The Trial of The Incredible Hulk

Certificate: PG
Running Time: 100 mins
Director: Bill Bixby
Starring: Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Rex Smith, John Rhys-Davies
Genre: Comic Book, Superhero, Action
Country: USA

As Avengers: Age of Ultron gets crotch dampeningly close to our view holes we thought a look back at Marvel adaptations through the years was in order.  Up to bat first are two of Lee & Kirby’s most recognized heroes… in the same movie… for the small screen!

Eternal wanderer and anger management patient number one, David (nee Bruce) Banner has found himself in New York City[1] and more specifically a NYC subway train when two thugs attempt to assault a young lady.  Ever the double denim clad gent, Banner steps in to stop the attack, gets his heckles up and transforms in the Hulk!  Having chased off more commuters than Giuliani did homeless, Banner collapses –exhausted.  When he wakes, he’s surrounded by the NYPD and arrested[2].  Locked up and awaiting trial Banner is approached by blind attorney Matt Murdock (Smith) who offers to help him out pro bono if Banner (Bixby) is willing to use his “particular skills” to help bring down Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin.

As a child I was an enormous fan of The Hulk and Daredevil so this TV movie felt as though it was made especially for me.  It was with great apprehension that I returned to view it with adult (please read jaded) eyes.  Would the magic still be there?  Could I love it in the same way I always did post Avengers, The Dark Knight, and pre Dawn of Justice with all the excitement that it is creating in my chest cavity?  The answer is no.

If anything I love it even more.  Yeah, there are some issues but we’ll start with the positives.  Bill Bixby by this point has been living in the skin of Dr. Banner for quite a few years.  Ever the professional, ever the character actor, he was the first true “serious” actor to take on a superhero role.  In recent years there’s been a lot of discussion about the quality of writing in superhero movies to be able to attract “serious” actors to the parts.  Bixby is proof that this is not a new thing, this is merely selective memory.  What Bixby does with Banner is what makes Ruffalo an excellent choice for Banner, and what makes me desperately want a Ruffalo Hulk standalone movie.  He plays the humanity of the scene.  Even when the drama is turning to melodrama and the narrative is in danger of jumping the shark, Bixby always played the human emotion of the scene and in doing so grounded the story for the audience.

When Bixby’s Banner tells Murdock that he can’t afford to pay the lawyer for his representation you see how far the man has fallen.  This is a world-class mind, an amazing scientist and he is reduced to wandering the streets like a nomad looking for a quiet little corner of the world he can call home and each time he thinks he’s found it someone comes along to ruin his calm.  The loneliness and enforced poverty that Banner must face is truly heartbreaking and Bixby is able to portray all this in a moment, a gesture, a pause on a certain word.  Each year that passes when we’re served up another Thor-a-thon (or snore-a-thon… yeah I went there) is an insult to the “Big Guy”.  Branagh’s attempt at doing tragedy in Thor fell sorrowfully short, the Hulk on the other hand is tragedy personified.  Ferrigno (as Hulk) is nothing short of iconic.  Bursting out of shoes, ripping off remains of shirt and flex!  That’s how he enters a scene, yet he’s given moments of softness.  Several of them alongside his superhero pal Daredevil and they allow Ferrigno to showcase a little bit of range in a part that, largely, leaves the range to Bixby.

Rex Smith (Street Hawk) makes for a good Matt Murdock and a decent Daredevil.  His frame leaves a little something to be desired as there’s no way someone of Smith’s build could do half the things we know Horn Head can do but still… suspend disbelief.  For any of the issues you have with Ben Affleck’s portrayal in the 2003 movie (which we’ll be reviewing in Director’s Cut form), Rex Smith is the antidote and if Charlie Cox has used a prior DD portrayal as a jumping off point for the forthcoming Netflix series, let’s hope it’s Smith.  As a child I was fascinated by the simplicity of Smith’s black Daredevil suit.  Frank Miller’s The Man Without Fear would utilize this almost ninja-like costume to great effect to the point were Horn Head fans are almost split into three camps.  The iconic red suit lovers, the brooding black suit lovers, and the classic yellow and brown suit lovers.

Uncharacteristically John Rhys-Davies is the weak link in the cast.  Not because he delivers a poor performance, he doesn’t.  He’s incapable of doing such a thing.  Over the top –yeah, poor –never.  The issue with his representation of Kingpin is one of physicality.  Kingpin (or Wilson to his wife and friends) is an incredibly cerebral character.  If he was a chess player he’s beaten you by watching how you take your coat off but he’s also a big character.  Some drawers of Kingpin don’t get his physicality, they draw him as fat, lardy, an obese man made obese by his greed… I get the analogy but it’s incorrect.  Fisk is not fat.  His frame is large but it is rock hard.  He’s a pure muscle machine.  Look at Daredevil #170 when Fisk is retired and living in Japan.  Upon news that his wife has been kidnapped he all but mauls his training partners before flying back to New York and raising hell.  Could an overweight, unfit man do this?  JRD’s portrayal is born out of the writing of Fisk and in TTOTIH Gerald Di Pego gets him all wrong.  Davies’ Fisk is passive, sedentary even and as such never really looks a match for Daredevil let alone Hulk, let alone Daredevil and Hulk!

The Trial of The Incredible Hulk does an excellent job at showing the distortion of Daredevil’s radar sense and as such Fisk’s intelligence of working out that 1. Horn Head is blind and 2. Operates with some sort of radar.  Granted they don’t do much to demonstrate how it works but perhaps that visual portrayal would have been out of the aesthetic character of the TV series (and as such TV movies) so we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.  The other main problem with the movie is again down to Di Pego’s script (sorry Gerry!).  Banner is a loner.  The show was at its best when demonstrating either what he doesn’t have or what he has to give up.  Murdock is not alone.  He has his law firm which he runs with his lifelong pal Foggy Nelson.  He has Karen, or Heather, or Elektra, or Natasha (Black Widow) depending on where in the timeline you’ve read.  He has structure and friends and a community that he is fighting for and that’s just it.  Daredevil is fighting to save the community, to save Hell’s Kitchen from being swallowed up by crime and provide a little bit of justice when the legal system falls short but without this infrastructure being shown it makes his fight with Fisk seem small, vindictive, personal.  To make his fight personal is to take away the heroic spirit of the small boy who ran out to save an old man and ended up being blinded. 

For a TV movie in the last year of the 1980’s The Trial of The Incredible Hulk is a showcase of the incredible love that Bixby has for the character that paid all his bills.  Not only was it a phenomenal experience to an eight-year-old kid when it was released but stands a solid template for what could be done now for two superheroes that really need a win in the Theatrical Motion Picture category.

[1] Is he mad?  An rage monster in a rage filled land, that’ll work well.
[2] The old fashioned version of shooting unarmed vagabonds on sight for any 21st Century members of law enforcement.


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