The Marvel Cinematic Universe, a decade ahead of Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time, got off to decidedly more humble origins in 2008, with The Incredible Hulk hitting theaters just a month after Robert Downey Jr.’s inaugural Marvel outing (Iron Man).
Not an origin story like the rest of the Phase One Marvel movies, nor a massive box-office success like the rest of Marvel’s cohort (at $263 million, it’s the franchise’s lowest-grossing entry), The Incredible Hulk is often left out of discussions recapping the MCU family, functioning as something of a black sheep.
Edward Norton, who starred in The Incredible Hulk, has opened up about his experience playing scientist-turned-green-rage-monster Bruce Banner. Speaking for a New York Times profile ahead of his directorial effort Motherless Brooklyn opening Nov. 1, Norton said that he’d entered discussions with Marvel to make two dark, high-concept Hulk films—an ambitious effort he believed the studio was on board for, until they weren’t.
“I loved the Hulk comics,” said Norton, calling them “very mythic” and in the vein of the Promethean myth. “What Chris Nolan had done with Batman [in 2005’s Batman Begins and 2008’s The Dark Knight,the two then-released entries in his trilogy] was going down a path that I aligned with: long, dark and serious.”
Norton’s idea was for a duology of Hulk films that first laid out the character’s origins then followed “the idea of Hulk as the conscious dreamer, the guy who can handle the trip,” according to the actor.
Though Norton says he enjoyed working with Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige on the concept, the studio ended up going in a different creative direction, a choice indicated by their recasting of the character with Mark Ruffalo ahead of 2012’s The Avengers. But even ahead of The Incredible Hulk hitting theaters in 2008, Deadline and others had reported on bad blood between Marvel and Norton, who’s known for being extremely hands-on with his projects, pushing for script rewrites and personally hunkering down in the editing bay.
What ended up hitting theaters, Deadline reported then, was Marvel’s cut and not Norton’s, with the actor having ceded ground to what he could acknowledge was a leaner, more commercially viable version of the film he’d nevertheless wanted to be longer and more character-driven. However the production process went for The Incredible Hulk, Marvel dragged its feet on another Hulk standalone starring Norton. Then, with The Avengers taking shape, came a statement from Marvel and Feige that took a lit match to gasoline-soaked rumors of acrimony between the actor and studio.
“We have made the decision to not bring Ed Norton back to portray the title role of Bruce Banner in The Avengers,” it read. “Our decision is definitely not one based on monetary factors, but instead rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members.”
Norton, looking back on that unsavory chapter, calls the statement “cheap” mid-conversation with the Times. Rumors had swirled back when Ruffalo’s casting was announced that money was an issue between Norton and Marvel, with the studio supplying the actor with a lowball offer to which he took offense.
Making the whole affair even uglier, Norton’s agent responded to Marvel’s 2010 statement with one of their own, calling Feige’s words “unprofessional, disingenuous and clearly defamatory” and referencing weeks of what they called “civil, uncontentious discussions” that ended when Marvel said it had chosen to go in a different direction.
“It was brand defensiveness or something,” Norton explained to the Times. “Ultimately they weren’t going for long, dark and serious. But it doesn’t matter. We had positive discussions about going on with the films, and we looked at the amount of time that would’ve taken, and I wasn’t going to do that.”
Standing by his statements from nearly a decade ago now, Norton also reaffims that he “would’ve wanted more money than they’d have wanted to pay me,” but emphasizes that the main reason he balked at continuing to work with Marvel involved the time commitment it would have required.
“We looked at the amount of time that would’ve taken, and I wasn’t going to do that,” he said. “I went and did all the other things I wanted to do, and what Kevin Feige has done is probably one of the best executions of a business plan in the history of the entertainment industry.”
Asked what he thinks about the quality of the Feige-stewarded Marvel films, Norton at first declined to comment, though he noted that “it didn’t happen to be on a tonal, thematic level what I wanted to spend my time doing.”
But the actor expressed indignation at the idea of a “fight” between him and Feige, blaming “grotesque” clickbait for generating headlines that overly simplify and often misrepresent complicated situations involving the intersection of art and business.
“We are letting ourselves be polluted by fake fights manufactured by other people for other agendas,” said Norton. “Whether it’s Russians manipulating us into intense arguments with one another over fabricated [expletive] or stupid entertainment journalism trying to get clicks.”
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