Edward Norton Could Have Been Marvel’s Best Hulk

With 2008's The Incredible Hulk, Marvel completely ignored the perfect reason to cast Edward Norton as Bruce Banner--his proven genius at portraying characters harboring dueling personas.

By Michileen Martin | Published

He may not be your favorite actor or your favorite person, but if the Multiverse is real then rest assured there’s a corner of it where no one even thought to give Mark Ruffalo‘s agent a call, because Edward Norton’s performance in that universe’s version of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk was too good to replace him. You see, there is a very good reason to cast Norton as Bruce Banner–because the actor’s early career was defined by amazing portrayals of characters, like Bruce Banner, with dueling personalities. This is something Marvel‘s The Incredible Hulk utterly ignores.

Sure, it’s natural to read “dueling personalities” in reference to Norton and immediately think of 1999’s Fight Club; but it’s mostly co-star Brad Pitt who plays the “other guy” in that film. No, if you want to know exactly why Edward Norton was the perfect choice to play the Hulk–but was placed, unfortunately, in a deeply imperfect movie–watch his feature film debut; the 1996 legal thriller Primal Fear.

edward norton
Edward Norton and Richard Gere in Primal Fear (1996)

In Primal Fear, Norton plays Aaron–a man who may or may not be saddled with a split-personality disorder, with his own “other guy” potentially guilty of the brutal murder for which he’s standing trial. The question of whether or not Aaron’s more aggressive half, Roy, is genuine or an act is a big question mark throughout the film, but what isn’t a question is whether or not Norton sells the polar opposite personas. Aaron is meek and polite to a fault, while Roy is intimidating and is ready to throw up his fists at a moment’s notice.

Critics and audiences were so impressed with Norton’s performance in Primal Fear that in spite of it being the very first film he’d had any kind of role in, it earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 1997 (per IMDb), though he ultimately lost to Cuba Gooding Jr.’s memorable turn in Jerry Maguire. The fact that Edward Norton could so convincingly play a character with an “other guy”–could transform from one to the other in the blink of an eye–is exactly why he should’ve played the Hulk, and exactly why Marvel threw that opportunity away with The Incredible Hulk.

Edwards Norton hulk
Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The problem with Edward Norton’s performance in The Incredible Hulk is that the movie never gives him the opportunity to show us his own version of “the other guy.” Except for the final close-up on his unnaturally green eyes, we never see even a little bit of the Hulk in his performance, and that isn’t Norton’s fault–that’s how the film is written. From start to finish the movie is a spiritual successor to the seventies live-action show of the same name, which portrayed Banner (David Banner in the earlier case) simply as a victim of his condition, rather than the Hulk being seen as a manifestation of something inside him.

Yes, some of the deleted scenes–such as the famous suicide attempt that was meant to open the film, and one scene which features a conversation between Banner and Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell)–point to the connections between Banner and the Hulk. But that’s just dialogue and action; we never see any of the Hulk in Norton’s performance. To not task Edward Norton from giving us those moments of the Hulk within Banner’s body, considering the roles he’s known for, is a waste akin to casting Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin in 2002’s Spider-Man and then making him hide that wonderfully unique face under a mask the entire film.

Remember in 2012’s The Avengers when Mark Ruffalo’s Banner first meets Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and pretends to instantly lose his cool; going from perfectly calm to enraged in a split second, screaming “Stop lying to me!” and pounding on the table in front of him? I cannot claim to have any kind of inside information about the production of The Avengers, but I would be willing to bet every single one of my Hulk collectibles (and yeah, there are a lot) that it was written before Edward Norton was replaced as the Hulk. It is exactly the kind of moment that makes you truly terrified of Norton’s character in Primal Fear, and it is exactly the kind of moment anyone who knew what they were doing would’ve written for his version of Bruce Banner.

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner pretending to lose his cool in The Avengers (2012)

Overall, the real shame has nothing to do with whether it’s Edward Norton, Mark Ruffalo, Eric Bana, Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Chris Farley, John Belushi, or anyone else playing the Hulk; it has more to do with fans missing out on a more layered character. Sure, we know Bruce is “always angry”; what Marvel has never dared to show us is why.