2008 saw the debut of a movie that continues to have major repercussions for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
No, not Iron Man. We’re talking about the second MCU movie, which hit theaters a month after Iron Man. For years, it seemed like Marvel wanted to ignore The Incredible Hulk, only referencing the movie’s events in the equally tangental Netflix MCU shows. But then William Hurt reprised his role as General Thunderbolt Ross in Captain America: Civil War. And then Tim Roth came back as Abomination for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. And now Tim Blake Nelson and Liv Tyler are back as Samuel Sterns aka The Leader and Betty Ross for Captain America: Brave New World.
But there remains one notable omission in this incredible reunion. The Hulk himself, Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. For the movie’s first viewers, Norton’s nervous, neurotic Banner was a highlight of the otherwise critically-panned movie. And yet, when the Hulk next appeared in the MCU for 2012’s The Avengers, the Jade Giant sprung from Mark Ruffalo as Banner, and has ever since.
Why did Marvel decide to recast Banner for The Avengers? And why, in this era of multiverses and alternate realities, have we never seen Norton Hulk out again?
When Norton came to The Incredible Hulk, he brought with him a number of accolades as an actor, including two Academy Award nominations. More importantly, Norton reminded producers Kevin Feige and Gale Ann Hurd of Bill Bixby, who portrayed Banner for years on the tv series The Incredible Hulk. After the mixed reception to Ang Lee’s idiosyncratic movie Hulk, Hurd and Feige hoped to ground the new movie, playing up the fugitive nature of Banner’s lonely journey.
Norton also brought with him a desire to work behind the camera, having written and rewritten his scripts in the past. Allegedly unhappy with the original screenplay by Zak Penn, director Louis Leterrier welcomed Norton’s contributions. But Penn took exception with Norton’s revisions, especially when the actor started claiming that he wrote the overall script. Eventually, the Writer’s Guild of America had to intercede, awarding sole credit to Penn.
But the real problems began when Norton clashed with Kevin Feige. As any reader of this site knows, Feige is the chief creative of the MCU and truly directs every film and tv show in the franchise. This level of control has made the MCU an unprecedented success but has also resulted in clashes with creatives. Most famously, Edgar Wright left Ant-Man when his vision clashed with Feige’s and Joss Whedon bristled against the Infinity Stone sequence shoved into Avengers: Age of Ultron.
So one can imagine that Feige likely also bristled at Norton’s stripping away shared universe elements from The Incredible Hulk, including references to SHIELD and perpetual sidekick Rick Jones. And we know that Norton hated Feige’s edit of the film, which removed much of the character development that Norton added, allowing for a leaner and more action-heavy cut. In a 2008 interview with Collider, Leterrier recalls Norton shouting with producers about the cut of the movie, and eventually walking out. When the movie finally hit theaters, Norton refused to do press, spending time abroad instead.
At the time, Leterrier told Collider that Norton’s behavior was nothing unusual and that the press made too much about the incident. He echoed those sentiments when talking to EW, saying that the difficulties during filming were “as much Marvel’s fault as [they were] Edward’s.”
In 2012, Norton told The Hollywood Reporter that he “really, really enjoyed” making the movie and that he decided not to continue playing the character because he didn’t want to commit to another Hulk movie. “I looked at the balance of time in life that one spends not only making those sorts of films but then especially putting them out, and the obligations that rightly come with that,” he said.
Although Norton and Ruffalo play the same version of the Hulk, with Eric Bana’s take in 2003’s Hulk placed in its own continuity, Marvel hasn’t addressed the change. The one exception, unsurprisingly, was in the fourth-wall-breaking She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Speaking about the Hulk’s battle with Abomination in The Incredible Hulk, Ruffalo’s Hulk says, “That fight was so many years ago, I’m a completely different person now — literally” while his cousin Jen looks directly at the camera.
It should be no surprise, then, that She-Hulk did try to get Norton to return in some form. She-Hulk director Kat Coiro told The Direct that they did “entertain the idea of swapping Mark out for Edward Norton,” ultimately acknowledging that it “did not come to pass.”
Does that mean Norton will never play Banner again? In this age of multiverse cameos and Nicolas Cage playing Superman not once, but twice, it’s hard to believe that Norton won’t get the opportunity. After all, The Incredible Hulk remains an important chapter in the ongoing MCU story.