The Marvel Cinematic Universe may have been better if Edward Norton had continued to portray Bruce Banner. Norton first played Banner in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, the second film in the MCU and, to date, the Hulk’s only solo film in the entire franchise. The notorious creative clashes that took place between Norton and Marvel Studios on the film eventually led to Bruce Banner being recast, with Mark Ruffalo first assuming the role in The Avengers.
In the years since, Ruffalo has reprised the role several times in the MCU, and while the Hulk has yet to appear in another solo film, Ruffalo’s portrayal has generally been well-received among audiences and critics alike. Norton, meanwhile, has occasionally dipped his toes back into both the comic book and science-fiction waters with appearances in the superhero satire Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and a surprise cameo in Alita: Battle Angel.
As the franchise became a dominant Hollywood force, The Incredible Hulk has arguably become the black sheep of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with William Hurt's General Ross being the only character to return in another movie (and even then, it was a full eight years later in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War). But while Ruffalo’s tenure as Bruce Banner has become a cornerstone of the MCU, there’s a lot to suggest that the series would have been better if Norton's performance as Banner had not been a one-and-done.
Why Marvel Recast Edward Norton
Back when The Incredible Hulk was in production, the MCU wasn't the juggernaut franchise that it is today. With Marvel and Universal still wincing from the disappointment of 2003's Hulk, and The Incredible Hulk itself being only the second film in the loosely-defined series, the MCU ship wasn't run nearly as tightly as is the case today. These days, the buck now stops with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, but Edward Norton sought to have far more creative say in the sophomore MCU project. Norton, having done a rewrite of the script, is said to have clashed heavily with Marvel on the tone and direction of the film. The relationship between Norton and Marvel grew tense enough for the actor to be largely absent from the film's promotional tour prior to its release in June 2008.
While Norton appeared set to reprise the role in The Avengers, the creative friction with Marvel Studios proved too great, leading the studio to re-cast Mark Ruffalo in the role for the then-upcoming superhero ensemble. This wouldn't be the last fans would hear of Norton and Marvel's falling out, with both camps giving at-times conflicting reasons behind Norton's departure. Norton himself has made his feelings on the situation known in recent years, including comments taking issue with The Incredible Hulk script, and specifically the loss of his contributions to it.
But even as fans of the MCU continue to debate whether to side with Marvel or Norton, Mark Ruffalo's subsequent performance in the role has been warmly received by audiences and critics. However, looking back on The Incredible Hulk, Norton's departure from the role of Bruce Banner has cost the MCU dearly.
Why Edward Norton Was Good As Bruce Banner
One thing that distinguishes Norton’s portrayal of Bruce Banner from Ruffalo’s is the man-on-the-run aspect of The Incredible Hulk. The film opens with Banner hiding a Brazilian favela, working in a bottling plant while trying to cure himself of transformations into the Hulk. The South American setting of the film is the only holdover from 2003’s Hulk prior to The Incredible Hulk being retooled into a complete reboot, but it lays the groundwork for much more personal and intimate stakes than Banner has received in any of his subsequent MCU appearances. Norton’s Banner is a man constantly on edge, going to great lengths to remain out of public view, and even greater lengths to keep his anger in check with martial arts and meditation.
Norton’s voice and slight build also aided him immensely in embodying the kind of diminutive character Banner is, but more than that, Norton was able to channel the constant sense of dread Banner lives with every day. His transformations into the Hulk feels like genuine monster movie moments, with Bruce petrified by his own immense power. What’s more, when Banner finally decides to intentionally transform into the Hulk to stop Abomination’s rampage, there’s a genuine feeling of sadness in Banner effectively trading his military captivity in order to inevitably go on the run again with the monster lurking within him. All of it works because Norton has so convincingly embodied a cursed man throughout the film, while the ending teases that he may have finally mastered his rage.
Mark Ruffalo's Hulk Has Lacked Definition
When Mark Ruffalo stepped into Norton’s shoes in The Avengers, he had his work cut out. Thankfully, like Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard as War Machine, he rose to the occasion. The film continued Banner being on the run from the military and S.H.I.E.L.D., and with his performance, Ruffalo largely maintained the tragic underdog that Norton embodied, while ramping up the character’s anger to the point of being barely suppressed. That would prove to be a major plot point in the film’s climactic battle in New York City, with Banner revealing that he’s kept the Hulk in check because he is now “always angry”. Add in the characters unforgettable run-in with Loki and banter with Tony Stark, and Ruffalo’s debut performances as Bruce Banner and Hulk were arguably the best things about The Avengers.
Unfortunately, Banner has never risen to those same heights again in his subsequent MCU appearances, with the man terrified of the destructive consequences never seen again. Following an end-credits cameo in Iron Man 3, Ruffalo began leaning more heavily into the increasingly comedic tone the franchise as a whole was adopting. His portrayal still didn't abandon his connective tissue with Norton's earlier work completely, as seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron when Banner struggles with the psychotic rampage he'd been sent on as the Hulk by Scarlet Witch's mind-manipulation.
But, by the time of The Hulk's return in 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, Ruffalo's portrayal was beginning to feel increasingly campy. The MCU's tale of Bruce Banner was no longer that of a man cursed to forever live on the run or a volatile outsider who finds a family with The Avengers, but a comic relief mascot. This continued in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, where it's simply impossible to believe that Ruffalo's Banner is the same character as Norton's. Indeed, its arguably a far cry from even Ruffalo's own earlier performance in The Avengers, with Banner now perpetually light-hearted and cheerful. The new Banner-Hulk hybrid casually tossing a motorcycle aside and meeting his old friends in a diner while clad in glasses and a bathrobe would prove indicative of just how much Ruffalo's performance now felt awkward and out-of-place compared to where the character had come from his earlier appearances.
Should Marvel Have Kept Edward Norton?
With Bruce Banner now having made a total of seven appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (counting Iron Man 3's post-credits stinger), the franchise feels like it would've been better off if Norton had continued in the role. While his creative clashes with Marvel had left some bad blood between both camps, Norton clearly had a solid grasp on the character and where he wanted to take Banner. His portrayal of the character was that of a meek man always sitting on pins and needles, the exact traits most readily associated with Bruce. However, he also was able to present Banner as the perpetual underdog, the guy who never catches a break and who the audience can't help but cheer for, and who had the potential to turn his curse into a gift and become a true hero. That's without even getting into technical aspects like the impossibly shredded design The Hulk was given, by far the best the character has ever seen on film.
Ruffalo was able to carry all of that over into The Avengers and even make the character feel a little darker in some respects. However, his subsequent appearances jettison the clear PTSD he's saddled with, and by the Infinity War-Endgame double-header, Banner hardly feels like a guy who's ever had anger issues or been through the kind of hell we know he's experienced. Smart Hulk also feels disjointed from even Ruffalo's own initial performance in the role, and heavily leans into the comedic tone the MCU has taken on in a way that feels out of step and inconsistent with the character.
Both Norton and Ruffalo excelled in their initial appearances as Bruce Banner, but Ruffalo's follow-up portrayals haven't had the same kind of weight as his first. In many ways, Norton felt tailor-made for the role of Bruce Banner, an effete, subdued victim of terrible circumstance with the potential to turn his ill-fortune into his greatest strength. In the years since The Incredible Hulk, Marvel's decision to recast Bruce Banner has yielded them plenty of acclaim from critics and audiences as a result of Ruffalo's time in the role but, in hindsight, the MCU would've been better off if they had stuck with "the other guy."
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