The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s second film was an origins story about the “incredible” Hulk. But instead of featuring Avengers regular Mark Ruffalo, the Bruce Banner role was occupied by Edward Norton. So why did he leave the role of Hulk?
It’s a question you’ll find yourself asking: why did Edward Norton turn his back on Marvel? Given the success of the series of films which would have seen him appear in a number of sequels including Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, you must wonder if Norton regrets letting the chance to star in the most lucrative films of his career pass him by.
The talented actor and three-time Academy Award nominee played Hulk in the second film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but, prior to reprising the role for The Avengers Assemble, walked away. At the time, there was little clarity from Marvel or Norton as to why he left. Mark Ruffalo was cast as Hulk and the rest, as they say, is history.
Marvel sought an actor possessing a certain kind of “creativity and collaborative spirit”
Over time, snippets of information have emerged as to why Edward Norton decided not to play the eponymous hero after starring in director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk. The official statement at the time of The Avengers Assemble preparation noted that Marvel was seeking “an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members.” Read into that what you will. For me, it says Norton was a pain in Marvel’s neck and the studio wanted to get rid.
From Norton’s point of view, that would be unfair. After all, The Incredible Hulk director Louis Leterrier welcomed Norton’s script re-writes that were apparently coming in every day of the shoot. Despite Norton not getting a screenplay credit, the actor has referred to himself as one of the film’s writers. At the time, Norton issued a statement praising the “collaboration” that was welcomed by Leterrier who he said was a wonderful creative “partner”. Norton also said he was “proud of the script I wrote”. A script, it has to be said, that was not acknowledged by Marvel, which credited Zak Penn as the sole screenwriter.
An arbitration battle ensued with Norton fighting for credit. He lost. Penn addressed the issue at Comic-Con in 2008 saying he had little to do with the movie once the script was written. However, he was annoyed with Norton for trying to take the credit. “I can’t tell you that made me go back and watch Fight Club,” he quipped.
Penn added that the fallout over the script prevented him “from collaborating with [Norton during production].” He said, “I don’t really know the guy, he has his own process and he chose to do it the way he wanted to do it. That said, I kept in touch with the people making the movie — but he, you know, has his own particular way of working and…it was unusual.”
Norton invested a lot of creative energy into The Incredible Hulk but wasn’t credited for it
We know Norton was heavily invested in the character and was given leeway to adapt scenes to his way of thinking. He told Entertainment Weekly, ““Like so many people I’ve loved the story of The Hulk since I was a kid, so it was thrilling when Marvel asked me to write and help produce an altogether new screen incarnation, as well as play Bruce Banner. I grew up reading Marvel Comics and always loved the mythic dimension and contemporary themes in the stories.”
Note the phrase – “Marvel asked me to write”. If the studio did ask him to write a version of The Incredible Hulk, at least in Zak Penn and Marvel’s eyes, that movie wasn’t the one released to audiences. No wonder Norton was a little peeved.
Not that the multi-talented actor isn’t averse to uncredited writing. Frida and Red Dragon benefited from his script tweaks. And at least one newspaper claimed Brett Ratner fought with Norton over his constant re-writes of his character in Red Dragon.
But Norton believed he would be credited for The Incredible Hulk. As The Los Angeles Times reported during production: “Norton’s initial deal included payment not just for his acting services but for his writing talents too, with his draft contractually stipulated to be turned around in less than a month. As it turned out, Norton delayed work on another screenplay job to do “Hulk,” and he continues to tweak the script as principal photography hits its halfway point outside Toronto.”
So maybe the actor is right to have some reservations about working with Marvel. What it comes down to is Marvel’s determination to develop a story arc over 22 films that culminates in Avengers: Endgame. Norton, who has since discussed his aversion to long-running franchises, was unlikely to ever fall in line.
The real reason Edward Norton walked away from Marvel
Given that Norton refused to do any promotional interviews for The Incredible Hulk showed he wasn’t someone ready to bow to a huge studio nor a screen performer prepared to extinguish his principles. But ultimately, this drove a wedge between him and Marvel, only souring their relationship further.
In 2012, Norton addressed walking away from the Marvel franchise. In Entertainment Weekly, he is reported as saying: “I didn’t want to have an association with one thing in any way degrade my effectiveness as an actor, in characters. I think you can sort of do anything once, but if you do it too many times, it can become a suit that’s hard to take off, in other peoples’ eyes. And if I had continued on with it, I wouldn’t have made Moonrise Kingdom, or Grand Budapest, or Birdman, because those all overlapped with [Avengers]. And those were more the priority for me.”
It’s clear, aside from the issues that became apparent between the studio and Norton, that the actor was never really suited to what Marvel was trying to achieve. Ultimately, Norton got what he wanted: to play a character he loved just once. Similarly Marvel got what they wanted: a cast – including his replacement Mark Ruffalo (who does a great job) – willing to invest their creative energies in an unprecedented decade-long film project. Unlike the mighty battles we see in these superhero movies, in this Hollywood story, both sides won.