Why Edward Norton’s AVENGERS dismissal matters

This is old news, too, but it was important to me at the time, and it still is.

Edward Norton isn’t going to be Bruce Banner in The Avengers, and even though I guess I have to be, I’ll never be okay with that.

First let’s go back in time a little bit to the morning of May 4, 2007, when I’d just woken up cranky and crestfallen after a midnight showing of one of the most abysmal pieces of garbage I’d ever sat through — Spider Man 3.

I stumbled to my computer to write this review, but first I did a quick sweep of all my favorite sites to find out that Liv Tyler had joined Edward Norton in the cast of The Incredible Hulk.

I was so happy! Spider-Man 3 couldn’t hurt me anymore. At that moment, I felt like nothing could.

(My initial thoughts about Liv’s casting are here, and my initial thoughts about Edward’s casting are here.)

When the movie finally came out in 2008, I loved it. I’ve watched the Blu-Ray countless times, and every time I love it a little more. From the moment that Norton’s Bruce Banner winked at Tyler’s Betty Ross from the gamma transponder in the origin/credits sequence, I knew that Norton fully intended to deliver on his original promise to the fans — to combine the action of the early Hulk comics with the heart that drove the late, great Bill Bixby to such timelessly amazing performances in the classic TV series.

My only complaint about the film is that Robert Downey, Jr. gets the final scene in Edward Norton’s movie, when Tony Stark approaches General Ross (William Hurt, excellent as always) about the Avengers. I’d have put that before Norton’s last scene, where we find out that he’s finally learned how to control the Hulk.

But it was a minor quibble. Marvel’s movies had been building to The Avengers anyway, and I couldn’t wait to see Norton and Downey together — along with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Chris Evans’s Captain America — in one outrageously massive movie.

Norton’s appearance in The Avengers, however, was never a given. It was widely publicized before the film’s release that one of the biggest factors in Norton’s taking the role in the first place was the opportunity Marvel gave him to rewrite Zak Penn’s original screenplay. The extra scenes Norton wrote were filmed, but most of them didn’t make it into Marvel’s streamlined final cut of the movie. (At least we got to see them as deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray.) And though Norton also reworked the dialogue to give the film the heart, soul, and mythology missing from Penn’s version, he still didn’t end up getting credit for it.

You can read all in about it in Peter Sciretta’s excellent, comprehensive breakdown of the situation right here on /Film. Here’s a relevant bit from Mr. Sciretta:

Marvel submitted both Zak Penn’s and Edward Norton’s (under a pseudonym, Edward Harrison) drafts to the Writers’ Guild for arbitration. Penn also wrote a letter to the WGA insisting that Norton had not considerably changed his screenplay. Members of the Guild follow a formula for determining the credits. An original writer must contribute at least one-third of the final screenplay to receive credit. If subsequent writers labor on an original screenplay as script doctors, they must contribute more than half of the final screenplay to receive credit. The Guild compares the final cut of the film against both drafts, favoring story and characters over dialogue. And as I said before, most of Norton’s changes were dialogue driven. The conclusion was that Penn would get sole screenplay credit. Zak Penn’s original script was also said to include two pivotal scenes from his 16-year-old screenplay attempt: Bruce Banner jumping out of a helicopter, and the scene where Banner tries to get intimate with Betty, but his rising heart rate becomes an issue.

So there you have it. Penn whined to the WGA that Norton hadn’t changed the basic structure enough to be acknowledged; Penn’s arbitration was successful, and the film hit theaters without the “written by” credit that everyone — including the Marvel suits who’d hired him on that very promise — knew Norton rightfully deserved.

Rumors of bad blood ran rampant, even though Norton released this classy statement at the time:

Like so many people I’ve loved the story of The Hulk since I was a kid, so it was thrilling when Marvel asked me to write and help produce an altogether new screen incarnation, as well as play Bruce Banner. I grew up reading Marvel Comics and always loved the mythic dimension and contemporary themes in the stories, and I’m proud of the script I wrote. In every phase of production, including the editing, working with Louis Leterrier has been wonderful…I’ve never had a better partner, and the collaboration with all the rest of the creative team has been terrific. Every good movie gets forged through collaboration, and different ideas among people who are all committed and respect the validity of each other’s opinions is the heart of filmmaking. Regrettably, our healthy process, which is and should be a private matter, was misrepresented publicly as a ‘dispute,’ seized on by people looking for a good story, and has been distorted to such a degree that it risks distracting from the film itself, which Marvel, Universal and I refuse to let happen. It has always been my firm conviction that films should speak for themselves and that knowing too much about how they are made diminishes the magic of watching them. All of us believe The Incredible Hulk will excite old fans and create new ones and be a huge hit…our focus has always been to deliver the Hulk that people have been waiting for and keep the worldwide love affair with the big green guy going strong.

Not to mention the fact that Norton promoted the movie like a champ; he especially had me in stitches in these hilarious Moviefone Unscripted videos interviews — here and here — with Liv Tyler and director Louis Leterrier.

Just listen to him. He loves the character. He knows the character. He gets the character. In the end, that’s really all that matters.

Months became years, and speculation about Norton’s chances of coming back as Banner in The Avengers continued.

On March 16, 2010, longtime online journalist Drew McWeeny from HitFix sat down with Norton at the South by Southwest film festival for this interview:

Edward Norton puts Hulk’s fate in the hands of the fans at SXSW

In a similar interview with MTV, Norton once again urged the fans to contact Marvel if they wanted to see him in The Avengers.

That was in the middle of May. By early July, things had gone to hell the hard way.

On July 9, Drew McWeeny broke the bad news:

EXCLUSIVE: Edward Norton is not the Hulk in ‘The Avengers’ … but he’d like to be

My heart sank. And just one day later, Drew came back with the update I’d dared to hope wasn’t coming:

Marvel confirms they will hire new ‘Hulk’ for ‘The Avengers’

And it wasn’t just over. It was ugly. Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios’ President of Production, released this spectacularly shitty statement (quoted from Mr. McWeeny’s article linked directly above):

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 fulfills these requirements, and is passionate about the iconic role in the coming weeks.

Reactionary and petty, Feige’s words couldn’t possibly have been less professional.

Nor would they go unanswered:

Exclusive: Edward Norton’s agent responds to Marvel chief’s statement

Here’s what Norton’s agent, Brian Swardstrom, had to say:

This offensive statement from Kevin Feige at Marvel is a purposefully misleading, inappropriate attempt to paint our client in a negative light. Here are the facts: two months ago, Kevin called me and said he wanted Edward to reprise the role of Bruce Banner in The Avengers. He told me it would be his fantasy to bring Edward on stage with the rest of the cast at ComiCon and make it the event of the convention. When I said that Edward was definitely open to this idea, Kevin was very excited and we agreed that Edward should meet with Joss Whedon to discuss the project. Edward and Joss had a very good meeting (confirmed by Feige to me) at which Edward said he was enthusiastic at the prospect of being a part of the ensemble cast.  Marvel subsequently made him a financial offer to be in the film and both sides started negotiating in good faith. This past Wednesday, after several weeks of civil, uncontentious discussions, but before we had come to terms on a deal, a representative from Marvel called to say they had decided to go in another direction with the part. This seemed to us to be a financial decision but, whatever the case, it is completely their prerogative, and we accepted their decision with no hard feelings.

We know a lot of fans have voiced their public disappointment with this result, but this is no excuse for Feige’s mean spirited, accusatory comments. Counter to what Kevin implies here, Edward was looking forward to the opportunity to work with Joss and the other actors in the Avengers cast, many of whom are personal friends of his.  Feige’s statement is unprofessional, disingenuous and clearly defamatory. Mr. Norton talent, tireless work ethic and professional integrity deserve more respect, and so do Marvel’s fans.

Brian Swardstrom



Analysis of that in a minute.

First, here’s Norton’s own response, originally posted on his official Facebook page:

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 the 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?


Edward Norton

As expected, 100% sincerity and class.

So let’s review. Kevin Feige comes out swinging, accusing Norton of not being a team player in combative, inflammatory language.

Norton’s agent, however, responds with details and dates. Kevin Feige called Norton’s people and told them he wanted Norton in The Avengers, and that he wanted Norton on stage with the rest of the cast at San Diego Comic-Con for the big announcement. Norton then met with the film’s director, Joss Whedon, and Feige told Norton’s people that the meeting went well.

Norton wanted in. Marvel made an initial offer, and negotiations began and continued as they always do. But then, out of nowhere, Marvel unceremoniously informed Norton’s camp that negotiations were over, and that Norton was out.

From a public relations standpoint, Norton is the clear winner here. Marvel talked trash about him, his agent countered with facts, and Norton himself released a thoughtful, classy statement.

For all I know, Edward Norton could be the most evil and awful man on the planet. But even if he is, my response remains this:

It’s not my problem.

When Marvel began working toward the Avengers movie, they made a promise to me, John Bierly, who grew up in a loving household raised by parents who not only supported his interest in superheroes but shared it, that I’d get an Avengers movie with Downey and Norton and the rest of the team up there on the big screen. I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to live in a world where guys like Edward Norton are playing the comic book characters I loved as a kid. I loved his Hulk movie. I wanted more of it. And now I’ll never get it.

Mark Ruffalo was cast as Norton’s replacement just in time to join the other Avengers on stage — photo and video at the links. Ruffalo’s been amazing in everything I’ve ever seen him in, and let the record show that I suggested him to my friend Kareem as an ideal Banner candidate in the wake of Norton’s dismissal.

But my disappointment — and if I’d written this in July, like I should have, it still would have been black, ugly anger — doesn’t have anything to do with Ruffalo, who’ll do an incredible job as the Hulk. It isn’t about who did this, or said that, or any of the other factors I’m not privy to.

It’s not my problem. People disagree on film sets every day, and the movies still get made. What matters are the promises these companies make to the fans, and Marvel seems hellbent on making it clear that money comes before cast or continuity.

If Norton wanted more money (and I don’t know that he did), then Marvel should have written the check. Don’t they realize that spending the money on the talent today will save them — and make them — so much more money in the long run than what they lose by the bad publicity they generate by their own short-term greed? They already let Iron Man and Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau know that he was expendable (which you can read about here), and they famously tried to low-ball Samuel L. Jackson (who eventually got a nine-picture deal) and Mickey Rourke. We’d better thank our lucky stars that we got Chris Evans as Captain America, because most of those candidates were beyond the bottom of the barrel.

As my girl Fiona Apple once sang, “Oh, well.” What I want doesn’t make the world go ’round, and The Avengers will make a gazillion dollars regardless of who’s playing the Hulk.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or that promises made to the fans who matter shouldn’t be kept by the people who make them.

And to Edward Norton, all I can say is thank you, sir, for giving me the Hulk movie I’d been waiting for, and that I still enjoy often and entirely. You honored the legend, and in my heart, that’s forever.

P.S. Please tell your friend Liv Tyler that I love her.


  1. Mark Whipple says:

    Very nice write up. Thanks for putting this all down. I had no idea what was going on but was EXTREMELY disappointed when I heard Norton wouldn’t be in the movie. And there’s scuttlebutt now about Downey not being in it. If I were Downey, I’d make the movie for $1 (plus a percentage). I’d still walk away with millions and millions. And I’d look pretty classy since it would be obvious to my fans that I loved them so much that I was willing to take a risk of making nothing just to make them happy.

  2. John Bierly says:

    Thank YOU, Mark, for the comment! I think Mark Ruffalo will be an amazing Banner, but I wish they’d hadn’t screwed Norton out of the part. 

    I’ve not read any of the Downey rumors, but Marvel had better write that man whatever check he wants if there’s every any doubt. He’s like the ambassador of Marvel movies, and you don’t let that kind of talent get away. Marvel increasingly seems to make deals as if they feel the talent is expendable and interchangeable, but Downey is far above and beyond replacement.

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