Marvel’s First Live-Action Crossover Was Groundbreaking... and Very Silly
Once upon a time, Marvel movies looked like cheap cosplay.
35 years ago, the Hulk crossed paths with Thor for the first time in live-action, marking a landmark moment in superhero history. Not in some big, flashy, Hollywood blockbuster, mind you. Rather humbly, this watershed moment happened in an ‘80s made-for-TV movie.
The cinematic pairing of Hulk and Thor has brought us some truly wonderful moments over the years, between their fight in The Avengers and the duo’s team-up in Thor: Ragnarok. But these two Marvel Comics icons originally met under very different circumstances in 1988’s The Incredible Hulk Returns. It is not exactly packed with thrills, especially compared to what viewers are treated to in modern superhero films. But its significance as the first major Marvel crossover cannot be denied, even if the film itself leaves much to be desired.
CBS and Marvel found success in the late ‘70s with The Incredible Hulk TV show, which starred Bill Bixby as David (not Bruce) Banner, and the muscle-bound Lou Ferrigno as his alter-ego, the Hulk. The show ran for five seasons and gave Marvel an A-list character in media outside of their comics. It looks dated today, but it succeeded because it treated its source material seriously. It ended its run in 1982 but, as is often the case, everything old soon became new again.
NBC teamed up with Marvel for a series of TV movies that served as follow-ups to the show, beginning with The Incredible Hulk Returns. The idea was to have these movies serve as backdoor pilots for other Marvel shows, but while those shows never came to pass, the God of Thunder was the first hero positioned as the next Marvel star to take the spotlight.
Eric Kramer was cast to play Thor, but while the character’s live-action debut was a big deal, he was far removed from the Thor played by Chris Hemsworth in the MCU. Here, he’s summoned by Dr. Donald Blake, a former student of Banner’s. Blake finds Thor’s bones while searching for Norse relics, and becomes bound to him. Now, Blake can summon Thor by holding up the hero’s hammer and yelling, “Odin!” The hammer is hilariously small.
The Incredible Hulk Returns involves Banner trying to cure himself of the beast inside, only to have Thor bring Hulk back out in a big way after Blake tracks him down. Naturally, the heroes duke it out. That fight was the main event, as it was the first live-action clash between two major Marvel superheroes. Bixby’s Banner didn’t really encounter other heroes during his show, so this was something new.
The fight itself is underwhelming, with unexciting editing, unconvincing blows, and little done to demonstrate that we’re watching a literal god and an unkillable monster battle. Thor is personified as a bumbling, fight-happy jerk who loves beer and, after their first duel, the duo team up to save Banner’s new girlfriend from an evil corporate plot. It’s all pretty convoluted, mostly playing like an extended episode of the TV show. “The basic plot defies comprehensible summation,” The New York Times wrote in its review, which sums it up well.
The Incredible Hulk Returns is a relic of its time. It features a cheeseball ‘80s soundtrack, odd choices such as Thor referring to Hulk as a troll, and wildly underpowered versions of these heroes. Thor and Hulk, with their powers combined, fail to take down a single helicopter. It’s all pretty dated, even if Kramer is convincingly cast as Thor.
But this was still a significant moment. These are now towering pop culture figures who have generated billions from movies, merchandise, and theme park attractions. At the time, however, this was merely a decent ratings hit for NBC, one that paved the way for a follow-up, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. That movie featured Daredevil, and also failed to spawn a TV show of its own.
In some ways, the failed strategy employed by Marvel and NBC mirrored what Marvel did decades later with the MCU. Get one hero right, like Hulk or the MCU’s Iron Man, then build a universe around them. It was forward-thinking and demonstrated vision, but the timing just wasn’t right. Even so, this odd little TV movie has its place in superhero history, and an important one at that.