LOS ANGELES — The Hulk has some fairly obvious anger issues and, let’s face it, he’s not exactly a team player. The same might be said of Edward Norton, the two-time Oscar nominee whose talent and temperament are often mentioned in the same breath by Hollywood insiders. “Sure, Ed Norton is a great actor, but ...”
Norton portrayed the unjolly green giant’s alter ego, fugitive scientist Bruce Banner, in “The Incredible Hulk” in 2008, but he won’t be reprising the role in “The Avengers,” the Marvel Studios film planned for summer 2012 that aspires to bring together all of the company’s hero franchises and supporting characters into one massive all-star ensemble with Joss Whedon reportedly directing and Jon Favreau already locked in as one of the producers.
Norton is on the outside looking in now, as made clear by a surprisingly pointed statement from Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige that was sent directly to the folks at HitFix (it was a response to an earlier rumor story about Norton’s ejection from the Marvel Universe).
Feige, maybe the most earnest and easygoing executive I’ve ever met in Hollywood, slapped down the HitFix notion that this was a money-based move and that that there might be room for negotiation: “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.”
Ouch. Norton was going to be a key player — and someone who could certainly hold his own — in a cast led by Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and also featuring Chris Evans as Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. Jeremy Renner of “The Hurt Locker” is also on board to play Hawkeye, the headstrong costumed archer. The film could also feature Don Cheadle as War Machine, but a few weeks back Cheadle said he was in a wait-and-see mode on that.
Who will play the Hulk? HitFix suggested it would be some unknown actor and that this would be a huge letdown to Marvel fans, but that makes it sound like fans and critics went crazy for Norton in the role. They didn’t. The movie made $263 million worldwide, which is solid, but really not all that much better than Ang Lee’s “Hulk” in 2005, which starred Eric Bana, collected $245 million and was cheaper to make. Lee’s movie had a production budget of $137 million; the more recent Hulk film, directed by Louis Leterrier, cost $150 million. Critics were more supportive of Leterrier’s action-savvy take than Lee’s monster ruminations, but if you look at the tallies on Metacritic, the scores are actually fairly close, at 61 to 54.
The point may be moot: Fiege made it a point to say they wouldn’t be casting an unknown, anyway. “We are looking to announce a name actor who fulfills these requirements,” he said in the statement, “and is passionate about the iconic role in the coming weeks.”
So this will probably play out a lot like the replacement of Terrence Howard, who was reportedly the highest-paid actor in the “Iron Man” cast and then was shown the door and replaced by Cheadle. Howard got that high pay because he was the first one signed to the project, it was the first Marvel Studios production and Downey’s career was still in bounce-back mode. He got replaced in part because he didn’t want to renegotiate, and that became the Hollywood headline, making it seem like a money matter.
Marvel Studios, which delivered its first movie in 2008, is already pretty infamous for its penny-pinching, but according to insiders, Howard really got kicked out of the franchise because he was viewed as a problem child by the “Iron Man” team and the studio leadership. And, yes, there may be a trend here. It seems to me that Marvel is now like a pro sports team with a salary cap and a low tolerance for troublemakers — and an even lower tolerance for expensive troublemakers. But Norton’s agent, Brian Swardstrom, has a far different take.
Swardstrom sounded apoplectic in responding to Feige’s comments: “This offensive statement from Kevin Feige at Marvel is a purposefully misleading, inappropriate attempt to paint our client in a negative light. ... 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’s talent, tireless work ethic and professional integrity deserve more respect, and so do Marvel’s fans.”
What’s next? Well, no one seemed to mind that Cheadle stepped in as Tony Stark’s best pal in “Iron Man 2,” and I can’t see a fan revolt over Norton’s exile. Right now, to be savagely honest, there is one and only one irreplacable person in the Hollywood life of Marvel: Downey. An Avengers movie with someone other than Downey in the metal suit won’t fly, but don’t expect picket signs for the absent Norton.
Feige really couldn’t bring in a total unknown to play Banner because the movie already has an unproved lead in Hemsworth (best known, to date, as Captain Kirk’s doomed father in the short opening sequence of the “Star Trek” reboot) and a still-unproved commodity in Evans. Tapping a fresh-face actor to play Banner would be cheaper, sure, but the new guy might get gobbled up in shared scenes with big-charisma personalities like Downey and Jackson or real-deal, serious actors like Renner and Cheadle.
So who will take over the green movement from Norton? Adrien Brody, who just went into action-hero mode in “Predators,” is mentioned a lot. And he did attend the premiere of “Iron Man 2,” as did Renner, who at that time had not been announced as an “Avengers” cast member. Someone very close to the situation tells me that Brody is not getting the job, but that could be a smoke screen. (I have a pet theory, by the way, that Brody is locked in for the role of Ant-Man, but that’s more hunch than anything else. Nathan Fillion is getting a lot of attention from the rumor mill, though, for the Hank Pym role, so I could be wrong ...)
Speaking for myself, I’d love to see Kevin Spacey in the role, and there’s no reason that Banner needs to be as young as the other heroes in the film. I also think Hugh Grant would be a great and unexpected choice — he does look like the bookish and bespectacled Banner — but that might not go over well with the fanboys.
It’s a pretty wide-open role, really. Liam Neeson could do it, so could Hugh Laurie or even a Michael C. Hall.
We should know very soon — Marvel sources tell me that the announcement will be any day now and that the new Banner will almost certainly be part of the studio’s Comic-Con International panel at 6 p.m. Saturday, July 24. You know who you can rule out for the role? Anyone with a reputation as a problem child.
So this will be three actors in the same role in a span of seven years. That’s not unheard of — three actors played James Bond in films released between 1969 and 1973, and Batman’s cowl was worn by three different stars between 1992 and 1997 — but the real problem for Marvel Studios is the industry word of mouth that will start if there are any more high-profile ousters. If one more hero is kicked to the curb, you’ll start hearing rumors, fair or not, that Marvel Studios is the real bad guy.