s father to serve as his son’s host during his time on Earth.
Though Blake would eventually gain a life and sentience away from Thor in the comics, in the beginning the two are very much one and the same person with Blake transforming into Thor by way of his hammer, Mjolnir.
It is a whole other story in the TV movie though. When Blake first meets Dr. Banner, he recounts the story of how he was bound into the possession of an enchanted hammer during an expedition in Norway. The hammer contains the immortal soul of Thor, who is compelled to serve Blake as a result, with the two characters exciting separately from each other.
Both Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno reprised their roles as Dr. David Banner and the Hulk for the TV movies, though there was something a little different about the latter this time around.
Ferrigno suffered a pretty serious ear infection just after he was born. It resulted in him losing around 75 per cent of his hearing as a result. The actor has been using hearing aids since he was five-years old.
During the original run of The Incredible Hulk, Ferrigno famously wore a green wig in order to hide his hearing aid from view. However, by the time the TV movie came along some six years later, his hearing had worsened. Ferrigno was forced to switch to a new, stronger, hearing aid and, as a result, he had to be given a new wig to better hide the hearing aid while he played the Hulk.
Mjolnir holds a pretty special place in Norse mythology as Thor's hammer and one of the most powerful and fearsome weapons in all of existence. It’s a similar story in the Marvel comics universe, where Mjolnir boasts a range of impressive and highly useful properties.
The holder can manipulate the weather, fly, build forcefields, teleport, and even bring certain people back to life – and that’s really only the tip of the iceberg.
All of which makes the approach taken in The Incredible Hulk Returns that bit more unusual – Mjolnir has no special properties in the TV film other than being a big “enchanted hammer.” It essentially serves as a genie’s lamp of sorts, with Dr. Blake using it to summon Thor on several occasions. Worse still, it’s not even referred to as Mjolnir in the film-- not once.
The Incredible Hulk Returns was, first and foremost, a television movie and backdoor pilot for Thor and so, perhaps understandably, lacked some of the polish of a big budget movie outing. Mistakes can and often do happen but this TV movie manages to largely avoid any glaring errors. Well, apart from one.
Though there is a brief moment at one point in the movie when the film’s crew are visible in the reflection of a car door, the biggest blooper is reserved for the scene where Donald Blake first encounters Thor’s sarcophagus during his trip in Norway.
In the scene, the lid to Thor’s final resting place flies off, as if by magic, revealing the enchanted hammer in the process. However, look a little closer and you can clearly see the strings attached to the lid of the sarcophagus. Actually, you don’t even have to look close to see it.
Stan Lee has made a habit out of cameoing in pretty much every Marvel movie and TV show to date, with 40 credits to his name and counting. Anyone thinking that run of cameos began with an appearance in Bryan Singer’s very first X-Men movie back in 2000 would be mistaken though.
No, Lee’s first cameo came way back in 1989, when he appeared briefly in the second Incredible Hulk TV movie, The Trial Of The Incredible Hulk. It’s unclear why he featured in the second movie but not the first – it may have just come down to scheduling conflicts.
Whatever the truth, it does make The Incredible Hulk Returns one of the only Marvel movies to not include an appearance from Lee. Alright, so it’s only a television movie but it still counts.
No Hulk TV movie would be complete without a love interest for Dr. Banner and, for The Incredible Hulk Returns, that role is filled by Dr. Maggie Shaw. A young widow who has been working alongside Banner, who is now living under the clever alias Dr David Bannion.
The pair are romantically involved at the start of the film and it’s Maggie’s kidnap that eventually convinces Hulk, Thor, and Dr. Blake to team up to take down the criminals that have captured her.
Actress Lee Purcell took on the role of Maggie for the movie. An actress of some considerable experience, with a variety of film and TV credits to her name, Purcell is also notable for being an avid performer of live poetry. She is also a one-time NRA director and someone who was been involved with Scientology throughout her career according to a list published by Gawker. Those are some pretty diverse interests.
Though writer/director Nicholas Corea did deviate from Kenneth Johnson’s established formula that said no other superheroes could feature in The Incredible Hulk TV series, he did follow suit with the V creator in other ways.
This is most obvious when it comes to the film’s primary villain. While Thor was present, much like the TV show, The Incredible Hulk Returns did not feature any Marvel super villains.
Instead, Hulk and Thor are pitted against a criminal organisation lead by the shady Jack LeBeau, played by comedian and actor Tim Thomerson. LeBeau and his thugs spend much of the film trying to get their hands on the Gamma Transponder that Banner has been working on to curing himself.
He wants to use it as a weapon, though, and decides to kidnap Dr. Shaw to get his hands on it. However, that just makes Banner angry-- very angry.
Despite the controversial take on Thor, who was a hugely popular comic book character at the time, and the lack of a decent super-villain or substantial budget behind it, The Incredible Hulk Returns proved to be a major ratings success for NBC.
Though NBC had expected the film to score big with fans of the original series, the reunion was an even bigger hit than anyone could have predicted and also earned solid reviews.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there for the Incredible Hulk TV movies. The follow-up, The Trial Of The Incredible Hulk, may have featured Daredevil but it failed to inspire the same success.
With talk of giving either Thor or Daredevil their own series cooling, things concluded with The Death of The Incredible Hulk. The final film was notable for marking Bill Bixby’s final appearance as Dr. Banner. Bixby died of complications from prostate cancer on November 21, 1993.
Did we forget any other interesting facts about the failed Incredible Hulk/Thor movie, The Incredible Hulk Returns? Have your say in the comments!