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The two-movie Hulk story that could have been but never was

Could have, would have, should have. 

Such hypotheticals may have haunted former Hulk actor Edward Norton, who top-lined director Louis Leterrier's 2008 superhero film The Incredible Hulk before Marvel Studios handed the role over to Mark Ruffalo. Norton recently opened up about his experience playing the Jade Giant in the early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, revealing in a profile with The New York Times that he pitched not one but two movies centered around the Hulk — films that would be dark, gritty, and evocative of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (which spurred sequels in 2008 and 2012). The actor was under the impression that Marvel Studios executives were keen to bring his two-movie Hulk story to life, but, as it happens, he was sorely mistaken. 

"I loved the Hulk comics. I believed they were very mythic. And what Chris Nolan had done with Batman was going down a path that I aligned with: long, dark, and serious. If there was ever a thing that I thought had that in it, it was the Hulk. It's literally the Promethean myth," Norton shared. "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," Norton shared. "And they were like, 'That's what we want!' As it turned out, that wasn't what they wanted [...] Ultimately they weren't going for long, dark, and serious."

The actor added that he and the bigwigs at Marvel "had positive discussions about going on with the films" and assessed how long it would take to make those happen, but his passion just wasn't in it. Norton also admitted that he was looking for "more money than [Marvel would] have wanted to pay" him, although financial gain wasn't the reason why he would have signed on for subsequent Hulk films.

In reality, Norton would have boarded a sequel to The Incredible Hulk if the project was more in line with what he truly wanted from a creative standpoint. He explained that Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige "had an idea of a thing that you could do, and it was remarkable," but the plan for another Hulk movie simply wasn't "on a tonal, thematic level what [he] wanted to spend [his] time doing."

Why Norton was kicked out of the MCU

Two years after the release of The Incredible Hulk, Marvel released a statement announcing that Norton would no longer play Bruce Banner on the big screen.

"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 statement read. "The Avengers demands players who thrive working as part of an ensemble, as evidenced by Robert [Downey Jr., Iron Man actor], Chris H[emsworth, Thor actor], Chris E[vans, Captain America actor] Sam[uel L. Jackson, Nick Fury actor], Scarlett [Johansson, Black Widow actress], 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." (Mark Ruffalo wound up being that "name actor.")

At the time, Norton's agent issued a response that slammed Marvel's statement as "offensive," "purposefully misleading," and an "inappropriate attempt" to depict Norton poorly. 

"Kevin called me and said he wanted Edward to reprise the role of Bruce Banner in The Avengers [...] 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," the response read. "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 [Whedon, the director of The Avengers] 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."

In his recent chat with The New York Times, Norton maintained that the statement was a "cheap" move, speculating that perhaps it was "brand defensiveness or something." But still, he doesn't hold animosity (at least not any that he wants to express publicly) toward Marvel or Feige, whom he has even praised for his filmmaking skills and business acumen. 

"What Kevin Feige has done is probably one of the best executions of a business plan in the history of the entertainment industry," said Norton. "As a Disney shareholder, you should be on your feet for what they pulled off."

Furthermore, Norton has insisted that he didn't get booted from the MCU because he didn't get along with the people at Marvel Studios. As he explained, "I had a great time doing [The Incredible Hulk]. I got on great with Kevin Feige [...] I did Bruce Willis's Comedy Central roast, and I made a joke at my expense. I talked about how I tried to do what Bruce did and make a big movie but I was an idiot because I tried to make the script better. This is a joke making fun of myself but they'll turn it into, like, 'Edward takes a dig at Marvel.' No, I'm taking a dig at myself at a roast. People have to grow up."

However, past reports have claimed the exact opposite: that Norton and Leterrier's creative disagreements with Marvel caused a ton of tension behind the scenes, resulting in Norton getting kicked out of the Marvel movie world and earning a reputation as being difficult to work with. According to Leterrier, ”It's as much Marvel's fault as it is Edward's. And my fault. It's everybody's fault! Or no one's fault, in a way. I regret that [Marvel and Norton] didn't come to an agreement where we could've all worked together.”

Though there was a time in which Norton would likely have given his all to make his dark, emotionally-charged, two-movie Hulk narrative a reality, he doesn't seem to have any regrets about how things panned out. In 2014, he revealed, "I really, really enjoyed it. And yet, I looked at the balance of time in life that one spends not only making those sorts of films but then especially putting them out, and the obligations that rightly come with that [...] I think you can sort of do anything once, but if you do it too many times, it can become a suit that's hard to take off, in other peoples' eyes." Today, Norton feels great about where his career has gone after leaving the MCU: "I went and did all the other things I wanted to do."