Impulse Buy Theater's Avengers - The Incredible Hulk TV Movies
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not unique.
There, I said it. And no, I’m not alluding to DC’s nascent effort into that arena. Hell, I’m actually talking about Marvel. But it’s a different Marvel…from over 25 years ago. Oh yeah…you know what I’m getting at…but first, let me lead you in to what we’re up to here.
Join us for a time, long ago, where Marvel wasn’t quite the powerhouse it is today. No, instead, let’s journey to a Marvel that’s teetering on the edge…a Marvel that’s trying to branch out into live action…but none of the big names are calling back. The small ones are though…Roger Corman and his New World Pictures [which, incidentally, owned Marvel for a time! – Ed.], Charles Band and his Full Moon Pictures and…of course…Menachem Golan and his 21st Century Pictures (part of a fragmented Cannon Films). They resulted in films that…well…at least some of them tied together directly…but all had that taste…that low budget, we’re in way over our heads taste. The direct to video or TV taste. The taste that would, decades later, give birth to Impulse Buy Theater. That’s right boys and girls, True Believers all…we’re assembling THE IMPULSE BUY THEATER AVENGERS!
First up, let’s take a look at Marvel’s first attempt to build a shared universe with their characters. This takes place in a trilogy of films banking on the only Marvel character to meet with any degree of success on the small screen up to this point…The Incredible Hulk. Kenneth Johnson’s TV show ran for 5 seasons from 1978 to 1982, culminating in 82 episodes. Not too shabby really, especially when you consider that attempts were made to make a Spider-Man show that was pulled after what you could generously call 2 seasons, running only 13 episodes. [Interesting fact in doing research for this article, apparently a Spider-Man reunion was going to be attempted, teaming up with…you guessed it…the Incredible Hulk. Oh, and the less we say about the Doctor Strange TV movie, the better. – Ed.] The Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno led TV show ran on CBS, but was revived for three TV movies for NBC that we’ll be looking at here: The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988), Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989) and Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990). So why do I suggest that this was an attempt at a shared universe? Well, because each of these films gave us a low-budget taste of Thor, Daredevil & Kingpin and, though not directly named as such, the Black Widow.
Enough lead-in, let’s get on with it. 1988’s Return of the Incredible Hulk finds David Banner [The name was changed back in the original TV series for two reasons…one good, one idiotic. Kenneth Johnson, creator of the TV series, recognized that alliterative names were a staple of comics, especially Stan Lee’s comics (Peter Parker, Reed Richards, Stephen Strange and, yes, Bruce Banner…just to name a few), and wanted to move away from that. Thus, he renamed the character David Bruce Banner…David coming from Johnson’s son’s name. The second, more idiotic reason is that network execs at CBS felt that Bruce sounded “too gay-ish”. While it’s tempting to tap into my Bat-Fatigue here…why don’t I just leave well enough alone and get back to the point, eh? – Ed.] or, as we meet him here, David Bannion, in a serious relationship and on the verge of settling down. He hasn’t had an ‘episode’ in over 2 years now…but he’s having dreams. The monster is trying to claw its way out. Making use of both his serious relationship with Dr. Maggie Shaw, in biogenetics, and their shared workplace, the Joshua Lambert Institute, he’s on the verge of completing his gamma transponder…which will allow for inverting the polarity of gamma radiation. Yeah, yeah, I know, on a Geordi LaForge Technobabble Bullshit-ometer we’re only in a weak to moderate territory here. Anyway, this sets the stage…Banner starts the sequence (naturally with an absurdly long countdown because…hey…DRAMA!) which is then interrupted at the last possible second by one Donald Blake. I know, I know, I’m slipping down the rabbit hole of recounting the whole damn thing, aren’t I? So let’s break away from this and into some commentary.
I have to admit, while some liberties were taken with the Hulk’s origin way back at the genesis of the TV series back in ’78, how Blake came to inherit the power of Thor was almost ripped straight out of the comics. While it’s to be lauded for such fidelity…it’s also a prime example of how these things need a degree of adaptation, because the other-worldly ‘pulling’ of Blake to Thor’s tomb is…hokey. On the other hand, the adaptation of their relationship…no longer one of transference or replacement like in the comics but instead almost genie-like; not coming from a lamp, Thor comes from his signature war-hammer and instead of granting wishes, he tends to grant more in the way of ass-whuppin’s. It’s very evident in the way Blake and Thor were written that their approach to the characters was “What if the Incredible Hulk was more of a buddy comedy with action elements?” and thus it can even be considered that this was perhaps an attempt at a backdoor pilot for the duo. It’s an interesting approach, but even in the 95 minute running time of the film, it kinda gets old as the two fall into established TV buddy tropes, Blake as the straight-man that needs to learn how to loosen up and enjoy life and Thor as footloose and fancy free butt-kicker that needs to learn that sometimes you have to reign it in and occasionally be subtle.
Speaking of subtle…the film is anything but. For someone who’s supposedly believed by the world at large to be dead, how exactly does Blake find Banner? Sure, there a scene later on in the movie where Thor states that he always finds who he seeks…via his nose. God of Thunder…and bloodhounds, it would appear. So I’m guessing that’s the mechanism at play, but even if there were a scene that says “Boy, I wish I could find my old teacher David Banner,” and Thor replies “Hang on, I’ve got his scent!”…well, that still doesn’t answer how Blake would even know Banner was still alive. Then there are the terrorists or mercenaries or whatever that have their sights on stealing the gamma transponder for…um…reasons ‘n’ stuff. Still, the two leaders are played by Tim Thomerson and Charles Napier…who, even though you have no idea who they are by their names [Do a Google search, you’ll recognize them! – Ed.], have been reliable villains in mediocre to bad films everywhere…doing their best to be Cajun, which adds even more hilarity to the proceedings. There’s a brotherly betrayal in there too…younger brother hires said mercs for…what, sibling rivalry I guess?
We’ll save my closing opinions for a wrap up on all three films. Instead of that, let’s indulge a uniquely Impulse Buy Theater metric as to my enjoyment. Did I need alcohol to help me get through the movie? No. Was I, at any point, in physical pain due to what was on screen? Not that I recall. And, ultimately, I did end up watching all three of these in a single sitting…so, it’s safe to say that the film didn’t make me think that such a marathon was a horrible…HORRIBLE idea. Now, let’s continue down the rabbit hole…
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk finds us, and David Banner-now-Belson, working on a farm in the plains in front of a mountain range with, honestly, a bunch of dicks. Having enough of being bullied (and not wanting to justifiably hulk-out and dole out some much needed comeuppance) he takes his pay from the woman in charge of things…who is SERIOUSLY hitting on him [David Banner, the original pimp-mack-daddy! – Ed.] and decides to find his fortune (as in destiny, not money) in “The City”…but, as he finds out upon his arrival…IT’S A CITY OF CRIME! [Oh, yeah…cue that song from the 80’s Dragnet movie…you KNOW you want to! – Ed.] To set this up, we’re shown a rather elaborate daylight diamond heist coordinated by a large, rotund man who is instantly recognizable as John Rhys Davies, go flawlessly…then follow two of the robbers make their getaway on the subway, when one of them, seeing a woman in the subway car with them starts to feel all rapey inside. Who else is in the car? Do I really need to tell you? Okay, if you’re new to this game, yes indeed, our man Banner/Belson is indeed present. He tries to keep his head down and stay out of the way…but eventually, well, The Onion has always said it best: ‘Banner reacts predictably’…and here come those green contacts and that dramatic turn toward camera that we know and love so well. The story marches from plot point to plot point from here…Davies is playing Wilson Fisk, AKA The Kingpin, who wants to unite organized crime under his leadership, with both Banner and the intended rape victim being ‘loose ends’, Fisk puts pressure on said victim to say it was Banner/Belson that was being all rapey and that the real rapey chaps were the good Samaritans here…which of course leads to Banner getting put in the clink…crossbar motel…insert your favorite euphemism for jail here. And for the defense…Matt Murdock.
As with the last film, the set-up feels forced to get us to the team up. Let’s think about this for a second…if Banner’s been on the run for a while now, which he has…don’t you think a city is THE ABSOLUTE LAST place you’d want to go? Sure, there’s more people to hide amongst, but there’s also more people to piss you off and turn you into a green rage monster. Banner’s escape from prison also falls into the ‘Banner reacts predictably’ category. Let’s just get to the good stuff. John Rhys Davies is an inspired choice to play the Kingpin. You can forgive the facial hair, because, dammit, who the hell are you to tell Sallah to shave it off? Overall, it’s not bad…but my god…those sunglasses and those damn headphones seriously scream 80’s…and start pulling you out of the suspension of disbelief. [Ignoring the plot also helps. – Ed.] Switching over to Daredevil is similarly a mixed bag. For DD himself, it’s kinda surprising to me how well it holds up. Of course, I’m sure it helps that for most of the recent Netflix series’ first season, Daredevil was in an outfit that very closely mirrored the one on display here 26 years previous. [And I think we’re all glad that both iterations of the character skipped over that eyesore of an initial costume Ol’ Hornhead wore…ick. – Ed.] Rex Smith’s performance is…adequate. Sure, it gets a little over the top at times, but given the attitude toward comics at the time, well, you can’t fault the guy. It’s when we nit-pick at the finer details of Murdock’s profession and The City in general that we start to show the larger liberties taken with the source material. Matt’s the senior partner at Murdock and Klein…and it’s very obvious that Klein is rather taken with him. Their junior partner…or maybe their assistant…I dunno…is ex-military and all business in that lame, TV, predictable sort of way. So, yeah, no Nelson and Murdock here. [Although it does get rid of Karen Page, which, after Daredevil Season 2, isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se. –Ed.] As we look at the nameless “City” which serves as the setting for our story…well…IT’S NOT NYC. The Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City is pretty core to the Daredevil mythos…so, you know, kind of important. I mean, it TRIES to be New York…there are skyscrapers and flop houses next to liquor stores and subways, but…not to pretend to be a native of the area, truth be told I’ve only visited once, but to put it how they might ‘if it ain’t New York, then it ain’t New York’. And this…this might be Vancouver or Edmonton or Calgary or someplace in Colorado or Nebraska…but that for damn sure isn’t New York. Sure, I know it’s low budget and honestly, the only time the scenery really detracts is when you see the damn mountains in the background. Hell, even one of the characters complains that Fisk’s skyscraper blocks his view of said mountains.
On to the metrics. Did I need alcohol to get me through this one? No. Was any scene physically painful to watch? There was a little squirming, but overall it was fine. Two down, one to go.
This brings us to The Death of the Incredible Hulk. In a way, it’s a good thing this film happened. Only 3 years later, Bill Bixby would die from prostate cancer, so the film actually brings some closure to the series that started all those years ago. But I can’t say it was terribly satisfying either. Let’s save that for the end though.
Now we find David Bellamy (do I really even need to say who it really is at this point?), a seemingly mentally challenged janitor at a Portland, OR scientific research center. Oh my god…just let me soak in the fantasy for a moment…the Hulk smashing Portland. Great. Now I have to clean off the keyboard. [Um…ew? – Ed.] Ahem…anyway, he’s in Portland following the work of Dr. Pratt (surprisingly not a single woman scientist…what can I say, the guy’s got a ‘type’). With Pratt’s work being in genetics, it’s safe to say that, given the time when this was filmed, the writers were probably latching on to the then infant science of gene therapy. It’s not clear exactly what genetics Pratt is working on [given that it’s Portland, it probably has something to make or create a form of patchouli that reeks even more – Ed.] but Banner has been sneaking into his lab at night correcting and guiding the work. Scratch what I said about it not being clear…apparently Pratt is working on, well, let’s just call it a healing factor, eh? [Last minute save by Wikipedia. – Ed.] Anyway, Banner is hoping that this will be able to rewrite his genetics to exclude all the gamma irradiated bits.
Enter the Russians. While one would think that since this aired in 1990, and the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, that we’d be past this, right? Nope. You see, the Wall fell in November of ’89 and this aired in February of ’90. Given production lead times and such, there were still Soviets when this film was being made. I can’t help but think there was at least some last minute tweaking though…as there’s hardly a hammer and sickle in sight and no mention of Communism on of ‘The Cause’. No hiding the ethnic names or the accents though…so it’s pretty clear who were dealing with here. This brings us to Jasmin…the main Russian agent we follow through the film (and let’s just get this out of the way, of course Banner hits that…please refer to previous comment regarding the original pimp-mack-daddy). We know that she’s been in the service of ‘The Cause’ since she was 14. Does this sound like someone who might have been a graduate of a little something called ‘The Red Room’? Her abilities as a master of disguise…that ringing any bells? While never explicitly stated, there are more than just enough similarities to consider that this might have been at some point in the script’s evolution the Black Widow. While Jasmin has black hair (which would actually line up with the Widow’s earliest appearances), she does go red for one of her disguises as possibly a wink and a nod. Also worth pointing out that her actual hair is short, just as it was for Widow in the comics back in the late 80s and early 90s. And given the ‘Marvel Team-Up’ nature of the TV movies thus far, coupled with the lack of any official Marvel heroes in this one, it’s not hard to steer into the Black Widow theory here.
Get on with it man…does the Hulk die or what? Yes, yes he does but how he does is terribly unsatisfying. Honestly, I think I’d have been more okay with Banner and Pratt’s work paying off and finally curing him of the Hulk…but we know better, don’t we? Sadly, yes we do. So we end up getting a death that…well…just doesn’t work. As our bad guys attempt to escape via airplane, the green behemoth jumps on board and…well, having Hulk smash in an airborne vehicle of any kind is all kinds of not good. The plane explodes and Hulk fall down go boom…then changes back to Banner who’s final words are “I’m free” or something to that effect. Cut me some slack…at this point, I was getting tired. Even with the reduced power levels this Hulk had compared to his comic book counterpart (or later cinematic CG counterparts for that matter), to have his death occur this way seems, well, rather pedestrian at best, incredibly lame at worst.
Metrics. Was any scene physically painful to watch? I can’t say it was painful per se…but I can concede that fatigue might have been setting in at this point. And I certainly can’t overemphasize my disappointment in the ending. Was alcohol required? Surprisingly not.
Now let’s look at the trilogy as a whole, what it accomplished and what it failed in. Its biggest accomplishment I’d say is starting to weave this tapestry of some of Marvel’s other heroes using the established Hulk as our point of view or as our guide. I remember how excited my younger self was to finally see Thor and Daredevil on any screen…big or small. And these interpretations kinda still hold up. Sure, there’s a little bit of aging to them as the biggest appeal to Blake and Thor is the level of 80s cheese attached to them, but at the same time there’s something to be said that 26 years after Daredevil’s intro in Trial of the Incredible Hulk, Netflix’s Daredevil Season 1 took many cues from the earlier costume were incorporated into the newer. The lack of a defined Marvel character in Death does take some wind out of the sails of the final film in the series. Yes, you can read between the lines and assume it’s Black Widow, but even then it feels a little lacking. Now, had it been who the producers were actually going for, She-Hulk, that would’ve been cool. [Oh, come on, that’s mainly because you stumbled upon that old picture of the ill-fated Brigitte Nielsen attempt at bringing the character to screen and got all nostalgic. – Ed.] Looking at all three together though, they do feel like a fresh coat of paint (and significantly less bellbottoms) thrown onto the classic 78-82 series. Sure, the plots are a little thin, contrived and plot driven [More like a lot. – Ed.], but like any good low-budget film, there’s a heart here (well, except for maybe that last one) and it’s evident in the films. They incorporate enough of the Marvel characters and their origins to let you know that the writers did at least some homework…something that was sorely missing in many of the bigger budget adaptations that would emerge in post-Burton Batman films of the 90’s and even into the early 2000s. [There’s some irony that while Kenneth Johnson was so successful with the Hulk series, he completely and utterly failed with the big screen Steel adaptation. In both instances he wanted to stay away from the comics as much as he could…with Hulk that approach succeeded, with Steel…not so much. – Ed.] It’s true that some of the adaptations made to Thor or Daredevil didn’t work…and sadly Black Widow was more due to an unfortunate turn of history that very few, if any, would see coming. But in looking at future adaptations of these characters, well, yeah, these are very easy extrapolations of Stan Lee’s 60s work and, maybe as such, a little bit of Ol’ Smilin’ Stan’s charm rubbed off. Oh, and while we’re talking about him, it may not be the first, but we sure enough get one of the earlier Stan Lee cameos in Trial of the Incredible Hulk (he’s a member of the jury).
While these three films may not entirely fit with the narrative of the other films we’ll take a look at, it does set up a feeling and a spirit that somehow…yeah, they do. And isn’t that what The Avengers, whether as a comic or as a film series, is all about? Sure, the effects are shoestring and they’re certainly a far cry from what we know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe today…but think about it, to have the balls to suggest a shared universe that is inhabited by these fantastic characters and concepts with only a fraction of the money to possibly make it work? That’s an indomitable spirit that you just can’t help but cheer for. While the films we look at next might not always meet that standard, these three Hulk TV films showed that, you know, it just might be possible…and serve as one hell of a start. So, as we move on to the next few films we have line up for this series of Impulse Buy Theater reviews, I can say only this: AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!