As we’re but a couple of weeks away from the upcoming Daredevil series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe dropping on Netflix, we wanted to revisit the first time the character appeared in live-action. No, we’re not talking about the flawed Ben Affleck-fronted feature film from 2004. We’re reaching back 15 years earlier to May 1989.
It’s a Sunday night, and NBC is airing The Trial of the Incredible Hulk…
Though there was some unintended kitsch by the era and the technical and budgetary restrictions of television at the time, there’s no doubt that The Incredible Hulk series that ran on CBS from 1978-1982 is one of the seminal works in live-action superherodom. Much like Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, the series approached the material with an honesty and truthfulness that lent more to human drama than costumed heroics.
In fact, one of the big mantras of the series’ production was to never use the term “comic book.” While it’s certainly been proved in modern times that such a thing isn’t derogatory, this was actually an ethos that helped to make the series so enduring.
Universal Television acquired the rights to five Marvel properties in the mid-’70s and prolific writer/director/producer Kenneth Johnson (Bionic Woman, V) was approached to choose one of them to develop. He laughed at the suggestion, not being able to wrap his head around doing a superhero project. Yet, his wife convinced him not only to reconsider but that he could, perhaps, use other influences to make a story more to his liking.
At the time, Johnson was reading Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables, and the premise of a man spending his life on the run while another man doggedly pursues him sparked an idea for the Hulk property. That, coupled with the well-known tale of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, got Johnson very excited for the project. He ended up making his main character, David Banner, a medical research doctor rather than the nuclear physicist of the comics as a tribute to the Jekyll story. He wasn’t able, however, to convince everyone to make the Hulk red, the color of anger, though.
When he went searching for a lead actor, his first choice was Bill Bixby. He wanted someone whom audiences trusted and could believably bring the drama to life to sell the more fantastical elements of the show. Bixby, of course, scoffed at the title when first presented with it, but his agent convinced him to give the pilot script a read anyway. Bixby immediately got what Johnson was trying to do and became just as big a champion for the series as its creator.
This enthusiasm was matched by a young bodybuilding phenom who was suggested to Johnson by Arnold Schwarzenegger after he turned down the part of the monstrous Hulk due to his commitment on a tiny film called Conan the Barbarian. Johnson was hesitant to cast Lou Ferrigno in the part because of his lack of acting experience. They first went with Richard Kiel, the gargantuan actor best known as Jaws from the James Bond franchise, but quickly realized his height worked but his lack of body mass didn’t. Ferrigno got the nod and approached it with the zeal and wonder of only an appreciative neophyte.
The show was unceremoniously cancelled just prior to the start of its fifth season, much to the surprise of the cast and crew. It aired primarily on Fridays and had managed to pull in good ratings despite the perception of the night being a “death slot.” They had completed seven episodes of the fifth season, which all ended up airing, but weren’t allowed to film any more to offer some kind of conclusion to Banner’s story for the audience.
Six years later, fans of the series were given a chance to quell their completion jones. The narrative was resurrected with a number of television movies that aired on NBC rather than CBS. Five movies in total were planned. While two were ratings successes, the third film, The Death of the Incredible Hulk, did poorly and effectively cancelled the other two projects.
Oddly, Kenneth Johnson was not asked to participate in the revival movies. He would likely have objected to the other intended use of their existence. While a bit of fanservice was certainly on hand, a big reason for the movies was the opportunity to potentially launch other series based on Marvel characters. The show had strenuously worked to avoid being associated with comic books, but the movies now found themselves leaning far heavier on the comics to provide these backdoor pilots.
To a degree, it’s a bit surprising that Bixby had agreed to such a thing himself. In fact, when he signed on to the series, he’d told Johnson he’d be on the show as long as Johnson was on the show. Bixby ended up exec producing the three revivals, and directed the last two, including The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.
The title is a bit of a misnomer. The suggestion was that Banner was going to be caught and placed on trial for some crime, something that held the potential for him to “Hulk out” in the middle of the courtroom. Sadly, this occurs in the movie only as a dream sequence.
(That dream sequence is notable, though, for featuring the first cameo by Stan “the Man” Lee in a live-action Marvel adaptation. He appears as one of the jurors. It’s also the first and only time Lou Ferrigno wore the Hulk’s signature purple pants on-screen.)
Banner is, indeed, arrested for an act of the Hulk, though he’s wrongly accused of attacking a woman on a subway when he was actually helping save her from an assault by two goons. The two goons were involved in a diamond heist just prior and work for a man named Wilson Fisk.
Fisk is a name that should be familiar to many comic fans. It’s the given name of the man known as the Kingpin, a mountain of a man with the strength to match. Kingpin made his debut in Spider-Man comics but he came to be known as the archnemesis of the blind crimefighter Daredevil. The character was memorably played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan in the 2004 Ben Affleck-fronted film adaptation of the Man Without Fear. Vincent D’Onofrio is set to portray him in the upcoming series.
The character is important because he represents the raison d’etre for the movie: to introduce the character of Daredevil to audiences.
Each of the five planned movies was set to feature a new Marvel character, with She-Hulk originally intended for the following The Death of the Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man possibly appearing in either The Revenge of the Incredible Hulk or the fifth film.
While the first film, The Incredible Hulk Returns was a ratings success, it’s treatment of the character of Thor left a lot to be desired. A number of the particulars were in place, including Donald Blake, who was originally the human “host” of Thor in the comics, and that Thor was sent to Earth by Odin to learn humility. However, they attempted to make him like a stereotypical Viking warrior and he frequently came across like a buffoonish oaf.
It was a tone that felt very out-of-place for the Hulk series. Coupled with the alien/magical/supernatural elements inherent in Thor’s story, it felt inorganic and it’s not hard to see why a series was not spun from the movie. Still, it was memorable in its gaudiness, so much so that I had erroneously remembered that the Daredevil story in this film was just as bad.
I’d seen The Trial of the Incredible Hulk once or twice since it originally aired back in 1989, but it had been quite a number of years since the last time. Much to my pleasant surprise, it’s both a better movie than its predecessor and a stronger film overall than I had remembered.
Yes, John Rhys-Davies’ turn as Fisk borders on the hambone frequently, and they inexplicably give him an obsession with video; it was the ’80s. The fight trap he sets to kill Daredevil on-camera is mostly a groaner, even when the Hulk appears to rescue his new friend. In the moments, though, that he’s not donning a pair of chrome sunglasses that look at bit closer to the future stuff from Back to the Future Part II or escaping a rooftop in a schlocky hovercar, Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Lord of the Rings) chews the scenery effectively and there’s some natural grounding to his acting that could’ve potentially provided some gravitas for the character if it had gone to series. They just needed to avoid the trap of trying to add these kooky affectations and trust the actor.
Outside of those flourishes, the story of Fisk’s attempt to become the big crimeboss amongst a national group of corporate criminals and Matt Murdock’s efforts to fight him and protect the people in his city isn’t oversized. Fisk doesn’t present a Bond villain-like plot of world danger, and Daredevil’s campaign doesn’t feel like some over-the-top vigilante response that escalates into explosions and unbridled machismo. Interestingly, Daredevil presents the perfect kind of comic character to exist within the world Johnson, Bixby, et al. created through the show.
Make no mistake, the movie is a Daredevil story. It’s about Murdock’s attempts to take Fisk down. He and Banner cross paths because Murdock offers to represent him as his lawyer in court, a convenient way to look into what Fisk’s men were doing.
It’s also a surprisingly faithful adaptation.
They retain his comic book origins: raised from a young age by a widowed father, a prizefighter who got mixed up with criminals and lost his life. Blinded in his teens when a vat of radioactive waste fell off of a careening truck that he saves a man from being hit by. The waste took his sight but gave him enhanced senses that he’s honed over the years into a “radar sense” that operates as heightened “sight” and a phenomenal tactile ability that allows him to sense movement, photographically remember faces on touch, and to even read handwriting on paper. It’s a bit low-tech by current standards, but they present Matt’s radar sense in a nifty green monochromatic fashion to give us an idea of how his brain interprets his surroundings for the “sight.” He also has the ability to hear a person’s heartbeat, a handy skill for a lawyer when determining if someone is telling the truth or lying.
Even the costume is far less of a disappointment than in first viewing. The all-black ninja-like outfit was confounding for comic fans back then, but it made enough of an impact that Frank Miller and John Romita, Jr. included it as a proto-Daredevil outfit for Matt in their now classic The Man Without Fear limited comic series from the early ’90s. That run informs a lot of the new TV series about to air, and the black costume will actually put in an appearance, as well. I noticed in my rewatch that Matt’s gloves in Trial might actually have a little bit of red on them. In any case, the suit works for the character and for the movie. It also features Daredevil’s signature baton.
None of it works without Matt Murdock hitting with audiences.
I hadn’t recalled Rex Smith (Street Hawk, As the World Turns) registering much, but he does an effective and admirable job here. There are moments when it feels like he doesn’t quite capture Murdock’s blindness, but some of that has to be tempered with the fact that he’s supposed to be able to “see” in other ways that allow him to know better where people and things are in a room. He’s also saddled with some less than grade-A dialogue at points, but overall he acquits himself well. His Matt Murdock is instantly likeable and the character is thoroughly confident. That gives him an inner life and history that feels well fleshed and lived in. He’s been at things as Daredevil for a while, something that serves the story well instead of trying to provide an origin. There is an appropriate earnestness and righteousness that gives the character a solid core, and it’s not hard to get behind his cause.
On top of that, the fight choreography is strong, the aforementioned ambush by Fisk’s goons aside, and Smith (or his stunt double) is able to give Murdock the perfect feel of a gymnast and acrobat. There are moments of genuine fun when DD is doing his thing.
The movie doesn’t really touch on the darker elements of DD or Murdock — we just didn’t expect much of that sort of thing from our comic-based properties back then — but there’s enough of a mean streak when Murdock turns withdrawn, depressed, and snappish following the vicious beating he takes at the hands of Fisk’s men to hint at more levels than we see here. Overall, Smith does a great job of making us care and believe in Matt Murdock. That helps us buy that he’d climb into a costume to take on crime.
The only thing they don’t really get right about Daredevil is the origin of the name. The connection to his father, as well as the irony with his strict Catholic upbringing, makes the Daredevil persona something very personal and intimate for Matt Murdock. Here, they turn the moniker into a silly throwaway line from the honest deputy chief who becomes Murdock’s de facto partner in his crusade.
Lest you think they forget about him, they make sure not to give short shrift to David Banner. The odd choice to not include a Hulk appearance during the final raid on Fisk’s building aside, Banner’s story still feels part of the narrative throughout rather than something tacked on. They actually play on a theme between the two Marvel characters that I had never really given much thought, one that provides a connection that’s far more organic than one would immediately assume with Daredevil and the Hulk. Both had their lives altered dramatically by radiation, taking much from them but also giving them abilities that they put to use to help others. The two have a terrific exchange in parting. Banner tells Murdock, “I have a brother in the world now.” “Yes, you do,” the lawyer replies.
They also leverage Banner’s proficiency as a medical doctor to aid Murdock in his recovery. It helps to ground the superheroics into something closer to the nature of the television series. David is able to provide the motivation to get Matt back on his feet after his spirit is crushed as much as his body. David’s solid determination and his experience both on the run and in his failures to cure himself of the Hulk provide the ballast to level Matt and get him back on track. It plays very well to Bixby’s strengths and serves to enforce the human connection between the two characters. By the time Banner takes to the road again, there is a feeling of genuine friendship and respect between the two that gives the movie some lasting impact.
Now, if only they could’ve reconciled the fact that Banner had a beard the first two times he turned into the beardless Hulk, as well as the courtroom dream scene, and got the beard back when he reverted.
In the run-up to the new Daredevil series, it’s worth giving The Trial of the Incredible Hulk a view. It’s not nearly as dark or violent as the upcoming version, not even as dark as the 2004 film, but it does justice to the character. Wilson Fisk, never referred to as Kingpin in the story, has moments of honest characterization but is largely a slightly subtle cartoon. This is really the story of the meeting of David Bruce Banner and Matt Murdock and both finding a kindred spirit.
Bixby is ever on-point as the lonely man with the weight of the world on his shoulders and one hell of an inner demon. Smith provides a nice counterpoint and makes for a solid hero figure. And Ferrigno is ever reliable as the raging beast with an inescapable humanity.
It might be a bit slower paced and certainly not as visually interesting as most of TV today, but the story sweeps you up enough to see past that. I’d hesitate to call it memorable, but if you’re interested in Daredevil, it’s worth the watch.