In 2003, director Ang Lee released a live action feature, The Hulk, of Marvel Comics’ popular superhero the Hulk for Universal Pictures. The movie was a wet, hot mess; it was horror movie dark, scary, loud, chaotic, loaded with flashbacks and torture scenes, and there were problems with the special effects, which was a key ingredient for this particular superhero. Not surprisingly, it didn’t do well, which was not the fault of Eric Bana, who played Dr. Bruce Banner, the guy who gets turned into the Hulk, or Jennifer Connelly, who played his love interest, Dr. Betty Ross. But since it took 5 years to re-jump-start the franchise (which only happened because of Marvel’s ambitious plans,) and since the philosophy of Hollywood is always get new ones and start over, the next Hulk movie, The Incredible Hulk, starred Edward Norton as Banner and Liv Tyler as Ross. Norton is notorious as a hard task master in acting/directing/writing, but he fit right into the role, Tyler was fine, and the 2008 movie was, while not perfect, a considerable improvement. It ended with Banner in his human form being contacted by S.H.I.E.L.D., the ultra secret agency that is trying to round up some superheroes and use them for stuff. With the spies, Marvel, now doing their own films as Marvel Pictures, hoped to tie in together its many different franchises like Iron Man through a movie about the Avengers, which in the comics is a loose team of superheroes who sometimes worked together.
So this week comes word that Ed Norton, who was supposed to be in the Avengers movie as Banner, won’t be playing the role. Marvel claims it’s because he’s a big old cranky pants, (as if his reputation was news to them,) and Norton’s camp shoots back that it was about money. These claims are probably both the truth — Norton wanted more money and probably a bigger role. Marvel is trying to do all these pics on tight budgets and so got annoyed that a Golden Globe winning, Oscar nominated vet wouldn’t go along like a good starlet, especially as they have to pay out the nose for Robert Downey Jr. now. And when you’ve already replaced a role once….
And it’s true — who is playing an iconic superhero or villain character who will appear many times in films is not a big issue. Everybody can be replaced. But it’s also true that cast changes of big leads do start to deflate audience interest in an on-going series, especially if you’re trying to use the character in multiple movie series, as Marvel is doing. If someone is doing a good job, investing the audience in the character, it’s usually a good idea to make more of an effort to stick with the actor, especially for as complicated an enterprise as the Hulk in live action.
But the split has come and now Marvel will try to grab mileage out of the re-casting. I’d suggest bringing Bana back as Banner myself. But with Sony dumping the Spider-Man gang in a sudden re-boot, these kinds of casting carnivals make me less interested in the Avengers film, not more.