When Edward Norton and Marvel parted ways in 2010 over the role of the Hulk, there was some real rage. Both camps lobbed broadsides at each other, with Marvel dropping a preemptive bomb that implied that Norton had to go because he lacked the “collaborative spirit of [the Avengers’] other talented cast members.” Norton’s agent angrily responded that Marvel’s unilateral decision to end good-faith negotiations with Norton was purely financial. For his part, Norton took the high road with an earnest missive on Facebook where he expressed regret that he wouldn’t be joining all the Marvel superheroes in The Avengers.
Four years later, Norton has a slightly different explanation for what happened then, which ultimately resulted in Mark Ruffalo taking over as Bruce Banner and the Hulk. When he spoke to NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air, Norton, who is a leading contender for an Oscar nomination for his work in this month’s Birdman, made the 2010 parting seem like it was very much his artistic choice:
My feeling was that I experimented and experienced what I wanted to. 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. There were just a lot of things—I wanted more diversity. I sort of chose to continue on my path of having a diversity of experiences. Maybe on some unconscious level, I didn’t want to have an association with one thing in any way degrade my effectiveness as an actor, in characters. 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. And if I had continued on with it, I wouldn’t have made Moonrise Kingdom, or Grand Budapest, or Birdman, because those all overlapped with [Avengers]. And those were more the priority for me, but I continue to be a fan and I’m really, really happy I got to do it once.
Whether Norton truly gave up the Hulk or Marvel took it away from him, it’s difficult to fault either’s decision: Ruffalo was a superb addition to The Avengers, and Norton’s exceptional work since the split—which also includes a Bourne movie—speaks for itself.
Of course, it didn’t necessarily have to be an either/or scenario for Norton. Ruffalo has managed to maintain his diversity of experiences, with roles in Begin Again, Now You See Me, The Normal Heart, and Foxcatcher. In fact, both Norton and Ruffalo could go head to head in this year’s Best Supporting Actor category, where 40 percent of the nominees could be Hulks.