The Incredible Hulk is something of an outlier in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the 2008 film is still canon, important supporting characters like Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) have not reappeared in the MCU, and the post-credits tease of Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) transforming into the classic villain The Leader was never realized.
However, one of the biggest ways The Incredible Hulk differs from the other films is that it’s the only one to have recast its title character for subsequent appearances. Mark Ruffalo replaced original actor Edward Norton, beginning with 2012’s The Avengers. Here’s everything to know about why Marvel Studios replaced Edward Norton with Mark Ruffalo.
Why Was Edward Norton Replaced as Hulk?
The Incredible Hulk wasn’t hugely successful, grossing about $265 million worldwide, but it was received well enough that a casting change was unexpected. However, the film’s production was tumultuous. With a filmography that included Fight Club, The Italian Job and The Illusionist, Edward Norton negotiated a deal not only to star in The Incredible Hulk but also be the uncredited screenwriter (Zak Penn, who wrote the first draft, was credited by the Writers Guild of America as the solo writer). Norton submitted his own draft within a month, as stipulated by his contract with Marvel Studios, and continued to revise the script well into production; according to co-star Tim Roth, who played Emil Blonsky, there were daily rewrites.
Norton and director Louis Leterrier also clashed with producers over their desired 135-minute cut of The Incredible Hulk, a dispute that spilled out into public. Marvel Studios prevailed, however, with the theatrical release clocking in at 112 minutes. The actor made only select appearances in support of the film’s release, but he insisted that decision wasn’t because of his friction with Marvel. “It has always been my firm conviction that films should speak for themselves,” he clarified, “and that knowing too much about how they are made diminishes the magic of watching them.”
Edward Norton Harbors No Ill-will Toward Mark Ruffalo Over Hulk
That wasn’t the last word on the subject, however, because of a report in the lead-up to Comic-Con International 2010 that Marvel planned to recast Norton for The Avengers, which would assemble all the heroes introduced to date in a single film. That was immediately confirmed in a statement by Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, issued from the set of Captain America: The First Avenger. “Our decision is definitely not one based on monetary factors,” he wrote, in part, “but instead rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members. The Avengers demands players who thrive working as part of an ensemble, as evidenced by Robert, Chris H, Chris E, Sam, Scarlett, and all of our talented casts.”
Unsurprisingly, Norton’s agent fired back, calling Marvel’s comments “offensive” and “a purposefully misleading, inappropriate attempt to paint our client in a negative light.” Norton offered another explanation for his departure during a 2014 interview, saying he had “experienced what [he] wanted to” with the part, and he “didn’t want to have an association with one thing in any way degrade [his] effectiveness as an actor in characters.”
While promoting his roles in Birdman and Moonrise Kingdom, Norton also explained the obligations of a mainstream franchise would clash with such work. Norton has since said he’d happily return to the MCU. He also confirmed that he harbors no ill will against Mark Ruffalo, who replaced him as Bruce Banner starting in 2012’s The Avengers.
Mark Ruffalo Was Actually Louis Leterrier’s First Choice for Hulk
Although Ruffalo was actually Leterrier’s first choice for The Incredible Hulk, Marvel wanted Norton because he was “more famous,” and Ruffalo only did “smart intellectual films” Now Ruffalo is synonymous with The Hulk, but at the time, he was an unconventional choice because he wasn’t a proven leading man in the same way as Norton. That said, much of Marvel’s Phase One casting also didn’t have name recognition on the same level as Norton.
Recasting Bruce Banner paid off for Marvel. While Norton was fine in the role, Ruffalo stands apart from the MCU’s other leading men with a woolly, bashful charm. He plays Banner as someone uncomfortable in his own skin and fearful of his power and brings an endearing, low-key pathos to the hero.
Ruffalo appeared as both Bruce Banner and The Hulk in The Avengers and its sequels Age of Ultron, Infinity War and Endgame, and co-starred with Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok. But, as Ruffalo himself has acknowledged, he’ll never headline in an Incredible Hulk solo film. That’s because Universal Pictures, co-producer of the 2008 feature, maintains the distribution rights. That’s the same reason The Incredible Hulk isn’t streaming on Disney+. Ruffalo’s journey as Bruce Banner isn’t over yet, because he just appeared in Disney+’s She-Hulk series, which stars Tatiana Maslany in the title role.