This week Incredible Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo confirmed that he’ll be co-starring in the upcoming film Thor: Ragnarok, currently slated for release in July 2017.
For those of us who loved superhero television in the 80s, this brings to mind an earlier team-up between Thor and the Hulk, a television movie called The Incredible Hulk Returns released in 1988. That film, a follow-up to the beloved Incredible Hulk television series starring Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner and Lou Ferrigno as his alter ego, the Incredible Hulk, featured the introduction of Thor as a new character into the Hulk’s crazy universe of science, anger, and destruction. It was one of my earliest experiences seeing Thor outside of a book and helped associate him with that Incredible Hulk series, one of my earliest and favorite experiences of superheroes, a storytelling archetype that continues to appeal strongly to me well into adulthood.
The Incredible Hulk ran from 1977 to 1982 and tells the story of David Bruce Banner, a scientist who experimented on himself and who was then transformed into a massive green monster every time he lost control of his anger (tag line: “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”). In the original Incredible Hulk comics, Banner is simply named Bruce, and gains his angry alter ego as the result of a nuclear weapons experiment gone wrong. As the television series unfolds, the destruction the Hulk alter ego unleashes forces Banner to fake his own death, flee his former life, and find sanctuary in the kindness of strangers and public services, all while trying to use his knowledge of the “gamma ray” experiment that caused his condition to cure him of it forever.
The Hulk character, both in the comics and in the television series, is a variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the eponymous, even-tempered doctor, allegedly sharing a home with the evil and ill-intentioned Mr. Hyde, is found to actually be both persons, transforming into Mr. Hyde by means of a potion. Stevenson was fascinated by the concept of split personalities, and even though Jekyll and Hyde had different appearances to observers, they occupied the same body. This overlap between the two personas shows not only the trouble a person might have if forced to deal with a mental disorder such as dissociative identity disorder, but perhaps more universally, allows us to see insight into our own inner struggles. The Banner and Hulk also show us how we are always teetering on the edge of succumbing to our most base instincts, and anger can be the beginning of a too-easy slide into complete incivility, brutishness, and even wanton destruction.
As The Incredible Hulk Returns opens, over two years have passed in the show’s time since David Banner has become angry enough for the Hulk to be unleashed. He has taken on the name David Bannion, is in a stable long-term relationship with scientist Maggie Shaw, and has spent this period working on a “gamma transponder” filled with sciency gobbledygook, which Banner has secretly built to perform a function far more personal than its publicly stated goals: it will cure his cells of the gamma radiation poisoning that created the Incredible Hulk.
The day of the transponder’s unveiling to the public, David takes the opportunity to finally engage the parts of the device designed to reverse his condition, taking the time after the unveiling when the crowds have gone as the quiet period he needs to do his research in peace. But just as the device is about to either remove the Hulk from Banner or perhaps take Banner down another winding road of despair, a man in the shadows stops the device countdown – Dr. Donald Blake.
In the Marvel Comics, Dr. Donald Blake is the alter ego of Thor, a human construct created by Odin to house Thor while he serves a sentence of exile for being unworthy of his role in Asgardian society as heir to Odin’s throne. Blake stumbles across Thor’s hammer Mjölnir in a cave while vacationing in Norway and suddenly has access to the ability to transform into Thor by use of the hammer, which only he – or someone worthy to lift it – can use to access Thor’s power.
In The Incredible Hulk Returns, Blake (Steven Levitt) is a physician on an archaeological expedition to the far north of Scandinavia, the specific site of which is never clearly revealed. This Blake is drawn to a cave and finds an ancient stone casket with a long-dead warrior-king inside, and at his side lies “a Norse war hammer” which Blake soon discovers awakens the warrior, Thor (Eric Kramer). Blake is then able to call the warrior forth from… somewhere, on command, and send him back to… that place, when his services are no longer needed, and Thor encourages Blake to send him on heroic quests so that he will once again be worthy in Odin’s eyes to enter Valhalla. In explaining this story to David Banner, a man he met many years ago, Blake has Banner lift the hammer – no worthiness enchantment – and Blake calls Thor forth to prove his story’s truth.
However, Thor had been led to believe that Banner would be a great scientist who would be able to help Thor and Blake separate themselves from the hammer (the name Mjölnir is not mentioned). Frustrated by Banner’s discomfort with the whole situation, he taunts Banner and goads him, eventually shoving him into some of the equipment in the lab.
Banner transforms into the Hulk.
The morning after the ensuing battle, the team-up between Thor and the Hulk begins, as a conspiracy is afoot at the Joshua-Lambert Institute where Banner created his gamma transponder device to steal the device and kidnap banner for vague, nefarious purposes. While the Hulk and Thor are able to fight off various nameless thugs, they are unable to prevent the kidnapping of Banner/Bannion’s companion, Dr. Maggie Shaw. Eventually the team of Banner, Blake, and Thor succeed in rescuing Shaw. Thor and Blake, still bound by their relationship to the hammer, have become closer allies; Banner, as is always the case is forced to move on, walking off on his own to find his next home.
Whether Thor is represented well here is up to the interpretation of the viewer. Norse/Viking/Germanic culture is not authentically recreated by the production team, but then again, only hints of the Marvel Comics version of Thor appear in this film – it’s not entirely clear what exactly the producers were attempting with their interpretation of Thor. He is clearly not a god, and only the merest hint of the idea of gods is represented here; he’s barely even a superhero, as he seems only to know that he’s supposed to do good deeds but not really know what that means. And the association with Donald Blake, so key to the early versions of Thor, showing him humility and giving him a clear connection to humanity, seems more obviously a prison for Thor, where Blake is the jailer who decides when and if Thor can come out to play.
But in the end, this was a satisfying story for a boy who loved The Incredible Hulk, with action, adventure, and a new hero who expanded the story of the Hulk in a whole new direction, with magic and romance and thunder and lightning. It was a ratings success, but The Incredible Hulk Returns did not result in a series order for Thor. Perhaps that was the better result. We didn’t get NBC’s strange warrior-king Thor, and instead years later were lucky enough to get the far superior Thor of Kenneth Branagh’s imagination.
Whether Thor’s team-up with the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok turns out to serve either character remains to be seen. But hopefully, we’ll get at least one battle like the one in the Gamma Transponder Lab, and maybe one or two where they beat up some bad guys, too. I’m looking forward to it.