When you think about Bruce Banner/The Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Mark Ruffalo is likely who first comes to mind, but let’s not forget about the man who played him in this franchise first. Edward Norton brought the Green Goliath to life in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, and while it looked like Norton would stick around for a sequel, due to creative differences with Marvel Studios, he was replaced by Ruffalo for The Avengers.
Now Edward Norton has elaborated on these creative differences, saying how he wanted to take The Hulk in a direction similar to the tone of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but Marvel ultimately wasn’t game for that. Norton explained:
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.
So if Edward Norton had his way, his version of The Hulk would have gone in a darker direction, as he was inspired by what Christopher Nolan delivered in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. And as the actor claims, Marvel was initially receptive to doing down this creative path, but then reversed course, and that’s when this professional relationship started to collapse.
Back in 2014, Edward Norton said that the reason he didn’t return to play The Hulk is because he’d “experimented and experienced” everything he’d wanted to from that kind of movie, and didn’t want to be tied down to the “obligations” that came with starring in a superhero franchise. though it was clear after the Hulk recasting was first announced that Norton was upset with how Marvel framed the two sides going their separate ways.
Now, though, it seems like he looks back on his time with Marvel more fondly, and he noted how that joke he made about The Incredible Hulk last year was meant to be more at his expense than Marvel’s. Sure he’s disappointed that his dark Hulk duology never came to fruition, but there isn’t any “friction” between him and Marvel right now.
Edward Norton also acknowledged in the interview with The New York Times that when he discussed his Hulk plans with Marvel Studios, he wasn’t willing to dedicate the amount of time they wanted from him to make this creative vision happen, and he also probably would have asked for more money than they were willing to offer him. In the end, Norton got to “do all the other things” he wanted to do, and he sees the creative path that Kevin Feige and the MCU team went down as one of the "best executions of a business plan in the history of the entertainment industry."
Hulk has certainly been on an interesting MCU journey. Because Universal Pictures still controls the distribution rights to Hulk films, The Incredible Hulk never received a sequel, and Mark Ruffalo’s version of the character has instead been a supporting player across the Avengers movies and Thor: Ragnarok. That’s not to say there hasn’t been any character development for him though, and it all finally paid off in Avengers: Endgame when Bruce Banner and Hulk merged into one being. The mind of the former in the body of the latter produced “the best of both worlds.”
Edward Norton can next be seen in Motherless Brooklyn, which comes out in theaters on November 1. It’s unclear if/when Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk will return, though one can logically assume that he’ll have a role to play in the upcoming Disney+ series She-Hulk. Check out our Marvel movies guide to learn what else this franchise has coming up.