Sunday, April 12, 2015

Nostalgia Theater 200! Daredevil's First Try at TV

There's a lot of buzz online this weekend after Netflix dropped the first season of Marvel's Daredevil online last Friday. With its moody, violent look at the seedy underside of superhero-ing, the thirteen-episode skein (first in a multi-part pact with Marvel Studios) has definitely upped the ante for what to expect from superhero TV. Of course, it wasn't always thus for Marvel's Man Without Fear. Yes, there was the execrable '03 feature film that everyone (especially Ben Affleck) pretends never happened, but Daredevil actually made his live action debut a few years earlier in a project few people even realize happened.

The year was 1989, and Marvel was owned by New World Pictures, a dime-store multimedia company that had designs on competing with the big kids. Their 1986 acquisition of the comic publisher was one of many steps toward that promised land (which they never actually reached). At the time, the most well-known Marvel hero was the Hulk, thanks to his 1977-1982 CBS TV series. The show had been off the air for awhile, but it retained enough cache for New World to sell NBC on a pack of TV movies reuniting stars Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, and serving as backdoor pilots for whichever other characters they could squeeze in. Think of it as the Marvel Cinematic Universe before the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The first of these, 1988's The Incredible Hulk Returns, attempted to sell the public on a live action Thor a few years before Chris Hemsworth made it all look easy. Although a Thor spin-off never happened (and seriously, thank goodness for that), the movie did very well in the ratings, and so the following May New World and NBC tried again, bringing back Bixby (who also directed) and Ferrigno for Trial of the Incredible Hulk. This time, our man David Banner is falsely accused of murder, relying on the help of blind attorney Matt Murdock (Rex Smith, of Street Hawk fame) to help clear his name. Here's their first meeting:

Trial of the Incredible Hulk - David Banner... by zaki-hasan

Of course, Matt's investigation soon uncovers some nefarious goings-on, and before long he makes his spandex-clad debut:

Trial of the Incredible Hulk - Introducing... by zaki-hasan

Notice that the finished Daredevil costume here looks very much like the work-in-progress Daredevil costume that star Charlie Cox wears in the Netflix series. Notice also that that fight scene was really, really bad. Anyway, after Banner Hulks out in the clink and escapes, Matt/Daredevil realizes he needs to retrieve him before the various baddies (led by one Wilson Fisk, played by John Rhys-Davies) find him. This in turn leads to Daredevil not only revealing his identity to David, but also cluing him (and the viewers) in on how a blind man can kick so much ass:

Trial of the Incredible Hulk - The Origin of... by zaki-hasan

Now, it's easy to mock the admittedly chintzy feel of the thing and write it off, especially when you stack it up against the absolutely stellar product on Netflix right now. Nonetheless, you have to contextualize it with the time. The likable Smith was a pretty darn good Murdock, and it's not hard to imagine him very comfortably playing the role for the long haul had a spin-off been warranted. In fact, the telefilm leans so heavily on Daredevil that Lou Ferrigno only makes a few token appearances in the green greasepaint (including in a dream sequence depicting the so-called "trial" of the title), before sitting out the entire third act.

While Trial did pretty well ratings-wise, the promised Daredevil show never did materialize. (You can watch both of the Hulk's "guest-star" flicks on DVD.) There was one more TV movie in 1990 to close out the Bixby-Ferrigno era of Hulk-dom with Death of the Incredible Hulk (Bixby himself passed away the following year), and then Marvel spent most of the rest of the '90s in a headache-inducing legal morass. As it happens, both the Hulk and Daredevil appeared in poorly-received feature films in 2003 that were ignored as soon as they left theaters. And while ol' greenskin eventually found his big screen footing, in Daredevil's case, lucky for him (and us), he had nothing to fear from a return to television.

One Year Ago in Nostalgia Theater: The Animated Jim Carrey

Two Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Crazy Like a Fox

Three Years Ago in Nostalgia Theater: Man From Atlantis

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