Louis Leterrier and Edward Norton's take on "The Incredible Hulk" came after Ang Lee's mega-budget daddy-issue take on the character flamed out both critically and commercially, and there was a chance for Leterrier and Norton to completely redeem one of Marvel's most iconic properties with their film. Internal editorial struggles hobbled the release version of the film, though, and whatever you think of the final movie, it's not what the star thought he was making as he worked on it.
As a result, his continued involvement in the Marvel Universe has been a question mark that has plagued fandom now for a few years, especially as Marvel has started taking more and more concrete steps towards the endgame of "The Avengers." Even when the question came up about whether or not Edward Norton would represent the Hulk part of the "Avenger" equation during a recent Marvel set visit, it was neatly sidestepped by Kevin Feige.
When I sat down with Tim Blake Nelson and Edward Norton to discuss their new collaboration "Leaves Of Grass," we had a free-ranging conversation that was terribly enjoyable, and it was only when we stood up to leave that I finally broached the "Hulk" subject with Norton. Part of me suspected that he would dodge the query or defer it, which is why I left it to the end. Surprisingly, Norton seemed more than willing to discuss it, and his answers were to-the-point and more optimistic than I would have imagined.
"It's really up to you guys," he told me at one point, and by "you guys," he was referring to fans and the fan press in particular. "Is it important to you? Does that continuity matter?" The answer seems to me to be yes, it does matter to people, and there's something appealing about the notion of Edward Norton, Robert Downey Jr., and Chris Hemsworth together. That's chemistry I'd like to see. Downey's hyper-confident Tony Stark would make an excellent foil for Norton's twitchy energy as the haunted Banner.
There's some simmering resentment still there for Norton, though. When he talks about the character, there is a visible love for the full history of Hulk and Marvel Comics that isn't just an actor selling a film. He's a genuine fan, and he has ambitions still regarding the character and what he could do with it. But if Marvel really wants to win Norton back as a public cheerleader for the company and the character, the first step would be allowing him to restore the full 2-hour-20-minute version that Norton and Leterrier wanted to release. If they put that movie out on BluRay and DVD, I think Norton would get much more likely to sign on. His frustration over the way running time became a battleground on his film the same year that "The Dark Knight" became a phenomenon makes perfect sense, and I think it would be great to see all the other Marvel references (like the entire Super Soldier project subplot) layered back in.
I took some heat in e-mail and here on our comments section for my recent piece about what I saw as fanboy whining over the Captain America casting process, and I want to clarify something... I don't think fandom is a bad thing. I think it is the thermometer by which we measure the passion for various properties or characters, and that's a great thing. I also think fandom, when focused, can be an incredibly valuable force in the process, and this is one of those times. I think it becomes "whining" when you're second-guessing something you can't accurately judge because you haven't see the materials, when you don't know how an audition went, or when you simply leap to a conclusion from an emotional place. In the case of Norton's Banner, you already have some sense of what he brings to the role. The real question now is, "Do you consider him a piece of the puzzle, and do you want him back?" If the answer is yes, then I think it's time to clearly communicate that to Marvel. There is ongoing interest in Norton's take on things, and any reference to him returning becomes a major conversation, and I hope Marvel pays attention to all of that energy being spent. I think it's really Marvel's decision at this point, not Norton's, and Marvel will make it a priority if they are told, loud and clear, "This is a priority." They could easily write around Norton or replace him, but I think that would be a creative misstep. When you have a collaborator who is this smart, and this willing, you shouldn't walk away. You should embrace them, even if that means doing some difficult things and making some choices that cede some power. Marvel is being incredibly smart about the films they control these days, and they have a chance to line up a truly great cast when the Avengers assemble.
Here's hoping fandom sends the right message, and that Marvel really is listening.
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