Marvel In The 80's: More INCREDIBLE HULK

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Marvel In The 80's: More INCREDIBLE HULK
[Over the next several weeks, Comics Bulletin will be teaming up with ScreenAnarchy to explore the world of Marvel Comics film adaptations in a series of essays from some of our best writers. We'll begin with Marvel's early efforts in the '70s, '80s and '90s before moving on to the more modern era of adaptations that Blade heralded. These essays will cover the ground of some of Marvel's most obscure adaptations and shine a light on how far comic adaptations as a whole have come in that time, as well as showcasing some of the value that can still be found in these early explorations. This installment by Paul Brian McCoy.]

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 Superhero concepts in that time. Neither Marvel nor DC had any live-action presence, and no original concepts had lasted more than a season.

In fact, in the 1987-88 season, sitcoms were the top rated shows on the air, with most hour long adventure/dramas spiraling out of the top twenty, already canceled or in their death throes.

I can only assume that because of this, Bill Bixby felt there was a void to be filled by a return of the Hulk. His production company, Bixby-Brandon Productions, branched out and introduced new characters to the Hulk Universe with a series of TV movies, this time for NBC, expanding Marvel's entries in the live-action world.

The first attempt would be the Sunday May 22, 1988 premiere of The Incredible Hulk Returns, with direction credited to writer Nicholas Corea (but Bixby serving as uncredited director), which introduced Thor.

Oddly enough, NBC avoided nearly all mention of the guest-stars in the trailers, even though they were featured in most of the lead-up promotional materials.

Thor seemed workable on the surface, as the character shares the similar dynamic of the already-proven Hulk concept: splitting the main character into two identities played by two actors. In fact, it seems like it could be even more successful since Thor actually has a personality and wouldn't be required to appear only as a problem solving deus ex machina.

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, this Donald Blake is a screw-up who signed on as the team doctor for an amateur archaeological group, and then finds the tomb of a skeletal warrior buried along with his magic hammer.

It's an interesting twist, however, and while Blake and Thor both exist at the same time, interacting and working together to fight crime, Blake has dominance over Thor, having been "chosen" by Odin to guide Thor from arrogance to nobility. This provides for an interesting character dynamic as Blake learns responsibility on a parallel track with Thor's heroic quest.

Though there's not a lot to this story, the moments that shine are actually dramatic moments between Steve Levitt's Blake and Eric Kramer's 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 disembodied spirit waiting to be summoned into flesh. And it's hard not to like a guy whose list of needs includes beer, food, women to laugh with, and men to fight. He's just a big lovable Viking goof.

Add to that a little 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.

Unfortunately, it wasn't enough and a series was not to be.

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 on May 7, 1989, with another backdoor pilot, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. This time Bixby introduced Daredevil to TV viewers.

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 attention to more realistic action probably played a part in choosing this direction after the more magical approach had failed with Thor.

Interestingly, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is the most faithful of the TV movies to the comics when it comes to establishing the origin of Daredevil and his antagonistic relationship with the Kingpin.

Matt Murdock, played by Rex Smith, is a boxer's son who lost his sight as a boy, while 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 by day, determined to bring down crime lord Wilson Fisk (John Rhys-Davies). Daredevil even intimidates information from a local hood named Turk in a shout-out to Miller's comics.

Nearly the entire film is focused on the conflict between Daredevil and Fisk, with Banner and the Hulk relegated to minor roles. This allows 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. Bill Bixby also works behind the scenes as the film's director and does a solid, if unremarkable, job.

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. 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.

Visually and stylistically, though, the conclusion is a complete failure as the film veers into science fiction, with Fisk and his Second-in-Command flying away in a weird sci-fi car that allows the Kingpin to return as the central villain when the show gets picked up as a series.

Except, of course, it didn't get picked up.

There's a pretty fully realized world at work here, with the history between Fisk and Daredevil, as well as with the integration of all the supporting characters. This helps to make the new narrative approach more effective, but sadly, Lou Ferrigno didn't even make an appearance in the final quarter of the film, allowing Rex Smith to take center stage completely. And that was a mistake.

This effectively eclipses the title characters, the characters people tuned in to see, and while it feels like a Daredevil pilot instead of a new Incredible Hulk TV film, this shift from the expected narrative may have pushed some viewers away. Especially given how little screen time Banner and Hulk actually got when everything was said and done.

By Paul Brian McCoy
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