A follow-up to the successful 1988 TV Movie ‘The Incredible Hulk Returns,’ ‘The Trial of the Incredible Hulk’ attempted to spawn a spin-off of another celebrated Marvel Comics hero, Daredevil. Utilizing the somewhat celebrity status of heart throb Rex Smith (of Street Hawk fame), there were plans aplenty for a Daredevil TV series that would shortly follow. As a devoted fan of old horn-head, my heart was a-flutter with visions of a DD-themed TV series. Many fans of the comic book felt that it read like a TV program in the first place and would be an easy adaptation from page to screen.
The story opens with a bearded grizzled Banner working as a farm hand. After getting cajoled into a scrap by a fellow worker, he decides to move on, fearful that he may Hulk-out and cause trouble for the nice lady running the place. He makes tracks for the big city which he is told is a bad idea but he is hoping to lose himself in the transient part of town. As it happens, he stumbles into some trouble.
Two hoods flee a well orchestrated crime for the subway (??) and cause mayhem in short order coming on to a lady with big hair and an old guy who looks like Santa Claus (takes all kinds). Banner is pushed around, Hulks out and in the tussle a stray bullet strikes an innocent bystander. Banner is arrested and charged with assault and murder by the very woman (henceforth called ‘the Mendez Woman’) he had tried to help. The reason is that she was threatened by a powerful mob boss who rules the city called Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin. His only opposition is a Police Chief who cannot be bought and a stubborn public defender who believes in truth and justice , Matt Murdock.
Murdock is convinced that Banner is innocent though he refuses to offer any information and prefers to accept his fate in prison where he presumes he will be safe (this was before programs like Oz were on TV). Murdock knows that Banner is not a killer because of a gift that he has, heightened senses. He tried to help the Mendez Woman as well but he is blocked by a combination of her fear and the Kingpin’s influence over the entire city, creating a wall of force around her. Donning a pair of what appears to black danskins with red spangly accents, Murdock goes into action as Daredevil.
As Matt Murdock, he has an ideal chance to catch Fisk and expose him for the criminal spider that he is, but he is prevented by Banner’s reluctance to get involved. As Daredevil he can strike back at Fisk’s several criminal endeavors and keep the streets safe, but it’s an impossible battle that he can never hope to win. The key to turning the tables lies in the mysterious David Banner who can identify that it was Fisk’s men who attacked the Mendez Woman and killed the bystander. Daredevil could also use the raw power that Banner’s alter-ego possesses as the Hulk.
It’s Marvel Team-Up time.
As Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Rex Smith made a lot of sense at the time. Looking back now and he is clearly a teenage heart throb posing as an actor. It’s not a bad performance, but he is a bit too soft and sincere in his devotion to justice. To make this complete John Rhys Davies as the Kingpin is downright hilarious, spouting his dialog in baritone Shakespearean speeches that belong on the stage. He comes off as a fairly flamboyant businessman rather than a dangerous criminal mastermind. He even shows genuine concern for his twitchy assistant, insisting that he get a full 7 hours of sleep. I’m not sure how that’s intended to be a sinister intent… he sounds like a lovely boss!
I mentioned earlier that I was a big fan of Daredevil at the time (still am) and how much I was looking forward to this TV movie.
Introduced to Daredevil by reading my older brother’s collection, I was familiar with the noir-ish Frank Miller run with its labyrinthine cityscapes and grim characters. The TV movie sorta tries to replicate this in a city that is about the size of Raleigh (small) and depicts Daredevil as a hero who clambers about the rooftops of suburban dwellings before no doubt taking the reliable subway system. We are given a crew of background characters such as the staff of Murdock’s legal practice and even the street hood known as Turk, giving the TV movie a strong ‘pilot’ feel to it.
Bixby generously gives large portions of the TV movie to Smith to bring some depth to his character and the two actors work against each other quite well. Again, Bixby seems to be seething with rage and anxiety wjile in contrast Smith is a well of compassion and bravery. It’s a superb blend. Smith definitely takes over as the lead in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, however, which feels odd but by the same token Bixby gets some incredible dramatic scenes.
For all of its flaws, this movie works far better than the 1988 experiment. Taking just the right amount of comic book ideas and just the right portions of TV action/adventure, a Daredevil series based on this pitch could easily have worked at the time. The writing is a bit odd with Murdock’s flashback to the exposure of the corruption of the police force that drove him to become Daredevil one of the hallmarks of hilarity.
As an added bonus, a documentary is included on Lou Ferrigno’s return to competitive weight lifting entitled ‘Stand Tall,’ a kind of updated version of ‘Pumping Iron.’ I have never had any interest in weight lifting but Ferrigno’s personality really pulled me through the short film.
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is far from a high quality production but honestly I was surprised on a recent viewing to find that it was entertaining in its own right. Set your sights in the right order and this DVD is a fun night in. It’s at least better than the 2003 Daredevil movie!
There was talk of a Spider-Man team-up, a guest-spot from She-Hulk and even a made-for-TV Iron Man that was very exciting but neither came to pass. Even though the movie touted the death of the Hulk, there were numerous plans to keep the TV movies going from a son of Hulk ideas to a Smart Hulk who had Banner’s mind. The final Hulk TV movie featured a ‘new character’ named Jasmin was introduced for what would be Bixby and Ferrigno’s final outing as the Banner/Hulk duo. Bixby’s steady decline in health and eventual passing in 1993 ended any further films but he had made a definite landmark in TV programming, influencing young writers, actors and artists to pursue their craft.
After two modern feature films and an upcoming Hulk in the Avengers and possibly on TV, there will always be the inevitable comparison to the Bixby/Ferrigno version and for good reason. It wasn’t always perfect, but when it worked it was a wonderful marriage of TV and comic book that we’ll never likely see again. I’m not saying that no one should try to top it or do their own version, but the bar is set pretty high.