This is the twentieth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
Six years after the cancellation of “The Incredible Hulk” on CBS, Bill Bixby pulled together the strings necessary to bring the Hulk back to television in the form of a movie of the week. Universal’s rights to the Marvel Comics properties had since been sold off to New World Television and this put New World in a position to have control of all of the Marvel characters for live action television. Because of this, they decided to produce a Hulk movie that would introduce another Marvel character who could possible be used to helm a spin-off series, making “The Incredible Hulk Returns” a sort of backdoor pilot for a new series.
The character brought in for the first movie was the Marvel Comics version of the Viking god Thor from Norse mythology. This would be the first time Thor would be seen in live action, and it would be the only time the character was used in live action until Chris Hemsworth brought the character to life for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the television version, Thor was played by Eric Allan Kramer.
Bixby and Ferrigno reprised their roles as Banner and the Hulk, and Bixby brought back Nicholas Corea – who had been a writer, producer and director on the original television series – to oversee production of the reunion movie. Corea is credited as writer and director on the film. Bixby, although not credited, also served as co-director.
Jack Colvin, who had played investigative reporter Jack McGee in the television series, also returned to reprise his role in the reunion movie. It would be his only appearance in the three movies although his absence in the last two is never mentioned or explained. Charles Napier, who had taken over voiceover duties for the Hulk’s various growls and grunts from Ted Cassidy for the television series, also appeared in this movie as a henchman to the film’s villain, played by Tim Thomerson.
“The Incredible Hulk Returns” was already expected to draw a large audience, mostly due to the huge fanbase of the series and the want of that audience for more. The movie, however, managed to exceed those expectations and was more successful than anyone at New World Television, or NBC – who had taken over distribution rights of the television series from CBS – could have ever imagined. A sequel was quickly planned.
Once again produced by New World Television for NBC, “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk” brought back Bixby and Ferrigno but did not see the return of Jack Colvin to the series. Nicholas Corea also did not have any involvement in the sequel, leaving Bill Bixby to take on sole directorial duties. The sequel also introduced a new Marvel character, once again trying the backdoor pilot format. This time, the new character was Daredevil played by Rex Smith.
“The Trial of the Incredible Hulk” involved a plot by Marvel villain Wilson Fisk – most commonly known as the Kingpin of Crime – to frame David Banner for the attempted rape of a woman on a bus. A rape which Banner, as the Hulk, actually prevented and saved the woman in question. Banner is represented by pro-bono attorney Matt Murdock, who is himself trying to tie Fisk in to the crimewave hitting the unnamed city.
Interestingly, “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk” watches much more like a Daredevil movie featuring the Hulk than an actual Hulk movie. The Hulk himself doesn’t even appear in the final act of the film, in which Daredevil attempts to take down Fisk only to have Fisk escape. Jonathan Rhys-Davies starred as Wilson Fisk, and Marvel superstar creator and editor Stan Lee made what was to be his first of many Marvel movie cameos in this film.
“The Trial of the Incredible Hulk” wasn’t quite as well received as “Return,” however it did still do very well in the ratings. While the planned Daredevil television series, which would have brought back both Smith and Rhys-Davies, never happened the film did do well enough to warrant another sequel the following year.
The final reunion movie in the series was aptly named “The Death of the Incredible Hulk,” and once again Bill Bixby took on director duties on the film. While “Death” featured no guest-starring Marvel characters, it did feature a Russian former KGB assassin named Jasmin who bared a remarkable resemblance to the Black Widow character.
“The Death of the Incredible Hulk” opened with David Banner posing as a mentally deficient janitor at a scientific research laboratory. The head scientist at the laboratory, Dr. Pratt, was working on genetics research which could help Banner finally cure his condition. The Russians, however, have their own plans for the research and send Jasmin to steal it.
Produced in 1990, the film’s Cold War storyline was outdated almost immediately as the Cold War was ending at the same time. Many believe it had already ended when the Berlin Wall fell the year before the movie aired. The Cold War would be officially over the following year with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
There were originally plans for “Death” to feature She-Hulk as a supporting character, with Iron Man being considered for a follow-up. Ultimately, She-Hulk plans were scrapped as a She-Hulk feature film was being planned with Brigitte Nielsen in the starring role. The feature film never happened, nor did a fifth Hulk movie featuring Iron Man.
Being true to its name, the climax of the film featured the Hulk, who had climbed aboard a helicopter being used by the fleeing Soviet spies, causing the helicopter to explode. Hulk survives the explosion but then falls several hundred feet, causing the ground to crater on impact. Jasmin, who had fallen in love with Banner, is by the Hulk’s side as he transforms back into Banner. She tells Banner to hold on, that they can be together and they can be free. With his dying breath Banner looks up and tells her, “I am free.”
While there was a planned fifth movie – titled “Revenge of the Incredible Hulk” – which would have resurrected the Hulk with Banner’s intellectual mind, this never happened and “The Death of the Incredible Hulk” would serve as a fitting end to the Hulk series. Fans who were disappointed in the abrupt cancellation of the television series, never being able to see Banner cure himself of his affliction, finally had closure on the story. “The Death of the Incredible Hulk” saw a tragic end to a tragic story, and that gave “The Incredible Hulk” an almost Shakespearean quality that no comic book property before or since has managed to get.
Although he never did any of his own voice work as the Hulk in his series, Lou Ferrigno would return to the character as a voice in the 1996 animated series as well as every feature film to showcase the character since.
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