Scientist David Banyon (Bill Bixby) has a secret. His real name is David Banner and he has spent the last ten years in hiding, traveling up and down the highway and searching for a cure to a very strange condition. As the result of getting dosed with gamma rays, David Banner sometimes transforms into an angry green monster known as the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno). The world believes that David Banner is dead and Banner must let them continue to believe that until he can find a cure for the monster within.
The Incredible Hulk Returns is a continuation of the old Incredible Hulk television series, which was the first (and, until the MCU came along, only) successful attempt to build a live action show around a Marvel super hero. Premiering in 1978, The Incredible Hulk ran for 5 seasons and got good ratings and, for a comic book series, surprisingly decent reviews. However, it was also expensive to produce and it was abruptly cancelled in 1982, before the show got a chance to wrap up David’s story. When The Incredible Hulk ended, David Banner was still alone and hitchhiking from town to town. Six years later, The Incredible Hulk Returns caught up with David and tried to sell viewers on a “new” Marvel hero as well.
David “Banyon” is now living in California and working at the Joshua-Lambert Research Institute. It’s been two years since he last turned into the Hulk. He controls his rage by being careful not to get involved in any dangerous situations. He also has a girlfriend, Dr. Maggie Shaw (Lee Purcell). David is designing the Gamma Transponder, which he thinks will cure him of his condition. Life’s good until Donald Blake (Steve Levitt) shows up.
A student of Banner’s, Blake recognizes his former teacher and approaches him with a crazy story. When Blake was in Norway, he stumbled across a tomb that contained a hammer that contained the spirit of Thor, a Viking warrior who was banished to Earth by Odin. To prove that he’s telling the truth, Blake commands Thor to emerge from the hammer. When Thor (played by Eric Kramer) does, he makes such a mess in the laboratory that David transforms into the Hulk.
Thor is not Banner’s only problem. Jack LeBeau (Tim Thomerson!) and Mike Fouche (Charles Napier!!) want to steal the Gamma Transponder and turn it into a weapon. Also, reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin) s back in town and still obsessed with proving that the Hulk exists.
The Incredible Hulk Returns may be a continuation of David Banner’s story but the main reason it was filmed was so it could serve as a backdoor pilot for a Thor television series. The Thor TV series never happened and, for those who are used to Chris Hemsworth’s comedic take on Thor, it’s jarring to see Eric Kramer playing the role like a third-tier professional wrestler. For fans of The Incredible Hulk TV series, it’s even more jarring to see the Hulk fighting alongside a viking. Unlike the comic book, the TV series usually tried to ground its stories in reality, with Banner’s transformations into the Hulk serving as the show’s only concession to its comic book origins. The villains played by Thomerson and Napier both seem like typical bad guys from the show’s heyday but Thor just doesn’t belong. Fans of the show will resent Thor taking the spotlight away from David Banner and the Hulk while fans of Thor will notice that this version of Thor is apparently not the god of thunder but instead just an egotistical viking who got on Odin’s nerves.
Bill Bixby was always The Incredible Hulk‘s not-so-secret weapon, taking and playing his role very seriously. He continues to do that in The Incredible Hulk Returns but how seriously can anyone come across when they’re speaking to Thor? By the end of the movie, Thor and Blake head off on their own adventures while Banner resumes hitchhiking. Thor and Blake would not be seen again but David Banner’s adventures would continue in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.