There's The Hulk and there's Bruce Banner. The Marvel Comics characters are tied together but also separate entities, and Edward Norton judges them differently. The Incredible Hulk star left the MCU long ago, but now that he's promoting Motherless Brooklyn -- which he's been trying to make for 20 years -- he's game to revisit his days as Bruce Banner/The Hulk and talk about others in the role.
Can I just say how much I appreciate that he's game to keep talking about this stuff? Edward Norton was replaced as the MCU's Hulk after what sounded like pretty tense creative differences. He could easily brush off all Hulk questions. But not only is he now willing to return to the MCU, he's willing to give a thoughtful response when asked about other Bruce Banner actors. It's clear he knows his stuff.
Here's what Edward Norton told Yahoo when asked whom he considers the gold standard of Bruce Banners:
It's funny [Mark Ruffalo, who replaced Norton in The Avengers] is one of my old friends from New York theater and coming up together. The Hulk is like Hamlet, lots of people have done it. And for us, it's Bill Bixby [who played Bruce Banner in the 1978 television series], that's just it. Bill Bixby will always be the best Banner. Some actors have more or less plasticity. Some roles have more or less plasticity. Hamlet can be interpreted a lot of different ways, by a lot of different actors. … Hulk is Hulk. But Banner has got some play in him. In my opinion only really good people have done it. Bill Bixby, Eric Bana [who preceded Norton in 2003's Ang Lee-directed Hulk] is a great actor. I have my spin. Mark is one of the best. I love that it's almost become a tradition.
I think it's a great attitude to see a role like The Hulk as Hamlet (although the cinesnobs of the world might sniff at that). I wish fans would take that attitude whenever a new star is cast in a familiar role. Just because, in this case, Bill Bixby set a high standard with CBS' The Incredible Hulk TV series doesn't mean that should be the end of all Bruce Banner portrayals. Fans get prickly with #NotMyXYX these days.
Bill Bixby played Dr. David Bruce Banner on the TV series and in the connected movies, with Lou Ferrigno playing the Hulk. In modern years, both Banner and Hulk have been played by the same stars, with the Hulk often filled out through VFX. Eric Bana played both roles in Ang Lee's 2003 movie Hulk; then Edward Norton introduced Bruce Banner to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Louis Leterrier's 2008 movie The Incredible Hulk; with Mark Ruffalo taking over in the MCU starting with The Avengers, but never getting his own standalone Hulk films.
Now Edward Norton is busy promoting Motherless Brooklyn, and also possibly showing up in future Avatar films after saying no to Avatar 2 in favor of his role in Alita: Battle Angel.
Who would you pick as the best Bruce Banner actor, and would you pick the same actor for The Hulk or differentiate?