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Carrying the Banner: Why Ed Norton Remains the Best Bruce Banner…

I had the pleasure of seeing The Avengers last week. It’s a solid film, and Whedon does a great job tying it all together. What Whedon does especially well is presenting us with a live-action version of the Hulk that really works. Whedon’s green goliath is treated like an actual character rather than a special effect or a plot point, and it looks absolutely incredible, appropriately enough. However, I can’t help but feel like the movie still struggles with the Bruce Banner aspect of the character, and that Mark Ruffalo isn’t a convincing replacement for Ed Norton, who was as perfect a fit for the rage-managing monster as Robert Downey Jr. was for the redeemable Tony Stark.

Distilled Banner?

The Hulk has been a tough monster to get right, as demonstrated by Ang Lee’s somewhat cerebral Hulk and Louis Leterrier’s underrated The Incredible Hulk. While both movies dealt with the psychology of the character with a varying amount of success, they seemed to have a bit of bother with the smashing aspect of the character. In contrast, Whedon’s film had the audience cheering for the monster at several points. My better half even softened significantly towards the creature, and seemed genuinely concerned for his safety at points. Everybody in the film gets a moment of awesome at the climax… the Hulk gets several.

Part of that is perhaps down to the motion-capture used to allow Mark Ruffalo to play both the Hulk and Bruce Banner. He does a good job of both, to be fair, but he never really makes the role of Banner his own. This is despite the fact that the film seems to go out of its way to devote time to Banner’s character. In fact, a driving subplot has characters trying to figure out how Banner seems to have mastered his rage issues. One of the most surreal images of the film has Banner driving up to the team on a motorbike and claiming that he controls his anger through the realisation that he’s angry all the time.

You don't get to be the Hulk without Raffalo-ing some feathers...

It’s a nice character beat, to be fair. The Hulk doesn’t come from nowhere, he’s a piece of Banner that is always there. There has to be some of the Hulk in Banner, as there’s some of Banner in the Hulk. The problem is that while there’s a lot of Mark Ruffalo in the Hulk, there’s not a lot of the Hulk in Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Banner spends most of the movie in a lab, talking with the other characters, and actually sounding like the sanest man in the room. However, this seems to come naturally to Ruffalo, and it seems we’d forget we need to be careful of him if the other characters didn’t mention it once every five minutes. This is in contrast to Norton’s Hulk.

I genuinely mean that, as controversial as it might initially sound. Robert Downey Jr. worked as an unlikely superhero because the part of Tony Stark might as well have been written for him. Like Downey, Stark is a high-profile high-success individual who has had trouble with the responsibility stemming from that. It was hard to watch Downey play the charming drunk without recalling the news reports of his famous binges and his own fall for grace. Indeed, as Stark redeemed himself inside his suit of armour, Downey seemed to resurrect his career – to prove that, despite failed attempts in the past, he could recover and he could become a screen icon.

There won't be blood...

Norton works just as well in the role of Banner, with the same subtext playing into the iconic role. Norton is known as a perfectionist – he’s had his share of difficulties working with the studios and with directors. He famously edited together American History X after director Tony Kaye was locked out of the room. A prestigious (and prodigious) talent working from a young age, he was still a performer to watch (and still is), despite these difficulties. Like Banner, it seemed that the actor had an edge to him, hidden away behind his somewhat skinny frame.

As played by Norton, you can believe that Banner is a passive-aggressive individual, bottling up all his rage and insecurities to the point where they could legitimately manifest themselves as a giant green rage monster. Norton worked on the script to the film with Zak Penn, and got tangled up in a massive row over the final cut, a decision that seems to have led to his departure and replacement. However, I think Norton’s performance is still a joy to watch – I think it’s why I rate his film so much higher than most other film fans tend to.

Ol' Green eyes is back...

It’s the little details, like the way that Norton plays Banner as an extremely frustrated individual. There are two moments that exemplify this, and represent two of the best Hulk moments I’ve encountered in any medium. The first is available as a deleted scene, and sees Banner trekking into the wilderness to put an end to his suffering. He puts a gun in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger… and it doesn’t work. That’s a very human moment of desperation that we rarely see in these sorts of superhero films, and I can see why Marvel cut it, but captures the character very well – and it wouldn’t have worked with Ruffalo, Bana or Bixby, the other live-action Bruce Banners.

The other nice moment is played as a joke, and sees Banner unable to get too frisky with his girlfriend lest he get a little too excited. It is played for laughs, and it works quite well, but it also suggests how frustrated Norton’s Banner must be. He can’t ever let go of himself, he must always be restrained. That has got to make a character frustrated, and Banner plays up that aspect of the character. Norton delivers warnings about his burden with complete seriousness, and he doesn’t ever seem to directly acknowledge the Hulk as a person or entity, but rather an object or thing. It feels odd to hear Ruffalo’s iteration of the character talk about “the other guy” when Norton’s version seemed hesitant to acknowledge it as a person.

A Banner year for team-ups...

There’s more drama in Norton and Leterrier’s Bruce Banner, more humanity and fodder. In fact, Whedon even references that attempted suicide. “I put a bullet in my mouth,” Ruffalo’s Banner confesses in his big character moment, “and the other guy spit it out.” Except I actually have difficulty believing that Ruffalo’s Banner would do that. Ruffalo has an innate charm and comfort in front of the camera that makes him seem a little too slick as a tortured experiment.

Hell, Ruffalo makes it seem like Banner might even be relatively comfortable living a low-key live of squalor in Calcutta, seeming almost happy to be able to help people, even in an exile that means he’ll never see friends or family. Even at his most unpleasant, in films like The Kids Are All Right, Ruffalo seems more comfortable playing a bit of a douche than a seriously troubled individual.  However, Ruffalo’s Banner isn’t eventhat flawed.

You're really messin' with his zen thing...

It’s a portrayal that works in the context of the film Whedon is making, to be fair. Whedon’s movie is wonderfully upbeat and happy, embracing these characters as pure icons of virtue. Sure, they might banter back at forth and shout at each other in the second third of the film, but they don’t make moral compromises, they are above reproach and they honest-to-goodness heroes. Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is about as heroic as I’ve ever seen the character, and it feels almost surreal as he wanders through the film with a zen-like calm.

There are problems when we’re asked to accept that Ruffalo’s Banner does have a monster inside of him. There’s a moment during a heated argument where Banner (apparently subconsciously) picks up a weapon, as if to allude to the fact that there is something sinister lurking in his subconscious. However, it feels a bit blunt and obvious, as if Whedon is trying to assure us that it’s okay – he really is capable of turning into a “giant green rage monster”, and isn’t going to spend the movie as mild-mannered Bruce Banner.

Shielding us from his other side...

The other moment, one that works much better, sees Banner stunned during an explosion, and in transformation. The Black Widow is nearby, trapped under rubble, and she had convinced Banner to join the team, assuring him that everything would be okay and that they’d let him go at the end of it. As Banner is writhing on the floor, he’s mumbling and muttering to himself, accusing her of lying. It’s a nice little moment, but Ruffalo’s ramblings seem a little disconnected rather than deep-rooted. It’s bubbling to the surface, this resentment, suspicion and bitterness, but there was no real indication of it before.

Still, it’s a minor complaint. In a film featuring seven leading characters, to only get one of them half-wrong (while getting the other half as close to perfect as ever) is no small accomplishment. And, to be fair, I’ll be interested to see how Mark Ruffalo develops the character in subsequent films – whether in Iron Man 3 or the rumoured “threeboot” of the character. Still, I can’t help but wonder how cool it might have been to see Ed Norton back again. It doesn’t quite make me angry, although it does put me a little closer to Norton’s frustration than Ruffalo’s zen.

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29 Responses

  1. I just rewatched Norton’s version last night. He made that movie way better than it actually was by bringing the human aspect of Banner to the forefront and how he deals with the burden. I was disappointed when I heard he hadn’t signed on for the Avengers, but I am glad to hear they finally got the Hulk aspect right. Great post!

    • Thanks. The Hulk is excellent. And I think Norton’s performance (and his writing) were easily the best things about that film, even if it occassionally seemed like the rest of the film was weighted against it.

  2. I agree that Norton is the best Bruce Banner, though I really enjoyed Eric Bana’s performance. I wish they had allowed him to be in the sequel (along with the rest of the cast of the first film, which was close to perfect–the supporting cast was one of the few failings of the second film). Similarly, I wish Marvel had worked out its differences with Norton so he could be in “The Avengers,” but it seems they needed someone who was part of the team and not a rogue who stirred up percieved trouble. It would have been great seeing an actor of Norton’s caliber to be on screen with Robert Downey, Jr.

    • I think that Jennifer Connolly was a great loss – but then again, I’m a big Connolly fan. Yep, I remember this happening at Comic Con or something last year, with Whedon and Norton meeting (which I thought was decent) and then Marvel announcing Ruffalo within a few hours. I believe Ruffalo is a friend of Norton, and Norton wrote a very polite letter about it, so it seems to at least be on relative good terms. Although a lot of people seemed to interpret his quick falling in line over the cut of Leterrier’s film as an attempt to avoid encouraging the public image of Norton as difficult to work with.

      • I love Jennifer Connolly, too, and thought that Liv Tyler was a bit on the bland side, but at least the two actresses resembled each other (even if they are 7 years apart in age).

  3. Great post. Norton is in my opinion quite a fantastic actor, and it’s hard for someone as, well, mundane as Ruffalo (with all due respect) to portray a character so complex and ambiguous. It has to seem as though a lot is going on underneath the surface, something which Norton perfected in Fight Club and Ruffalo just doesn’t seem to have a natural aptitude to.

    …that being said, I have not yet seen The Avengers, so maybe he’ll surprise me.

    • I’m not sure I’d describe Ruffalo as “mundane”, but he generally plays charming, relaxed characters. Even at his most obsessive (in Zodiac or Collateral), his characters generally still seem as if they would go home to their family at the end of the day, or be able to bundle up his worries and divorce them from themselves. Norton never seems like that – as you said, it’s the impression that he’s generally quite introspective, or that he’s bottling stuff up. Even when Norton chews scenery, he’s still liable to be understated.

  4. Great post. Norton is my favourite Bruce Banner so far. I haven’t seen The Avengers yet (it opens here on Thursday) but I have seen all the Bruce Bixby episodes and, of course, Eric Bana’s performance. I like Bana but can’t help thinking he only really got Banner right when he was in The Time Traveller’s Wife playing someone else! Norton is so talented. I love the early scenes during his exile. I would have been very happy to see him reprise his role in The Avengers. Oh well.

    • Thanks Rachel. It is worth noting that Ruffalo fits the film well – it’s easily the most optimistic of the Marvel movies (save perhaps Thor), if a little overly reductive (in particular, Stark seems strangely well-adjusted, despite still being highly dysfunctional at the end of Iron Man 2). I will be curious to see Ruffalo as Banner in other films, but he just didn’t seem to have the same edge as Norton did.

      But the Hulk itself looks incredible.

  5. I’ll be very interested to see Ruffalo’s take on the character after reading this. Norton is one of my favourite actors but the Hulk hasn’t been done as well as it could in either of the films. Ruffalo is also excellent so I hope that with all these interesting moments in Avengers, this new Hulk might be more appealing to me. Would very much like to see that deleted scene you mentioned from the Norton version.

    • Hi Pete. That clip is, I beleive, available on Youtube as well as the DVD/blu ray. I’ll see if I can dig it out later.

  6. Norton was great but he’s too much trouble and Marvel has too much banking on Avengers. Bixby will always be my banner, just as Tom will always be my Doctor and Roger will always be my Bond – can’t change that first love!

    Great post, by the way.

    • Thanks!

      Nah, I can understand why he wasn’t brought back, and Ruffalo is grand (I am quite fond of his work elsewhere), but Banner just seems sort of bland. I can’t imagine Ruffalo’s Banner being selfish or arrogant enough to test his serum or therapy on himself, for example. Which might be intended to show us character growth but, if so, most of it comes off screen.

  7. Your argument seems to me a lot like arguing that Christian Bale’s Batman is better than Adam West’s Batman because he’s more serious and brooding.

    Edward Norton was brilliant but having that “version” of Banner in The Avengers wouldn’t fit with how Banner’s character changes at the end of The Incredible Hulk (Like, when he smiles and gains a kind of control over the transformation and Hulk).

    It is a shame we don’t get to see him on screen in between Hulk and Avengers. But following on from that Hulk ending, Banner gaining more of a zen-like calm in The Avengers feels like a natural progression. Character growth and that.

    Putting Christian Bale Batman into the world of Batman ’66 wouldn’t work and neither would having Avengers Banner act like he did in The Incredible Hulk like he didn’t change at all.

    Just my idiot opinion though; I’m probably overlooking something. Love the blog 🙂 It’s nice to get comics and film musings in the same place.

    • The problem with that analogy is that Batman ’66 was a completely different universe than that of Christopher Nolan’s films (and of the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher series as well). “The Incredible Hulk” and “The Avengers” exists in the same continuity, so the Bruce Banner of both films (and, presumably Ang Lee’s “Hulk”) are the same character. A more apt comparison would be to take Bill Bixby’s David Banner and put him in the new film. You are correct in that there is a character arc and we should see a progression of the character, but who’s to say that Ed Norton could not pull that off?

    • Thanks Christopher! And, to be fair, it’s a reasonable point. I like Adam West’s Bat more than most and (while I think Nolan’s Batman is the single best distillation of the mythos) I loathe the idea that Batman must be dark and sinister. He can be anything pop culture wants him to be, if done well.

      However, I think the reason I didn’t warm to Ruffalo is because his portrayal was of a ligther more obviously balanced Banner in a film where everybody was (understandably) terrified of the Hulk. SHIELD has a giant Hulk cage ready for him, everybody is wary around him, Loki plans to use him as a weapon.

      In order for any of those plot beats to seem justified, you need to feel that Banner could lose control at the wrong moment. Ruffalo and Downey interact like playful old friends, rather than an irresponsible douche risking hundreds of lives and a man terrified of what he might do. Insert Norton into that scene and it becomes just a little bit more tense (while, hopefully, without losing the humour).

  8. You know I mate Lou, the original incredible hulk in 1992, you see the characters Bruce Banner played a humble scientist and when he gets pissed off turns into the Hulk, an which he smash’s the fuck out of those who challanges him and innocent to those who are weak! This movie the avengers, is the worst movie made just like the movie The A-team!..

  9. Very interesting analysis, you bring up quite a few good points, though I still personally believe Ruffalo to be the best Banner to date – the more self-aware approach, the “I’m always angry” bit…that dialogue, that attitude, really contextualized this character in a way that made me want to sit down and ponder his internal conflict more than Norton’s Banner ever did.

    While I too would’ve liked to have seen Norton continue, preferably working with a better director for the next solo outing, I think Ruffalo really set this character up for potentially great things in the coming years.

    • Thanks Ryan. I think that the Hulk was amazing, but I didn’t buy the “I’m always angry” bit. Norton as always angry I could buy, Ruffalo not so much. Then again, I accept that Ruffalo’s more sociable and less conflicted Banner fit the themes and tones of the movie better, with Whedon effectively illustrating that these characters are all heroes, rather than anti-heroes or deconstructions of heroes. (I suspect that’s why the rumoured “entire team vs. Hulk” battle was dropped as well, in favour of a smaller Thor vs. Hulk knockdown.)

      I am looking forward to seeing what Ruffalo can offer in a less crowded film. I hope he turns up in Iron Man 3.

  10. I believe they will get Norton back in a Incredibl Hulk 2 Sequel to 2008 after The Avengers 2 in 2015.

    • I would be pleasantly surprised. I like Ruffalo, but I didn’t care much for his Hulk who is suddenly able to control himself perfectly.

    • Marvel chose not to hire Norton for “The Avengers” because of his confrontational temperament and they considered him to be not a team player (which I guess was important for a team such as the Avengers). They signed Ruffalo for multiple pictures (though not a solo Hulk movie). There’s no way they’d bring Norton back for another solo outing when they have the man they want already signed.

  11. i agree with every point. I like ruffalo but he seemed to give off the impression that he had been cured. I also didn’t buy ‘i’m always angry’ line. They also didn’t like how they made him look like bixby.

  12. OK, I realize I’m very late to this party, but I happened to see this blog, and I’m amazed people actually liked Ed Norton as Banner. I thought he sucked, and was the worst thing in the movie besides some of the writing.

    Furthermore, I think he’s a poor actor in general. Lispy, whiny, homely and weak is all I see when I see Ed Norton. I really don’t get why he’s popular. He stinks. Lousy actor, ugly guy, and by some accounts an asshole as well.

    Ruffalo, IMO, is superb as Banner. Thank god they got him for Avengers and Norton is gone.

    • Each’s own. Doctor’s differ and patients die.

      I like Ruffalo. Indeed, that’s really the problem. I don’t believe he could have rage issues. Sure, I could believe that he might be a secret douchebag or have intimacy issues or something, but it would take a lot to convince me that any character played by Ruffalo could be bottling up a monster.

      Norton, on the other hand, just seems to do nothing but bottle up. For his size, the guy can play a truly intimidating villain, mostly because there’s always a sense that there’s something very nasty lurking below the surface. I can believe that Norton’s Banner has pent-up rage and frustration and daddy issues.

    • Edward Norton is an amazing actor? Have you seen primal fear,, american history x or fight club? You are deluded.

      • Mike, just checking, did you mean to type “Ed Norton is an amazing actor?” Did you mean an exclamation mark instead of a question mark or maybe a “not” in there?

  13. Yeah my bad. I meant to write ‘!’. I really miss Edward Norton as Bruce Banner.

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