I generally don't like commenting on casting decisions before seeing the resulting performances, because there are so many different variables involved in these things that the public is never privy to, and I've been surprised enough times in the past by left-field candidates that I'm usually amenable to the wait-and-see approach. Once in a while, however, you've got situations like "The Last Airbender," which was such an egregious case of whitewashing, it was necessary to cry foul. Or CBS's decision to jettison one female lead from "Criminal Minds" and cut the episodes of the other. And sometimes replacing or dropping actors from projects can indicate how things are shaping up creatively in an upcoming film.
A case in point: Marvel is going to recast the Hulk for its upcoming "Avengers," meaning Edward Norton won't be returning to the role. His agent, among others, is not happy about this. Now Marvel has a lot riding on "The Avengers," which is due to hit theaters in 2012. It will be a crossover of several of their major film properties: "Iron Man," "Thor," and "Captain America," two of which haven't been released yet. "The Incredible Hulk" was assumed to be the fourth, since the title character was part of the Avengers team in the original comics, and the reboot directed by Louis Leterrier got good notices and performed fairly well at the box office.
However, there were rumblings of discontent around the production, mostly involving Edward Norton's uncredited role in shaping the script. Norton has a reputation for being a difficult and demanding actor. He clashed with filmmakers on prior projects, and famously rescripted parts of "The Score" and "Frida," which starred his then-girlfriend Salma Hayek. In a statement to the press regarding the casting decision for "Avengers," Marvel President of Production Kevin Feige indirectly referenced these issues when he expressed a "need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members." It's clear why Marvel would want to avoid the potential complications of working with Norton again, especially since the Hulk will probably be relegated to a supporting part in the new film. However, I'm still disappointed with the decision.
Marvel has already recast the Hulk once, after Ang Lee's 2003 "Hulk" with Eric Bana received tepid a response from audiences and critics. Now turning out Edward Norton for yet another Bruce Banner is only going to further suggest that Marvel doesn't know how to handle the popular character. Having seen both of the recent film adaptations, Norton's performance was easily the better one. He was a very good fit for Bruce Banner, the nerdy, weakling scientist who spent most of "Incredible Hulk" trying to suppress the rage that brought out the Hulk in him. Like Robert Downey Jr, Norton brought some serious credibility to the picture, and he's not going to be easily replaced. Norton was also reportedly eager to reprise the role, talked up the film to generate media buzz over the last few months, and was purportedly deep in negotiations before the announcement was made.
Norton is being gracious about the whole situation, which is winning him a lot of sympathy right now. A note went up on his Facebook page earlier today expressing his disappointment, but also thanking his fans for their support and Marvel for the opportunity to be part of the franchise. The cynic in me thinks this is a brilliant PR move, and the starry-eyed fangirl in me is thinking dark, unhappy thoughts about the Marvel executives who made the decision. The situation could have gotten much uglier if Norton hadn't put a stop to the public bickering going on between the various intermediaries involved, but I think the damage is already done. Norton's coming off as the reasonable one here, which undercuts Marvel's purported reasons for ending their association.
No one knows for sure why Norton was dropped, and creative executives are so tight-lipped we'll probably never find out, but there are shades of the last major Marvel recasting decision that took people by surprise - when Terrence Howard was dropped from the role of War Machine for the second "Iron Man" movie. At the time there were a few rumors of Howard being difficult to work with, but most people were mystified by the decision, including Terrence Howard himself, who had no forewarning that he was being kicked to the curb. Despite lingering suspicions, the furor died down quickly because Marvel already had the highly respected Don Cheadle lined up for the part when the announcement was made.
Norton's case is different because Marvel doesn't have a replacement yet, and the role is much higher profile this time. Hulk's star may have dimmed in the years since Lou Ferrigno made him a cultural icon in the 70s, but he still has plenty of loyal fans. And now that so much press has been generated about the casting tiff, Marvel can't just get any muscle-bound boob to play the Hulk. They'll need someone of Norton's caliber to prove they're serious about delivering a quality film and not trying to cut corners or play it safe. And how many other actors with Norton's Academy-Award kudos, multidisciplinary filmmaking skills, and a proven record of generating Hulk-sized anger are available?
Does anyone have Mel Gibson's number handy?