Edward Norton has a reputation as something of an actor’s actor. Ever since his showy breakout in the 1996 Richard Gere thriller Primal Fear, in which he played both a meek altar boy accused of murder and his aggressive, angry alter ego, he has been thought of as one of the pre-eminent actors of his generation. It shows in his collaborations with acclaimed filmmaker/sentient Belle & Sebastian album Wes Anderson, his well-regarded intense performances in films like American History X and 25th Hour, and of course, his career-defining role as Sammy Bagel Jr. in the animated film Sausage Party. Despite his reputation as a high-minded actor, he is plenty willing to show up in genre fare, and one of his most underrated films is exactly that. We are talking about Edward Norton’s 2008 film The Incredible Hulk, which is burning up the streaming charts and is currently at #4 most-watched movie on Hulu.
Famously, The Incredible Hulk is the only film in which Edward Norton played Marvel’s angriest and greenest hero. It came at a very delicate time for the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it shows in a certain sense of indecision that permeates the film. Despite that, Norton gives his all to the role of Bruce Banner and the Hulk. In many ways, he seems to be taking a lot of notes from his dual roles in Primal Fear and Fight Club; all characters require Norton to snap back and forth between passivity and violence. But more importantly, both roles require the gentler version of Edward Norton to have a constant ticking sense of desperation and dread of the uncontrollable, larger thing in him. While Norton is playing a bit bigger and broader than he does in other films (somebody must have told him comic books require a lot of gaping mouth reactions), he is bringing all of his trademark intensity to the role of Bruce Banner.
In 2008, both Marvel Studios and Edward Norton had to deal with the lingering aftertaste of Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk. That particular oddity of a comic book adaptation had left audiences confused with its very literal panel-style editing and morose tone (not to mention the daddy issues that permeated it). Essentially, Kevin Feige, director Louis Leterrier, and writer Zak Penn had to decide whether this movie would be a reboot, a sequel, or something in between. They also had to deal with Edward Norton himself, who is notorious for seizing control of productions and rewriting films. Eventually, the film decided on jettisoning the traditional origin story (leaving it to a brief montage in the opening credits) and picking up where Hulk left off with Bruce Banner in Brazil, leaving it to audiences to decide if it was exactly the same version of the character.
The Incredible Hulk begins with Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner trying to learn to control the beast within; an on-screen graphic pops up throughout the movie to let you know how long it has been since an “incident.” It is the kind of touch that the MCU would abandon in later appearances of the character but does lend the movie an unusual sense of distinctiveness. He is researching a cure for the Hulk, communicating online with a mysterious Mr Blue (later found to be Tim Blake Nelson’s Samuel Stearns, aka the future villain the Leader). A special forces soldier played by Tim Roth is tasked by General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (the late William Hurt in his first turn at the character) to track down Banner; he will end up becoming the longtime Hulk villain the Abomination. Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross (taking over from Jennifer Connelly) is dating Ty Burrell’s Doctor Leonard Samson and reunites with Banner. As you might expect, Hulk eventually smashes.
Despite Edward Norton’s committed performance (and behind-the-scenes rewrites and edits), The Incredible Hulk ended up being the single lowest box office grossing film in the MCU. He was also replaced by Mark Ruffalo in Bruce Banner’s next appearance in 2012’s The Avengers, under circumstances that have been described as a firing, a voluntary stepping-away, and/or a creative conflict. The Incredible Hulk remains a fascinating early example of Kevin Feige’s not-yet-iron control over the franchise, with teases for characters like the Leader and Doc Samson that have not yet come to fruition and stylistic flourishes that would be buffed out in the future. But if you ever think that Edward Norton can’t just be goofy and punch some stuff, you are underrating The Incredible Hulk.