In our current comic-book saturated cinema marketplace, it's almost tough to remember back to the time (late 80s, early 90s) when Hollywood insisted on adapting comic book superheroes with changes significant enough to make them unrecognizable, or at least really, really silly. Not even the success of the fairly dark Batman (1989) did much to reverse this trend; Hollywood execs continued to remove character elements that were deemed too "comic bookish," and in the process they stripped the exact traits that made the characters appealing. For superhero fans, it was a dark time.
This mess included a short-lived revival of the Incredible Hulk TV series in the form of three TV movies from 1988 to 1990. In an attempt to be something more than just The Fugitive on steroids, the first two movies tried to mix other Marvel superheroes into the established Hulk formula. We've already covered the premiere of Thor, God of Bikers, in The Incredible Hulk Returns. The next year, television viewers were graced with Daredevil, the Man Without Guts.
The name of the movie was actually The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, and it introduced Daredevil and his arch nemesis Kingpin to live-action pictures. As with Thor's appearance in the earlier movie, Trial was probably meant to be a back-door pilot for a Daredevil TV series, though nothing ever came of it. It isn't hard to figure out why.
We start out in familiar territory. Bruce David Banner is a scientist whose experiments on his own body resulted in a startling transformation: whenever Banner becomes distressed or angry, he becomes the Hulk: big, ugly, abnormally strong, and above all, green. For years, Bruce David has been searching for a cure. He almost found one in the previous film, but when we catch up to him, he has returned to his old habits. He moves from town to town, picking up odd jobs in his continuing quest to avoid conflict no matter what. Think of him as the France of superheroes. But when one of his co-workers on a small farm starts picking on him, Bruce David decides that it's time to lose himself in "the City," which is never identified by name but is either the Bronx as seen in Rumble in the Bronx or Vancouver, Canada.
Unfortunately, what he rules
is the squash court.
In his first foray into the city's extraordinarily clean subway system, Bruce David ends up defending a woman's virtue from two men who just robbed a bank. Naturally our gamma-enhanced hero hulks out and beats the crud out of the robbers, but in the melee an old man is hit by a stray bullet. The green giant escapes, but the police catch up with him just after he reverts to his normal self, and soon Bruce David is being held on murder charges.
Things get complicated -- perhaps too complicated, given the limited resources of time and talent present. The robbers' little excursion into sexual assault was committed while they were leaving the scene of robbery choreographed by The Kingpin (played by either Luciano Pavarotti or John Rhys-Davies). The Kingpin, anxious to keep his lackeys out of jail, threatens the victim, Ellie Mendez (Marta DuBois), until she claims that Bruce David assaulted her! So Bruce David is rotting in jail for a crime he didn't commit. Wow, it's kind of like The Fugitive. We mean, even more like The Fugitive than The Hulk already was. Why don't they just call the show The Fugitive II: Hulk on the Run and get it over with?
"When does Matlock get here?"
Coming to Banner's aid is Matt Murdock (Rex Smith), a blind attorney with a couple of noble-yet-jocular employees and a secret superhero identity. By night, the blind Murdock uses his other senses, which were enhanced by the same radioactive accident that took his sight, to fight crime. Everything else about Murdock, however, has been changed from the comic books: Hell's Kitchen has become the tidy streets of Vancouver. Murdock's clueless, overweight law partner, Foggy Nelson, is now an attractive young woman named Christa, and Murdock himself is not so much an embittered lawyer of the people as he is a yuppie with too much spare time, an at-home gymnasium, and delusions of grandeur. We kept expecting to hear him voice complaints about the amount of foam in his latte.
Needless to say, Banner hulks his way out of jail. Despite the fact that the pattern of damage clearly shows that something broke out of the prison, the authorities assume that the Hulk broke in to get Bruce David out. Why this desperate need to help Banner cling to his secret identity? We're not sure, but the cluelessness of the cops also explains why someone as lame as Rhys-Davies' Kingpin is able to keep the town under his thumb. Since the city's resident superhero knows more about luxury automobiles than he does about crime-fighting, Banner offers to help Murdoch undo the Kingpin's evil scheme, which has something to do with killing Daredevil, which will prove his worthiness the head of a national criminal organization. (Riiiiight.) This is where the film (with the word "Hulk" in the title, remember) betrays its status as a back-door pilot: in the second half of the movie the focus is squarely on Daredevil. Banner doesn't even change into his emerald alter-ego for the climactic scenes in Fisk's building.
"I'm sorry... aren't these the auditions
for the next Matrix movie?"
The most torturous aspect of sitting through The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is listening to the dialogue. Characters continuously spout brain-chillingly clichéd lines for which the screenwriter should be taken out back and beaten repeatedly with a copy of Syd Field's Screenplay -- which, in turn, should be lashed to a spiked baseball bat. Let's take a quick look at some of the lines which probably made Lou Ferrigno grateful for his status as an ogre who speaks only in growls:
In a flashback which reveals the origins of Murdoch's alter ego, Chief Tendelli explains what the city needs to take down the Kingpin:
"Maybe some kind of, I don't know, crazy daredevil if you will."
Murdoch explains his training regimen:
"I took myself to what I thought was my limit - and then I went beyond."
"I swear... akk... I'm not... erk...
And our favorite, after Daredevil gets the tar beaten out of him by the Kingpin's goons and he's nursed back to health by Bruce David:
Banner: I'm a good doctor. I thought I'd lost it, but I haven't. I can cure anything they broke in you... but your spirit.
Who knew that Dr. Banner interned at General Hospital?
Daredevil himself is as poorly cast as Vancouver, and his on-screen presence must have reduced Stan Lee to whimpers. The costume they've given to the Man Without Fear is just a black body stocking, stuffed a little bit to make Rex Smith less than completely laughable. His mask has no eyeholes, which makes sense except that, in this movie, Daredevil makes a point of trying to hide the fact that he's blind. His fighting style is pure Gymkata.
After a final embarrassing scene in which Kingpin escapes via one of the least successful flying car special effects ever attempted on TV, Bruce David Banner wanders away from the city. So shameful was this movie that death must have seemed like the only option. A year later that's exactly what we got, with The Death of the Incredible Hulk.