When it comes to superhero films, the argument is most just fit a formula and that’s that. Some filmmakers and actors though genuinely see some artistic merit to certain characters. The most recent, of course, is Joaquin Phoenix and his film Joker which took the popular DC Comics character and made a low budget character study about his origins. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy managed to align Batman more with crime dramas and political thrillers. Back when it was considered a pipe dream, Richard Donner’s original Superman: The Movie sought to make the character a biblical analogy for Jesus Christ (Which Bryan Singer continued with his 2006 spiritual sequel Superman Returns).
However, if there is any character that has truly been evaluated every which way, it’s Marvel’s Incredible Hulk. While most have fond memories of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno-led show, the character has been approached on the big screen by artistically-driven filmmakers and actors three times now. The first was the 2003 Ang Lee-directed film Hulk that sculpted a version of Bruce Banner that dealt with childhood trauma, psychological elements, and visually making the film appear like a moving comic book. The film was mixed received and only a mild box office hit of $245.4 million on a $137 million budget at a time when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film trilogy was making north of $700 million for each $200 million-budgeted installment. So a sequel was abandoned.
In 2008, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe began to take form, another installment was made that was marked as a semi-sequel/soft reboot to Lee’s film, titled The Incredible Hulk and meant to embody the tone/spirit of the popular Bixby television series. Directed by Louis Leterrier and starring Edward Norton, the film would ultimately be revealed to be it’s own installment and set-up for the character in the MCU. But, despite better reception, the film only made $253.4 million on a $150 million budget. And while Norton, who worked on the script (Which ultimately was credited to Zak Penn), was set to continue playing the character for 2012’s The Avengers. But, as history shows, that didn’t happen. Ultimately, Norton was let go, his Bixby-inspired take on the character dropped and Mark Ruffalo has played the character ever since, playing a more Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde interpretation of the character. So…what happened to Norton?
A lot has been said on that. One was Norton and Kevin Feige parted based on creative differences. When Norton was recast in favor of Ruffalo, Feige was quoted as saying the recast was “rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members.”. However, in an interview today with The New York Times during the press tour for his new directorial effort Motherless Brooklyn, Norton says that was far from what actually happened, quoting the following:
It was brand defensiveness or something. 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. I honestly would’ve wanted more money than they’d have wanted to pay me.
But that’s not why I would’ve wanted to do another Hulk movie anyway. 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. As a Disney shareholder, you should be on your feet for what they pulled off.
It’s not a secret that Norton is noted for being difficult to work with, despite also being called a great artist even by those he has rubbed the wrong way. Often, “creative differences” is the major issue with Norton noted for trying to wrestle control behind-the-scenes of many of his films that he doesn’t even direct. For Norton, his major reason for leaving, if that was the case, was because of his reasons for originally wanting to do the Hulk. In the same interview, he spoke about his reasons for doing it as the following:
I loved the Hulk comics. I believed they were very mythic. And what Chris Nolan had done with Batman was going down a path that I aligned with: long, dark and serious. If there was ever a thing that I thought had that in it, it was the Hulk. It’s literally the Promethean myth. I laid out a two-film thing: The origin and then the idea of Hulk as the conscious dreamer, the guy who can handle the trip. And they were like, “That’s what we want!” As it turned out, that wasn’t what they wanted. But I had a great time doing it. I got on great with Kevin Feige.
It will always be a wonder what would happen if Norton had remained as Bruce Banner, but Ruffalo claims he actually got approval from Norton, a friend of his, to take on the role. Maybe someday we’ll even see this darker and more brutal Hulk story that Norton wanted to bring to the screen. But for now, the Hulk remains the entertaining and somewhat goofy part of the MCU, going between lovable giant and awkward/quirky Bruce Banner. Stay tuned!