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How to edit a movie, starring The Incredible Hulk

In the weeks before Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk opened this summer, there were a lot of stories on-line and in various entertainment magazines about a dispute over the editing of the film between Marvel and star Edward Norton (who played Bruce Banner).  As the tale was told, Norton was fighting for a longer cut of the film that would include more character development, while Marvel wanted a leaner, more action-packed version.  

Ultimately, it seems that the latter is what was released to theatres.  And while I found the film to be fairly enjoyable, it certainly didn’t blow my skirt up the way Iron Man had the month before.  I also found it to be inferior to Ang Lee’s weirder, more cerebral 2003 movie The Hulk.  

But I was intrigued to read that the DVD of the new Incredible Hulk movie would include a significant number of deleted scenes (almost 45 minutes worth).  That’s not the same as having an extended cut of the film to judge, but I was still very curious to check out all of that additional footage to see if I felt those scenes’ inclusion would have strengthened the film.

Well (and I’m not sure if this is good or bad), with just a few exceptions I must report that they would not have.  What we have here is a fascinating study in film-editing.  There isn’t one scene, amongst the deleted footage, that is a complete “thank god they cut that” clunker.  Everything is good, and interesting.  There’s an opening opening to the film in which Bruce Banner tries (unsuccessfully) to kill himself; scenes that show us more of the life Bruce made for himself on the run in Brazil, including how he created the science set-up in his apartment; several additional scenes with Betty’s new boyfriend Leonard (whose presence on-screen suffered the most in the theatrical cut); several scenes with General Ross which shed some more light on why he was so focused on capturing Banner, etc. etc.  It’s all decent stuff.  

Probably the best scene is a monologue by Ross, in which he describes his awe at having seen a glimpse of god (in his encounters with the Hulk), and he compares himself to those great men throughout history who have dared to grasp such power for the good of mankind.  It’s a great moment of acting, and it makes his character a bit less of an evil-for-no-reason villain, while also making him even scarier as we glimpse his passionate dedication to the cause.

And yet, none of these scenes really would have added much of anything to the movie as a whole.  Is it sort of neat to see how Bruce made his centrifuge out of spare parts?  Well, yes, but the one brief shot of it in the finished film, in which the attentive viewer notices that it’s made out of a bicycle tire, tells the whole story sufficiently.  Is it interesting to get to know Betty’s boyfriend Leonard a little more, and to see the moment where he confronts Bruce?  Well, yes, but again that doesn’t really affect the plot of the movie in any way, or change how we feel about Bruce and Betty.  It just makes Leonard a little less likable, which to me sort of hurts his character.  It’s better for the audience to feel torn, as Betty was, between the two men, as opposed to our rooting too strongly for her to dump him.  (Although I do wish that the theatrical cut had managed to work in somewhere that the fellow’s name was Leonard Samson, as that character is a major player in the Hulk comics.)  Is it neat to see Bruce wrestle with his guilt in the alternative opening, and to see him Hulk-out in Alaska (or Antarctica, or wherever that was supposed to be set)?  Well yes, but here too that doesn’t add much to Bruce’s character, as we see plenty of his struggle with his intense guilt throughout the film.  And I think it’s better to start the movie with Bruce already hiding out in Brazil.

My complaints with the finished film aren’t at all addressed by any of this excised footage.  What are my complaints?  Well, first of all I object to Marvel’s rejection of the first Hulk film.  I love Edward Norton, but I preferred Eric Bana’s Bruce Banner; as I also preferred Sam Elliott’s Thunderbolt Ross to William Hurt and VASTLY preferred Jennifer Connelly’s Betty to Liv Tyler (who I usually really like found unconvincing here).  I also objected to the major change in the Hulk’s origin made in this new film.  In Ang Lee’s Hulk, Bruce Banner was accidentally dosed with gamma rays when he tried to save a hapless lab technician.  In this version, we learn that Bruce was testing a procedure on himself.  That makes me MUCH less sympathetic to him!!  While Ang Lee’s Hulk built more to an emotional climax in terms of Bruce’s relationship with Betty and with his father (a character pretty much invented by the film, played in full-on crazy mode by Nick Nolte), this new film just builds to a big fight between the CGI Hulk and the CGI Abomination.  The fight is a cool action spectacle, sure, but I just wasn’t that invested in those two green monsters beating the crap out of each other over and over again.  And the way the movie sort of turned the Hulk into a superhero at the end (sent out to stop the Abomination) seemed a bit silly to me.  I prefer the Hulk as a monster of uncontrollable rage, as opposed to a not-very talkative crime fighter.  

So, getting back to the discussion of these deleted scenes — I have to side with Marvel on this one.  While I wish they hadn’t been so quick to find fault with Ang Lee’s movie, with this new Hulk film they did make exactly the movie that they apparently wanted to make — an action spectacle.  Had those 45 minutes of scenes been kept in the movie, they just would have slowed the film down, without adding anything significant to the over-all story.  The scenes were all strong, but if the goal was to make a fast-paced action film, then they really didn’t belong.

I do hope, though, that the next wave of Marvel super-hero movies, coming in 2010, are more like Iron Man than this new Incredible Hulk.  Action and spectacle is good, but that’s not enough to make a truly satisfying film.

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