News broke over the weekend that Edward Norton will not be returning as the not-so-jolly green giant for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. This is after Whedon and Norton had a meeting, and Whedon reportedly blew Norton’s mind so badly that Norton (who had been iffy) cleared his schedule to work on the project – and Whedon seemed pretty cool about it as well. And then Marvel announced from on high that Edward Norton would not be returning as Bruce Banner for the big crossover superhero epic that is going to be the tentpole of 2012. And, with due respect to Marvel, that is pants. Purple, stretchy, non-ripping-when-I-turn-into-a-green-goliath pants.
The Incredible Hulk, Norton’s turn the big screen role played by Eric Bana not five years earlier, wasn’t amazing. It wasn’t mindblowing. But it also wasn’t terrible. Hell, I suppose I’m more sympathetic towards it than most, but it was a good summer blockbuster. Of course, it was overshadowed by the two tentpoles either side of it – Iron Man and The Dark Knight – but it was a respectable effort, much better than the big superhero film of last year – X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It didn’t do well enough financially that we’ll be getting a sequel anytime soon, but I think it was respectable. And I think Norton was moreso.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Marvel are toying with Norton here, trying some in-the-papers negotiation over his fee. That would seem the most obvious reason for his exclusion from the ensemble tentpole: his asking price is too high. Marvel did the same thing when they found Samuel L. Jackson’s asking price for his recurring role of Nick Fury too unreasonable: they announced that they’d just as easily dump him and recast. And he has now signed a nine-picture deal. They love messing around with actors to get their salaries down. So maybe this is the same thing, but I doubt it. It just seems more final. Indeed, Kevin Feige, Marvel Studio’s head of production, has denied that money had anything to do with the movie:
We have made the decision to not bring Ed Norton back to portray the title role of Bruce Banner in the Avengers. 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. The Avengers demands players who thrive working as part of an ensemble, as evidenced by Robert, Chris H, Chris E, Sam, Scarlett, and all of our talented casts. We are looking to announce a name actor who fulfils these requirements, and is passionate about the iconic role in the coming weeks.
This seems very much like a note home school informing parents that their child “does not play well with others”. Of course, we all know that the others here aren’t the fellow cast members, nor is it his directors. Both Norton and Whedon felt confident coming out of their discussions, and Norton got on really well with director Louis Leterrier on The Incredible Hulk (to the point where Leterrier was lobbying for Norton’s cut of the film). Despite all this talk about collaboration, what Marvel really mean is that Norton doesn’t necessarily ‘collaborate’ with them. And by ‘collaborate’, they mean defer entirely to their judgment.
Let’s be honest: we’ve all heard the production stories. Apparently Norton is a nightmare to work with. I’m not going to take sides – I don’t know the particulars of the stories. However, let’s talk about what we do know. We do know, for instance, that Norton and writer Zak Penn had somewhat different ideas for The Incredible Hulk, and that Norton heavily revised the script (though Zak Penn retained the credit on the film). We know that Norton and Marvel had a somewhat heated exchange of ideas over the final cut of the film, with Marvel winning out – leading some commentators to expect a “writer’s cut” will be released at some point.
And you know what? I’d buy it. Because I’ve viewed the deleted material on the blu-ray, which I can only assumed are pieces of Norton’s extended cut. And it’s some of the best stuff on the disc. Including it in the feature would have elevated a good film to possibly a great film. If this is the stuff that Norton wanted left in, I have no problem saying that he was right.
Yes, the deleted scenes feature easter eggs like Captain America frozen in ice or “hulk dogs”, but they also feature more intimate character moments. Take, for example, the opening scene, where Banner – disgusted at what he has become and what is hiding inside of him – attempts to commit suicide. That’s a huge character beat right there, and one which adds a lot more pathos to the tale than a “working on a cure in Brazil” montage. It’s hardly reinventing the wheel – it has been done quite a few times in the original comics – but it would be a tone-setting moment for the character on screen, particularly given the difficulty the character has had finding his identity on celluloid. There’s a wealth of character in these scenes, not just for Banner, but for Betty as well. And hell, even Ty Burrell as Doc Sampson gets some nice stuff in there, as well.
The result of such scenes is that the characters actually feel like interesting protagonists - in the same way that Robert Downey Jnr brought humanity to Tony Stark through his performance, I believe Norton’s writing could have done the same to Banner. Instead, Marvel decided to make some stupid rule (prompted by the somewhat reasonable belief that Ang Lee’s Hulk was too cerebral) about how the Hulk must have a fight sequence less than half-an-hour into the film. Which is a shame, because the character is at his most fascinating – in any medium – when you explore the heart of his character.
I think Edward Norton gets Bruce Banner and the Hulk, perhaps more so than Zak Penn – who is scripting the first draft of The Avengers, before Joss Whedon gets his hands on it. Like Norton, I suspect Whedon will do some jiggery-pokery of his own on the script and, like Norton, I suspect the final product will be the richer for it. I certainly don’t think that Norton’s involvement weakens the film in anyway, I think it would be nice to have him involved in the creative process. Iron Man thrived because of the wonderful impromptu and improvised work done by the actors on set, and I also found it strange that Norton got penalised because he wrote his contributions down rather than ad-libbing them.
I don’t know. Maybe this defense is pointless. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of money – despite what Marvel say -, but maybe there’s more at work. The point is that Norton is a talent that really deserves to be kept on, and that the project will be the better for it. I won’t pretend that Norton will make-or-break The Avengers – Joss Whedon is reason enough to start getting excited already – but I do think that he could be tremendously helpful with the eventual Hulk sequel we know we’re going to get. Indeed, the only reason to recast the role of Banner and give him a prominent role in the film (when all you need is the CGI Hulk) is to effectively set up a spin-off film. Norton was one of the things that The Incredible Hulk did right, and it seems unfair on his work to not only cut out his contributions to the original film, but also to remove him from the sequels – and I feel a bit cheated as an audience member. I really don’t envy the actor who is going to be paraded in his place at comic con (even if Marvel are now looking for a “name”, which seems to be their way of rebutting criticisms that they’re cheap – as if they can’t get a name actor cheap).
I know it sounds like fanboy complaining – and it probably is – but I loved the idea of a series of films tied together in a web of continuity. I accept that the continuity of cast can’t be maintained the whole way across – for example, we swapped out Terrence Howard for Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2 – but it would be nice to make some effort to keep the leads in place. In the past, swapping a lead actor from a well-known franchise has traditionally broken a chain of continuity and character development, even historically.
Yes, Bond was still pursuing Blofield when he changed from Sean Connery to George Lazenby to Sean Connery again, but there was no hint at all that the films were linked – the death of Bond’s wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had no impact on the plot of Diamonds Are Forever. The Batman movies of the eighties and nineties, although they technically share continuity, are each markedly different depending on the lead actor. Batman and Batman Returns fit together well, but Batman Forever and Batman & Robin don’t fit together, let alone with the earlier films. Bruce Wayne as imagined by Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney is a distinct character, regardless of whether the films technically share continuity.
And those are old examples. In this day-and-age, swapping a leading actor is the first sign of a continuity reboot. Andrew Garfield replacing Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. Daniel Craig replacing Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. Replacing Norton is a symbolic dismantling of the build-up to The Avengers, and a rebuke to its basic premise. If the main cast are so easily replaceable that you’ll fire one of them who is eager to work, then doesn’t that invalidate their earlier contribution? If the audience isn’t required to recognise and empathise with a particular interpretation of a character going in, then what was the point of giving them their own movie beforehand? If anyone on the cast can be dropped and replaced at a moment’s notice, and thus negating the momentum that their version of a character has going into this blockbuster, then how is The Avengers distinct from any random big budget event picture?
I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t like recasting – I have enough difficulty with it when the age of the actor demands it. But I also think that Norton was the best thing that The Incredible Hulk had going for it, and a major step in the right direction for a franchise which has had nothing but difficulty on the big screen. Ah well, such is life.
EDIT: Norton has updated his facebook page with a statement on the whole affair. It’s classy and fairly dignified. And, being honest, makes me a little sad inside that he’s gone:
As most of you know, I don’t like to talk much about the business of making movies because it means a lot to me to protect the audience’s fullest enjoyment of the ‘magic’ that films can have. But I am so appreciative of the outpouring of support from fans of the Hulk and the Avengers that I feel it would be rude not to respond. So here goes: It seems it won’t work out for me to continue playing Bruce Banner for Marvel in ‘The Avengers. I sincerely hoped it could happen and be great for everyone, but it hasn’t turned out as we all hoped. I know this is disappointing to many people and that makes me sad. But I am very sincerely grateful to Marvel for extending the offer and even more so for giving me the chance to be a part of the Hulk’s long and excellent history. And I really can’t thank the fans enough for how much enthusiasm you’ve sent my way about what Louis and I tried to do in our turn with the legend. It means a lot to me. I grew up with Banner and Hulk and have been a fan of every incarnation. I’m really proud, and very blessed, to have been one of them and will be thrilled to see him live on through other actors. Hulk is bigger than all of us, that’s why we love him, right?