Blind lawyer Matt Murdock first made his debut in Daredevil #1 in April of 1964 and was co-created by writer/editor Stan Lee and artist Bill Everett, with input from the legendary Jack Kirby. While perhaps not as mainstream as characters like Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Daredevil has become one of Marvel Comics’ greatest creations and has featured in a number of ancillary media and merchandise, included a questionably-received big-screen adaptation in 2003 and a critically-successful Netflix series. Still, he’s one of my favourite Marvel superheroes so what better excuse to pay homage to the “Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” than by spending the day celebrating the character?
Released: 7 May 1989
Director: Bill Bixby
Distributor: New World International
Stars: Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Rex Smith, Marta DuBois, Nicholas Hormann, and John Rhys-Davies
Back on the run and having lost all hope for a cure for his green-skinned alter-ego, Doctor David Banner (Bixby) wanders into a city under the control of crime boss Wilson Fisk (Rhys-Davis). After witnessing Fisk’s men accost Ellie Mendez (DuBois) on the subway, Banner transforms into the Hulk (Ferrigno), framed for the crime, and subsequently arrested. Refusing to stand trial lest the Hulk be unleashed, he offers no co-operation to his blind lawyer, Matt Murdock (Smith), but the two find themselves teaming up against Fisk when Murdock is revealed to be the masked crimefighter known as Daredevil.
I’ve mentioned it at length before but, long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) dominated cinema screens, Marvel Comics had a decent amount of success with live-action adaptations thanks to the iconic Incredible Hulk television series (1977 to 1982). The show, which coined the unforgettable line “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”, ran for eighty episodes before finally coming to an end on 12 May 1982 and firmly entrenched the Green Goliath in the cultural consciousness thanks to standout performances by stars Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, who would go on to voice the character for years to come. About six years after the end of the series, the first of three made-for-television movies was produced; although intended as a backdoor pilot for a Thor (Eric Kramer) spin-off, The Incredible Hulk Returns (Corea, 1988) was, apparently, a ratings success and a second feature-length film was produced to capitalise on the renewed interest. The Trial of the Incredible Hulk was one of my first exposures to the Incredible Hulk show; like The Incredible Hulk Returns, the feature debuted another Marvel superhero, Daredevil, in the hopes of producing a spin-off that never came to pass and also featured Stan Lee’s first ever onscreen cameo in a Marvel production. Overall, though, the film seems to have garnered mixed reviews, with the general consensus being that it didn’t quite deliver on its title or premise.
Rather than open with a version of the traditional, iconic opening from the television show, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk begins with a morose narration from David Banner (now using the pseudonym “David Belson”), who catches any newcomers up to speed with his current predicament (literally just a case of, “Gamma Rays turned me into a monster” with a few shots from the pilot episode). We then join Banner, now sporting a thick head of hair and full beard, working a demeaning job digging a trench or a ditch or some such. When a co-worker attempts to rile him up and Banner is barely able to keep his anger in check, he once again regretfully hits the road and heads towards the city, despite warnings that he could “get lost there”.
Haunted by his many years on the road and inability to cure his unique condition, Banner remains a lost, tortured soul who drifts from place to place and job to job, refusing to put down any roots and to keep himself to himself and on the move. Despite this, however, he is unable to stand idly by when Ellie Mendez is hounded by a couple of goons on the subway; for his troubles, not only does he transform into the Hulk once more but he also winds up in jail and accused of attacking the woman. Although he knows he is innocent, he adamantly refuses to stand trial out of fear of the damage he might do lest the stress trigger another transformation, and feels that prison is a fitting place for him. The city (which, despite never being named, appears to be New York City) is a bustling metropolis and home to blind lawyer Matt Murdock, a seemingly unassuming man who regularly makes light of his condition with his co-workers. He also has a friendly banter with his staff, Christa Klein (Nancy Everhard) and Al Pettiman (Richard Cummings Jr.), whom he wows with his enhanced senses (which they put down to him making wild, if uncannily accurate, guesses). At the heart of the city is Fisk Tower, a large and ominous structure that dominates the city skyline, and Matt has made it his solemn vow to tear the building down, and Fisk with it, once they have concrete proof that he is involved in the city’s underworld.
Matt’s suspicions about Fisk are entirely well-founded as the criminal mastermind directs, via radio and video, two of his henchmen in the systematic robbery of a jewellery store. An enigmatic and authoritative figure, Fisk conducts all of his business with precision and immaculate detail, directing every movement and having the entire operation planned to the smallest detail. Untouchable and in full control of the criminal underworld. Fisk’s operation is put at risk when his goons accost Ellie on the subway; when Banner gets involved in the matter, Fisk begins targeting them both in order to avoid linking him to the crime. When Matt is appointed as Banner’s lawyer, he sees this as the perfect opportunity to get a lead on Fisk and is confused and angered at Banner’s unwillingness to co-operate and refusal to divulge his true name and origins. When the stress of an impending trial, Ellie lying about the subway attack (due to Fisk threatening her with reprisals), and his position in general trigger a transformation, Banner is convinced to trust Murdock when the lawyer reveals his duel identity as the masked vigilante Daredevil. Although Banner has reached the end of his rope and lost all faith in the science that was once his life, he finds himself reinvigorated by Murdock’s plight since he was transformed by the better by radioactive substances and he leaves the film far more optimistic and content to have a “brother in the world”.
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is a relatively inoffensive little extension of the television show but nothing massively spectacular, though I never really watched the show as a kid as it wasn’t really on TV over here in the United Kingdom, as far as I am aware. As a result, I remember being somewhat impressed with the film back then since it wasn’t as if live-action superhero productions were as accessible as they are today. Even now, it’s still pretty entertaining; sure, it doesn’t deliver on its premise at all (the “trial” only happens in a nightmare of Banner’s and seems to refer more to the emotional trial that Banner is going through) but it’s an interesting time capsule of a bygone era when live-action superhero adaptations were certainly ambitious, if nothing else.
As is the case with much of the Incredible Hulk TV show, the Hulk himself is unquestionably the star of the film. Sadly, he gets very little screen time; Banner doesn’t even transform into the Hulk for the finale but, when he does turn green, it’s treated as a pretty big deal. This is, however, par for the course for The Incredible Hulk; the episodes I have seen generally focus much more on the drama surrounding Banner, the people he meets, and his weekly attempts to find a cure for himself or help those in need and the Hulk appears very sporadically as a result. While the Hulk’s rampage in Banner’s nightmare is a standout moment in the film, and is a great showcase of the Hulk raging against a room full of people for a change, it’s still just a dream sequence. Luckily, there’s a particularly decent follow-up scene later on when, having witnessed Daredevil be pummelled by Fisk’s men, Banner transforms to save him and, in the process, forms a kinship with the blind crimefighter.
This, coincidentally, brings me on to the subject of Daredevil; Daredevil’s presence is hinted at early in the film as graffiti carrying his name adorns the walls of the city and the film spends a great deal of time setting up Murdock’s day-to-day life, introducing his enhanced senses (although the depiction of his radar sense is a bit questionable), and making him a prominent figure all before he first appears in an all-black ninja outfit to save Ellie’s life. Despite the fact that his outfit is disappointingly barebones, I appreciate that Daredevil is sporting a look straight out of “The Man Without Fear” (Miller, et al, 1993), one of the first Daredevil stories I ever read. Daredevil is something of an urban legend in the film but he is also unofficially sanctioned by police chief Albert G. Tendelli (Joseph Mascolo), who even has a direct line to contact Daredevil when he needs help outside of the normal confines of the law, and allies like Turk (Mark Acheson) to feed him leads. Rex Smith may not always be performing Daredevil’s few limited fight scenes or acrobatic feats (which are incredibly limited) but he does a decent enough job in the role; while the film alters his origin somewhat to have him begin his training as Daredevil as an adult and after being inspired by Tendelli, he undergoes a trial of his own when Fisk’s men put a severe beating on him and leave him feeling humiliated.
Undeniably, though, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is elevated by the presence of the bombastic and alluring John Rhys-Davies; despite never using the name “Kingpin”, Rhys-Davies is perfectly cast as Fisk and brings just the right level of authority and scene-stealing charisma to the role to make him larger than life but also threatening. Even better, he’s not just some one-dimensional gangster, either; he’s incredibly lenient with his right-hand man, Edgar (Hormann), even when he has a change of heart and helps Ellie escape from Fisk’s captivity. At the same time, though, Fisk is absolutely ruthless; having grown weary of Daredevil’s interference and wishing to consolidate his power over the city’s underworld, he presents his rivals not just with a number of jewels but also video evidence of Daredevil’s beating. While he fully believes that this has resulted in Daredevil’s demise, his plans are ultimately ruined when Banner and Daredevil crash the party and force Fisk to flee to fight another day.
In many ways, it’s a bit of a shame that The Trial of the Incredible Hulk didn’t lead to a spin-off for Daredevil; even back then, a TV show about a black-suited vigilante had to have cost less to make than one about a scientist who turns into a musclebound strongman. However, I can kind of see why a Daredevil spin-off wasn’t produced; as much as I enjoy the character, his portrayal in the film, and the magnetic presence of John Rhys-Davies, Murdock and Daredevil are nowhere near as compelling or visually interesting as the Hulk. It’s equally a shame, then, that the Hulk has such limited screen time in the film but I can forgive a lot of that as, again, the main focus of the show was always the drama surrounding Banner and the film does a serviceable job of trying to introduce Daredevil and make us care about him. Ultimately, while it’s probably the most boring interpretation of Daredevil you’ll see, I can’t help but have a soft spot for The Trial of the Incredible Hulk; it was my introduction to the TV show and a vital part of my childhood so I have a lot of nostalgic affection for it and it’s worth watching for John Rhys-Davies’ performance alone, to say nothing of the dramatic allegorical and physical trial that Banner and Murdock, respectively, endure in the film.
Could Be Better
Have you ever seen The Trial of the Incredible Hulk? If so, what did you think to it and its portrayal of Daredevil? Were you a fan of the Incredible Hulk TV show back in the day and what did you think to the feature-length films? Do you think including other Marvel Comics characters benefitted these films or do you think they took the focus away from the Banner/Hulk conflict that made the show so memorable? What do you think of Daredevil as a character and which storyline of his do you think is the best, or the worst? How are you celebrating Daredevil’s debut this year? Whatever you think about Daredevil, drop a comment below.
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