Edward Norton Opened Up About The Real Reason He Parted Ways With Marvel

In 2008 Marvel Studios kicked off the world-conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with two superhero movies. The first, Iron Man was swiftly followed by The Incredible Hulk. And to bring the big, green meanie to life for the latter, the studio enlisted the talents of Edward Norton for the roles of Bruce Banner and his angry alter-ego. Yet just two years after the movie hit theaters, the studio dumped its acclaimed star via a barbed official statement. This seemingly acrimonious split has since been the topic of much debate. But now, finally, Norton has revealed what really went down behind the scenes.

The relationship between star and studio actually started out surprisingly well. In fact, it was apparently the bigwigs at Marvel who initially pulled for Norton to take the starring role in The Incredible Hulk. The movie’s director, Louis Leterrier, has even publicly stated that the actor was not his first choice for the part.

Interestingly, Leterrier told HuffPost in 2013 that he had backed an altogether different actor as his star. He said, “I actually wanted to cast Mark Ruffalo as Hulk, and Marvel was like, ‘No, you should get Edward Norton because he’s more famous.’” And Kevin Feige – now Marvel’s chief creative officer – is also on record gushing over Norton’s casting.

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“It was a dream getting Edward Norton,” Feige told journalists in 2007, according to IGN. He even hinted that Norton’s presence gave the studio’s picture a hint of prestige. The studio head went on, “I think the casting announcement has given everybody pause. I think there are a lot of people who are looking at [The Incredible Hulk] in a new light.”

After all, a superhero action flick is not the sort of film you would usually associate with Norton. Up to that point in his career, in fact, the actor had already received two Oscar nominations. And the films littering his resume tended more towards unflinching dramas – such as 25th Hour, Fight Club and American History X – than the Hollywood mainstream.

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So what was it about The Incredible Hulk that piqued Norton’s interest? Well, the actor told Total Film magazine in 2008 that he had previously been offered a number of franchise-style films. But he turned them down, feeling that the projects were always “woefully under-realized as scripts.” With The Incredible Hulk, however, the star seemingly sensed an opportunity.

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Norton said, “I thought, ‘This is amazing, if we’re really being given the chance to take one of these things seriously on its own terms.’” And considering that the actor later goes on to compare the story of Hulk to powerful, enduring myths such as Proteus and Icarus, it’s clear that he took the job very seriously indeed.

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It’s perhaps unsurprising to learn, then, that Norton came on board the flick not only as its star, but also as a writer. In fact, the actor told Total Film magazine that being given the freedom to be involved creatively was crucial. He then revealed that it was the “only way” he was going to commit to making the movie.

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And, at first, it seemed that the other creative forces behind the flick were happy to let Norton dig in. In 2008, for instance, director Leterrier told Superhero Hype, “[Norton], who we were seeing as an actor, said, ‘I write screenplays.’ So I asked if he could do the last draft, and he said, ‘No problem.’”

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Producer Feige also hinted that he was excited for people to see what the pair had come up with. During the same series of interviews, he said,“In Louis Leterrier and Edward Norton, we had a team […] that could really bring [the movie] to life in a way that people are anticipating. The film definitely delivers.”

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And it should have come as no surprise to any of the film’s major players that Norton would have wanted some kind of creative control. After all, the star had already started to build a reputation as something of a perfectionist. A number of the actor’s past movies had, in fact, been the subject of tales of on-set strife.

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In 1998, for example, Tony Kaye had such fallings-out with Norton and the studio over American History X that the director attempted to disown the finished film entirely. Kaye wrote in The Guardian four years later that the actor even edited the picture without his approval.

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Red Dragon director Brett Ratner also had a few choice words to say about Norton. The comments came after he worked with the actor on the 2002 Hannibal Lector film. And according to the Los Angeles Times, Ratner said the actor’s attitude is “both a blessing and a curse” because “he likes to challenge the director.”

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And the controversy surrounding the actor didn’t end there. On Frida – another Norton picture from 2002 – the star had a hand in writing the screenplay. Yet the credit for the film went to writers Clancy Sigal, Gregory Nava and Diane Lake. That’s why the actor later reportedly claimed that he “got shafted by the Writers Guild at the last minute.”

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So it shouldn’t have been news to anyone at Marvel that Norton would want to put his own stamp on the Hulk universe. And, as the actor has explained in a number of interviews, he was upfront about his ambitions for the movie. In the Total Film magazine piece, for instance, the star explained his approach.

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For one thing, Norton seemed to be mildly in awe of Christopher Nolan. The British director had enjoyed huge success with his own comic-book movie, 2005’s Batman Begins. And that re-imagining of the Dark Knight’s origin story seemingly inspired the actor. Rather than basing his movie on Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, he and the crew decided to start afresh.

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In fact, Norton once made light of his admiration of the director in a 2018 TV appearance. He even joked about how he looked to The Dark Knight trilogy for more than just inspiration. “I thought we should try to make one Marvel movie that was as good as the worst Chris Nolan movie, but what the hell was I thinking?” the actor wisecracked during The Comedy Central Roast of Bruce Willis.

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Anyway, Norton has also said that he initially planned on making two Hulk movies. “It’s definitely intended as chapter one,” the actor said of the movie during his 2008 Total Film magazine interview. But more than that, the star revealed in 2019 that he’d informed Marvel of his plans. And, crucially, that the studio was on board with his vision.

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As Norton told The New York Times, “I laid out a two-film thing: the origin and then the idea of Hulk as the conscious dreamer, the guy who can handle the trip. And [Marvel] were like, ‘That’s what we want!’” So at the beginning of production, there were seemingly no hard feelings or misunderstandings between the two camps.

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But then something clearly went wrong. Two months before the release of The Incredible Hulk, Entertainment Weekly ran an interesting report. The April 2008 piece detailed the apparent strife between Norton and Marvel, including a “disagreement” between the star and studio over the tone and length of the finished film.

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Director Leterrier then seemed to confirm the subject of the in-fighting in a 2013 sit-down with HuffPost. “The first half of the movie is really mine. […] The second half is the studio’s expected Hulk movie: two giants kicking each other’s ass,” he said. Yet the studio apparently wasn’t the only one unhappy with Norton.

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In July 2008, you see, The Incredible Hulk’s credited screenwriter, Zak Penn, spoke out against the movie’s star. “I wasn’t happy with [Norton] coming to Comic-Con saying that he wrote the script,” Penn said, according to Entertainment Weekly. So the fallout from these disagreements appeared to be that the actor subsequently gave few promotional interviews for the film.

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In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported that instead of promoting the movie, Norton was on vacation in Africa. Entertainment Weekly also claimed that the star had “declined repeated interview requests.” Yet despite the apparent lack of support from its headliner, The Incredible Hulk still went on to take $263 million in global box-office receipts.

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Two years and a handful of hit films later, however, Marvel gave Norton the boot. And they did it in a seemingly very public fashion. In 2010, you see, the studio had been gearing up to produce Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. This was the film that would unite all of Marvel’s heroes. Indeed, together for the first time on the big screen, audiences would see Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr., Thor, as portrayed by Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans’ Captain America and, of course, Hulk.

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When it came to casting Hulk, though, Marvel evidently elected to go in a different direction. Why? Well, in December 2010 the studio released an official statement on the subject – and didn’t mince its words. “We have made the decision to not bring Ed Norton back to portray […] 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,” it read.

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But that’s not all. The statement continued, “The Avengers demands players who thrive working as part of an ensemble. […]We are looking to announce a name actor who fulfills these requirements and is passionate about the iconic role in the coming weeks.” So the reason seemed clear: Marvel didn’t think Norton played nice with others.

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After that statement went public, though, Norton and his team fired back. His agent, for one, called Marvel’s announcement “offensive,” “mean-spirited” and “unprofessional,” among other things. They also implied that the actor had previously been talking with Marvel and director Whedon about reprising his role. And the star himself later put in his two cents on Facebook.

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Norton wrote, “I sincerely hoped [playing Hulk] could happen and be great for everyone. But it hasn’t turned out as we all hoped.” The actor also thanked Marvel for allowing him to be Bruce Banner for a little while, and pretty much left it at that. So the star seemingly took the high road at first… But his real feelings became evident just a couple of months later.

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In April 2011, in fact, Norton told The Independent, “I found it a cheap and unnecessary representation that it was about things other than money.” The star also called the release of the statement “low, unprofessional and very dishonest.” And that isn’t the only time the actor addressed his apparent dismissal from the film.

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In 2014, for instance, the actor claimed to NPR that he longed for “more diversity” in his roles. So if he’d returned as the Hulk, Norton said, it might’ve “become a suit that’s hard to take off, in other people’s eyes.” Yet, the star continued to claim that he’d “really, really enjoyed” being part of the MCU. In time, though, his true feelings on the matter came to light.

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The revelation came in an October 2019 piece in The New York Times. Norton was profiled in the American newspaper ahead of the release of his latest film, Motherless Brooklyn. And during the interview, it seems, the debate between the actor and Marvel reared its head once more.

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In the piece, Norton again described his Hulk experience as being a “great time.” But the actor went on to label Marvel’s decision to release that statement as “cheap.” He said, “It was brand defensiveness or something. Ultimately they weren’t going for long, dark and serious. But it doesn’t matter.” The star then elaborated on the real reason behind his superhero departure.

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The actor also revealed that he had indeed spoken to Marvel about returning as Hulk. He told The New York Times, “We looked at the amount of time that would’ve taken, and I wasn’t going to do that. I honestly would’ve wanted more money than they’d have wanted to pay me.” Norton then gave a second reason for passing on the project.

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Norton elaborated, “Kevin [Feige] had an idea of a thing that you could do, and it was remarkable. Now, it didn’t happen to be, on a tonal, thematic level, what I wanted to spend my time doing.” According to the actor, then, the split was simply the result of creative differences and money.

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For all that, though, Norton insisted there is no bad blood between him and Marvel. And in an interview for the October 2019 issue of Total Film magazine, the star even implied that both parties were happy with the outcome. He said, “I loved being a part of [The Incredible Hulk]. And I think [Marvel] achieved everything they wanted to achieve. So God bless.”

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Norton also doubled-down on the feeling that his and Marvel’s visions for the Hulk franchise just weren’t the same in the end. In fact, the actor told the film magazine that while he “really liked” The Incredible Hulk, he felt that the studio ultimately disarmed his initial “dark and serious” take on the material. And that played into his decision to walk away too.

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Again, Norton put it down to a creative mismatch. He said, “When it was like, ‘Okay, that’s not what you guys are into doing?’ To me, it just becomes a pure thing of time and life.” The star also noted that moving away from the Marvel movies allowed him to stretch his wings artistically. And more specifically, it helped him bring Motherless Brooklyn to the big screen.

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Then Total Film magazine asked whether Norton would ever consider coming back to the MCU. After all, the actor had already noted that people were “silly to manufacture negativity when it isn’t there.” But the actor’s response to the question might come as a surprise to those who have followed the ins and outs of this situation.

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What did the acclaimed actor say? Well, essentially, he left the ball in Marvel’s court. “Maybe as a baddie? Maybe I’ll write my own [movie]. I don’t know; I’m open to everything,” he said. So perhaps we haven’t seen the last of Norton in superhero movies yet. All that needs to happen now is a response from Marvel.

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So far, however, the studio has not replied to Norton’s comments. But considering that Marvel has just put out the highest-grossing movie of all time in Avengers: Endgame – with Mark Ruffalo starring as Hulk, no less – it’s hard to see the actor being welcomed back any time soon.

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