In Defense Of…”The Incredible Hulk”

Edward Norton’s lone portrayal of Bruce Banner is an underrated entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe anthology

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has completely changed Hollywood. From the proliferation of comic book heroes to the notion that every major movie studio now needs its own universe in which its characters can interact through multiple films, Marvel has laid the path that all others are following, praying that they will find the same success. The films within the MCU have combined for a box office total of an estimated $14.8 billion worldwide, including five films raking in more than a billion each. In short, “Marvel has made consistent hits, which is supposedly impossible in a creative business.” [1] But, to hear some tell it, Marvel’s record is not perfect and there are a few black marks on the studio’s résumé.

Actually, one of those marks is green.

The Incredible Hulk, the second film to come out of the MCU, arrived on the heels of Iron Man in the summer of 2008 and was expected to be another monster success. Only, it was not to be. Although the film debuted atop the box office with a $55 million opening weekend, it was a commercial disappointment, topping out at only $135 million domestically — falling short of its $150 million budget — and $263 million worldwide. To this day, it remains Marvel’s worst performing film. “As good as the film was, it still wasn’t the summer blockbuster at the box office it should’ve been.” [2]

The major issue that dogged not only the movie, but also affected its legacy, sequels, and position within the Marvel universe, is that the film that everyone believed they were making and the film that was ultimately released were not the same.

This is adapted from Christopher Pierznik’s 2015 book, In Defense Of…Supporting Underappreciated Artists, Athletes, Actors, and Albums, which is available in both paperback and Kindle

From the beginning, Edward Norton, perhaps sensing trouble, was hesitant to portray the character of Bruce Banner, but Marvel was so insistent that they agreed to allow him to play it the way he wanted. From the start, he was heavily involved, performing a “substantial page-one rewrite by himself,” [3] meaning he basically rewrote the film from start to finish to make it the story of a tortured individual that cannot control this thing that is always inside him.

However, Marvel wanted a less character-driven, more action-packed film, so the film was recut, removing much of Norton’s character development in favor of a typical summer superhero flick. “Norton was understandably pissed. He was brought onto the project under the premise that he would have considerable creative control. But the final cut was, of course, not his. Norton and [director Louis] Leterrier lobbied for a more nuanced cut of the film that ran about two hours and 15–20 minutes, but Marvel stuck to their guns.” [4]

For his part, Norton decided to be a team player and ultimately relented to Marvel’s version because he agreed that it would be a more commercial endeavor and he did not want to be seen as being difficult. As a result, the scenes that depict Banner’s increasing frustration and helplessness — including an attempted suicide scene that is referenced by Banner (in the person of Mark Ruffalo) in The Avengers — were left on the cutting room floor. They were included as bonus footage on the DVD release “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.” [5] It is a virtual certainty that the final production would have been even stronger if these scenes had been left in as originally intended.

Notwithstanding the changes and omissions, the film that was released theatrically is still much better than most people recall and is probably not even the weakest Marvel movie. Rather than a traditional hero vs. villain storyline, it is a much more complex look at a tortured individual. The Incredible Hulk is a story of a man that is wrestling with an inner demon, much like alcoholism or drug addiction. And Norton plays him as such, living a quiet, serene life in Brazil while using all of his talent and intellect in an attempt to develop a cure, not only for his own good, but for that of the world.

Like addiction, he is powerless to stop the monster inside of him. By the end of the film, he can finally control it, but only after tireless work and practice and sacrifice. He tries to live a normal life, but realizes that he cannot change who he is and if he hopes to ever get a handle on it, he must embrace it. It is a character evolution that takes place over the course of an entire film, rather than in the middle of the second act like so many other films.

Many, however, failed to see that aspect or simply did not connect to Banner on a human level. “Despite the presence of Edward Norton, an actor capable of going just as deep as Robert Downey Jr., we don’t feel a strong sense of Bruce Banner’s inner conflict.” [6] It’s not hard to imagine that Norton’s vision for the film would have rendered these criticisms moot. The action scenes would have had even more impact because the audience would have witnessed the agony that is Banner’s entire existence when he’s not the monster. Nevertheless, Norton’s performance is so strong and full of emotion that he manages to bring all of it to the screen even in the few character scenes that were left in.

The supporting cast is nearly as good as Norton, with William Hurt as General Ross that hunts the Hulk with an Ahab-like obsession and Tim Roth’s impish turn as soldier Emil Blonsky (later Abomination), but the film is carried on Norton’s shoulders and succeeds due to his performance. Unfortunately, he and the studio decided to part ways following the conflicts during postproduction. And the MCU is worse off for it. “I think Edward Norton gets Bruce Banner and the Hulk. 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.” [7]

[1] Leonard, Devin. “The Pow! Bang! Bam! Plan to Save Marvel, Starring B-List Heroes.” Bloomberg Businessweek, April 3, 2014.

[2] Green, Stuart. “Where’s the Box Office Love for The Incredible Hulk?” Comic Book Movie, July 19, 2011.

[3] Sciretta, Peter. “The Incredible Hulk: The Truth About Edward Norton vs. Marvel.” Slash Film, June 14, 2008.

[4] Sciretta, Peter. “The Incredible Hulk: The Truth About Edward Norton vs. Marvel.” Slash Film, June 14, 2008.

[5] Mooney, Darren. “In Defense of Edward Norton as the Hulk…” The Movie Blog July 12, 2010.

[6] Lemire, Christy. “Smashing Hulk Lacks Heart.” Associated Press, June 12, 2008.

[7] Mooney, Darren. “In Defense of Edward Norton as the Hulk…” The Movie Blog, July 12, 2010.

Christopher Pierznik is the author of nine books, all of which are available in paperback and Kindle. In addition to his own site, his work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.