For every one of Unwinnable’s semi-annual (and wonderful) Geek Flea markets, I always go through my DVDs in an effort to purge. Realizing that I barely watch most of them, there’s always a mighty stack of stuff to sort. When I get to the “I”s, my hand always rests on a DVD case with a black and neon green spine. It’s a 2-in-one movie collection that I bought from the $5 bin at Wal-Mart almost ten years ago. It has swallowed many hours of my life.
The movies? The made-for-TV classics The Return of the Incredible Hulk and The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. As a huge fan of The Incredible Hulk TV series growing up, I mostly remember the satisfyingly silly Return for the inclusion of a rather drunk Thor. I have more of a personal connection to The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. I remember watching it when it originally aired on May 7th, 1989, and 9-year old me couldn’t have been more excited by the appearance of Daredevil.
I was just getting into the character’s comics at the time and nothing could have been cooler than seeing a live-action version of him on TV. This was a time when live-action superheroes on any screen were scarce and we were still a month and a half away from Tim Burton’s Batman forever changing the playing field. After Trial aired, various comic book and entertainment publications speculated about how there may be a Daredevil TV series, but it never appeared. Now, 25 years later, we can celebrate the anniversary of The Trial of the Incredible Hulk with the arrival of the new Daredevil Netflix series.
While I gather from the trailers that this will be an origin season for Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk (being Daredevil, the blind lawyer turned vigilante, and Kingpin, his crime boss nemesis, respectively), details are still scarce about what plot lines from the comics the series may dip into. It is a guarantee, though, that this series will be better than whatever was being cooked up in 1989, even though the modern Daredevil costume bears more than a passing resemblance to the black ninja costume old hornhead wore in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.
Daredevil is a character with a rich history. Some of the best writers and artists in the comic biz have put him through the ringer in countless epic story arcs. Ever time, he overcome the most impossible of odds (not the least of which is coming back to any kind of screen after the lackluster Ben Affleck movie). That said, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk has some issues.
It opens with the late, great Bill Bixby as David Bruce Banner (the TV show producers were not into Stan Lee’s alliterative naming style) digging some ditches and earning some drifter cash. When asked by the woman who’s paying him where he’s going he says the city. Which city? Obviously Vancouver, a magical city where many movies and TV shows are shot on the cheap.
We’re introduced to Rex Smith as Matt Murdock and John Rhys-Davies as Wilson Fisk and the movie makes swift work connecting everybody. Matt Murdock in Canada is an odd choice, since the comic character is so deeply intertwined with New York City and Hell’s Kitchen. The cheaper rent must be working out for him, though, as his lawyer salary affords him a spacious pad in the Couve. Despite the nice digs, Murdock wants nothing more than to bring down the villainous Fisk, whose reign of terror is paralyzing the city.
After a bank robbery, two of Fisk’s thugs end up on a subway car with a woman named Ellie Mendez (Marta Dubois) and a timid bearded man who is obviously Banner. When one of the thugs gets touchy-feely with Mendez, Banner intervenes and Hulks out. Enjoy the Lou Ferrigno while it lasts, as this is one of only three and a half appearances by the Hulk in this movie that’s supposedly about the Incredible Hulk. At least we’ve got Daredevil, right? Or at least an approximation of him.
Banner is charged with attempted murder and winds up in jail. Murdock is representing him in court, as he recognizes that there may be a connection to Fisk. One thing this movie gets right is Wilson Fisk’s drive to erase Mendez and Banner, he leverages his many connections throughout the city to attempt to murder them. What it doesn’t get right are simple things like Murdock’s two coworkers not being named Karen Page and Foggy Nelson, or the fact that the Kingpin is never called the Kingpin and basically is just John Rhys-Davies in ridiculous, gigantic sunglasses.
Daredevil’s costume lacks the two D’s on his chest. For some reason in the late ‘80s, people adapting Marvel movies didn’t like to put trademark symbols onto the superheroes’ costumes. Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher would have been a notch higher in my book had they just given Dolph a shirt with a skull on it, but I digress.
Long summary short, the trial mentioned in the title never actually happens. Banner dreams about it, and the Hulk gets to trash a courtroom in all his purple pantsed glory. Stan Lee serves on the jury in his first of many cameo appearances in Marvel-related movies and TV shows. Banner wakes up and Hulks his way out of jail in a very brief budget-cutting sequence. Daredevil and Banner team up and ultimately take down Wilson Fisk and rescue Mendez. It takes two tries though, as Daredevil gets beaten up way too easily, forcing Banner to transform into the Hulk to make their escape.
The second time around, Daredevil and Banner break into Fisk’s skyscraper HQ and that seems to do the trick. There are some clumsily choreographed fight scenes and a hilarious escape by Fisk in a very slow moving hovercraft. It ends with the heroes shaking hands and that familiar piano music as Banner walks on the highway out of the city.
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is still pretty entertaining. As a kid, it was amazing seeing the costumed Daredevil taking out criminals and, even now, a number of scenes still work. I forgot that there’s even a scene where Daredevil shakes down Turk, a stoolie who appears in the comics as well. More than anything, though, this Daredevil is established as a presence in his city, which is exactly how it should be.
One nice thing about it taking 25 years for Daredevil to be picked up as a series is that things have changed in how comics are adapted to TV and the movies. The movies put out by Marvel Studios are careful about the details and many shows prove that kick ass vigilante fight choreography can be done on a TV budget. That attention to detail ensures that Foggy Nelson will be Murdoch’s partner and Karen Page will be his secretary. Just using those names means a lot.
Gladiator and Turk will be roaming the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. The Kingpin will be a large, intimidating bald guy played by the great D’Onofrio, who may even wear white and purple suits every once in a while. And while Rosario Dawson is going to play Claire Temple, I still am holding out hope for a twist involving her being Typhoid Mary (Night Nurse is cool, too, though).
If there’s any superhero who is tailor-made for TV, it’s a lawyer superhero like Matt Murdock. With 50 years of comics there’s plenty of stories to mine – judging from the trailer, we’re probably in for a partial adaptation of the Man Without Fear miniseries – but I would like to eventually see a story that pays tribute to The Trial of the Incredible Hulk that has Matt Murdock represent Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner in court.
Re-watching The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (which I still own – I just can’t part with it), you see so many examples of how far we’ve come in adapting comic books to TV and film. What’s most exciting isn’t where we are now, but the fact that there’s so much farther we can go.