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    « Lost Marathon in London | Main | Star Trek Team Boldly Going for Dark Knight Status on Sequel »
    Thursday
    Aug262010

    Marveling At The Past - The Incredible Hulk (2008)

    "HULK..........SMASH!"

    It all starts with the alternate opening sequence. We are introduced to Bruce Banner as a forsaken and dammed soul. The scientific project he has devoted his life and career to has destroyed them both. The love of his life has been critically injured. The monster that lurks deep within him is ready to escape at the merest sign of anxiety or anger. He is on the run from a military machine intent on capturing him to snare that very monster. Living off the grid and yet feeling completely cornered, Bruce does not even feel that he can continue living in the hope of discovering a cure for the Gamma poisoning which is the cause of it all. Just his existence as Bruce Banner alone is putting the world in great danger. With nowhere left to turn, Bruce travels to the most desolate regions of the Artic for the express purpose of committing suicide in a place where his body will never be located or recovered. With his last memory to be of the loved one he hurt, Bruce pulls out a gun and gets ready to shoot himself. Before he can pull the trigger, the inevitable anxiety and fear that floods his system immediately succumbs to the beast within and triggers the transformation into the Hulk. The Green Goliath holds the puny mortal weapon in his hand and smashes it. The Hulk triumphs once again and when Banner regains conciseness all he will remember is that even death by his own hand cannot provide an escape from his nightmare. His only choice is to cure himself and rid the world of the Hulk.

    This one sequence is, in my honest opinion, one of the greatest to ever grace a comic book movie. In three minutes of screen time the audience is told everything they need to know about the tragedy of Bruce Banner. The one image of the Hulk's gigantic hand crushing Bruce's gun tells us everything we need to know about his character and his relationship to Banner as well. And we cannot help but empathize with Banner. From this point on, we will be on our hero's side as he embarks on his quest for a cure. We are under no illusion that it might be cool to be the Hulk. We feel for him.

    But the problem is, of course, that the sequence does not appear in the finished film and is just one example of a crucial element that is missing from 'The Incredible Hulk'; soul, drama, pathos, tragedy, emotion. You can take your pick from those words but it still leaves us with the conclusion that, in editing, the film had its heart and soul ripped out and all we were left with was a decent, but completely hollow, film.

    We have talked about director's and extended cuts of Marvel movies over the course of this series, specifically in the case of 'Daredevil'. But in the case of that film we were still left, no matter which version of it you choose to watch, with a flawed filmmaker making a flawed film and telling a flawed story which did not best serve the source material. 'The Incredible Hulk' is a different story. There is nothing worse than really talented filmmakers, who really do understand the source material and why it works, actually setting out to make a truly great movie. Worse yet, they actually film that movie and then take it away from us in post production.

    That is what happened with this film. I've felt very passionately about this ever since I bought the DVD and watched all of the deleted material. To give Marvel their dues, they were gracious enough to include these scenes on the DVD release, especially in the light of the controversy surrounding Edward Norton's refusal to do promotion for the film following his failure to preserve a longer cut of the film more true to what he signed on for in the first place (failing to get screenplay credit under WGA rules can't have helped either). I can't support Norton being a whiny bitch but, as far as his argument is concerned, I am on his side of the fence. I see very clearly the film he was trying to protect. I see 'The Incredible Hulk' the way it should have been.

    But first let us talk about what we actually got because there is a lot to like in the finished film. 'The Incredible Hulk' is a classically structured film with a simple but effective plot driving it forward, four distinct main characters with real motivation and complexity and three distinct acts in three distinct locations.

    I think one of the problems you can have in adapting the Hulk for the silver screen is that there is not much complexity to its story. Bruce Banner has the curse of the Hulk inside him and travels around the world while being mercilessly pursued by the military and occasionally by Gamma induced supervillains as well. Perhaps one of the reasons that Ang Lee's film was so heavily dosed in psycho-drama, dysfunctional family relationships and other such completely un-Hulk elements was to mask that lack of plot. 'The Incredible Hulk' chooses not to see this as a hindrance and instead uses its simplistic plot to catapult the audience straight into the story with very little catch-up needed and choosing instead to focus its attention on character dynamics. The issue of whether this second film is a sequel or a reboot is quickly rendered irrelevant.

    The first act set with Bruce living off the military radar in Brazil is pretty damn perfect. Initial quotes from director Louis Letterier stated that we would see the Green Goliath within the first few minutes of the film and some Hulk-Smash action would not be far behind. In truth, the film takes a good 15-20 minutes before we get our first glimpse of him and even then only in shadow. The irony is that the film is at its most interesting when Hulk is not on screen.

    Even without the alternate opening, the first act does a fantastic job of establishing just how hard it must be to live the life of Bruce Banner. He is one of the greatest scientific minds on the planet but is forced to work as a mechanic at a bottling plant. He needs to live as low-key as possible and yet needs to use the internet to communicate with the mysterious Mr. Blue in order to discover a cure. He lives in a scrappy apartment yet needs elaborate scientific equipment to synthesize that cure. His Gamma contaminated blood is so dangerous that a single drop of it could be, and is, used by the military to discover his exact location. On top of which, the direction and cinematography present Brazil as such an immersive, unique and intoxicating environment that you feel almost sad to leave it. It is so much harder these days to transport jaded audiences to places they have never been before and this film does just that.

    Where things fall apart slightly is in the second act where Bruce returns to America to try and retrieve the lost data which he needs to have any hope of synthesizing a cure but unexpectedly reunites with Betty Ross along the way. Saying things fall apart is slightly harsh but certainly this stretch of the film is the one most damaged by the scenes which were cut from the film. Seemingly desperate to get to the next action set piece as quickly as possible, the film rushes through Bruce's infiltration of Culver University, reunion with Betty and our introduction to her current boyfriend (and comic mainstay) Doc. Leonard Sampson. It seems that all this material passes us by in the space of a few minutes before the military ambush Bruce and Betty on the campus grounds and the Hulk is unleashed again.

    As a result of the cuts, the relationship between Bruce and Betty is not given time to find its footing. The audience is not given enough time to understand it and as such, that emotional disconnect and hollowness begins to set in. The deleted scenes set at Betty and Leonard's house are extremely important in that sense. Having established itself as a reboot, you cannot take for granted that the audience will just accept Betty basically abandoning Leonard for her first love. How does Betty feel about Bruce now? How much does she understand of Bruce's condition (given that she spent a fair amount of the initial accident unconscious)? What is her relationship with her father General Ross at present? How does Leonard play into all this? These points are completely glossed over and it severely hurts Betty's character and led to some unfair criticism of Liv Tyler's performance I felt.

    At least she is in the film to a substantial degree. Leonard Sampson however, and despite some great scenes, is reduced to practically a cameo and used only as the cliche plot device of jealous boyfriend. The wonderful thing about the character's deleted scenes is that they establish he is not a jealous 'other guy'. Sampson is a phyciatrist who sees Bruce's return as extremely beneficial to Betty, who has not been able to fully move on knowing he was MIA. But as well as caring about Betty, he also gives away Bruce's location to General Ross out of a misplaced fear sense of fear. This only backfires at the end of the film when he confesses this to Betty leading to forgiveness but the unspoken promise that they will not be getting back together, or at least it would if the scene had not been cut from the film. Sampson is presented as an interesting and flawed human being and his cut scenes are almost certainly the biggest casualty of the film.

    Finally, one more important scene is cut right before the action sequence on the campus, where Bruce tells Betty that he cannot possibly understand, after everything that they have been through and how much it has cost them personally, what scientific breakthrough they hoped to achieve could be worth the price they have paid. Bruce finally realises that the experiment which created the Hulk was, in a way, deserved. That everything he has endured has been a lesson in humility. This one scene reveals the whole theme of the movie. If anything, 'The Incredible Hulk' is about the abuse of science and the need for those that wield its power to respect natural evolution rather than accelerating or toying with it.

    The theme of the film crystalizes in the third act when Bruce and Betty travel to New York to meet with the mysterious Mr. Blue who turns out to be eccentric anarchist college professor Samuel Sterns, the man who silmultaneously could hold the key to curing Banner as well as being the harbinger of the Hulk's greatest challenge. What Sterns comes to represent is the kind of scientist Banner probably was before his accident; a man possessed of genius intellect but far too eager to go beyond nature's boundaries without a second of consideration as to the implications. As he says himself, "I've always been more curious than cautious".

    In one wonderful moment, Bruce is confronted with the realisation that Sterns has used the Gamma infected blood based on the one small sample he took the risk of sending from Brazil, and replicated it into countless samples. This is especially potent since the first act of the film does such a good job of conveying how dangerous a single drop of Banner's blood is and how careful he has been to isolate himself from the world. Now he finds that the one person he trusted with his secret and his infection has turned Bruce's misfortune into a virtual chamber of horrors. As Bruce stares in horror, Sterns naively rants about all the world's ills that will now be cured as a result of what he has done, clearly not understanding that he just made the planet a lot worse for wear.

    Oddly enough, very little material is cut from the third act of the film and the cynic in me has to believe this is due to the fact that so many of the scenes in the last 30 minutes are merely set-up for either a Hulk sequel or the Avengers movie. The Hulk himself is still at large. Emil Blonsky is transformed into 'The Abomination' but is left alive at the end of the film. Sterns recieves a dose of Gamma blood to his already large enough cranium, setting up his transformation into arch enemy 'The Leader'. There is the admitedly cool idea established that Sterns still has a plethora of 'Hulk formula' at his disposal to create an army of super beings with.

    And, of course, Tony Stark shows up for an end scene so vague and non-accessible to an audience that has never read a Marvel comic that its presence in the body of the film (as opposed to being an Easter egg scene at the end of the credits) severely hurts it. By ending the film with Stark, the message is given to us that 'The Incredible Hulk' was seemingly never about its main character. The film cannot stand on its own legs.

    Even though a longer cut and re-edit of the film would have certainly improved it, 'The Incredible Hulk' contains one major flaw regardless of its length. There is no real progression in the saga of Bruce Banner by the end of the story. The character begins the film on the run searching for a cure with the Hulk raging inside him. After everything that happens, the film ends with the character on the run with the Hulk raging inside him. The only difference is conveyed in the intentionally ambiguous final shot of Banner which suggests that he may not care to find a cure for his condition anymore and, having gotten a taste for it, is content to either control the Hulk or let it take him over. These are interesting ideas but they exist in the finished film purely as an afterthought or, even worse, as if the entire film was just a set-up for further installments of the Marvel Film Universe.

    While some may claim that the Marvel Studios line-up of comic book movies began to decline in quality this summer with 'Iron Man 2', we have to be honest and state that it had already started to wobble two years earlier. While I continue to admire Marvel Studios for its lofty goal of crafting the most awe inspiring comic book movie of all time, the very characters that will star in 'The Avengers' are suffering because of it. If 'Thor' and 'Captain America' turn out to be as compromised in finished product as 'The Incredible Hulk' then the only enduring legacy the studio will have created is more bitchy ranting articles from yours truly.

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