The Story Behind Why Hulk Actor Edward Norton Was Replaced By Mark Ruffalo In The MCU

Over the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s lifespan, there have been a handful of times where key roles have been recast (not to be confused with actors in the franchise playing more than one role, like how Gemma Chan played Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel and Sersi in Eternals). The earliest example of this was when Don Cheadle succeeded Terrence Howard as James “Rhodey” Rhodes in Iron Man 2, and just in time for the character to suit up as War Machine (although Cheadle denies he “Aunt Viv-ed” Howard out of the role). Not too long after that, though, the MCU switched Hulk actors too, with Mark Ruffalo filling the shoes left behind by Edward Norton.

Even though Ruffalo’s desire to do his own solo Hulk movie has never been fulfilled, he’s nonetheless had an impressive run as Bruce Banner, appearing in eight of the Marvel movies in order, as well as the TV series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. But what was it that resulted in Norton being let go from his Hulk-performing duties and Ruffalo taking his place. That’s what we’re here to go over, but first, we have to wind the clock back to when The Incredible Hulk came out.

Hulk in The Incredible Hulk

(Image credit: Marvel/Universal)

The Incredible Hulk Underwhelmed In Theaters

In June 2008, five years after the release of Ang Lee’s Hulk starring Eric Bana, and a month after Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Incredible Hulk was released. The second independent Marvel Studios production saw Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner clashing with Emil Blosnky, a.k.a. Abomination, and General Thunderbolt Ross’ forces after having been on the run for the U.S. military for several years. Although a Hulk sequel had been discussed, it was ultimately decided to make The Incredible Hulk a reboot, which worked out since it became an early chapter of a continually-growing franchise.

Edward Norton was cast as Bruce Banner in April 2007, but in addition to his acting duties, he also signed on to rewrite the script originally penned by… Zak Penn (sorry for the pun). We’ll talk more about Norton’s duties off camera in a bit, but when The Incredible Hulk was released, Penn was the only credited screenwriter (via Mania). The movie was met with a decent amount of positive reception, albeit more on the mixed side, but it only made a little over $265 million worldwide, establishing it as the lowest-grossing MCU movie for a long time. Nevertheless, talks did begin on making The Incredible Hulk 2, and while that project didn’t see the light of day either, Hulk was brought back for 2012’s The Avengers, and Norton was originally expected to reprise his role.

Edward Norton as Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Why Edward Norton Was Allegedly Let Go As Bruce Banner

There are a variety of factors that come together to explain why Edward Norton never played Hulk again. As far as what the actor himself has had to say about this, in 2010, Norton first stated a Facebook post (via THR) that even though he “sincerely hoped” he could appear in The Avengers, it just hadn’t “turned out as we all hoped.” But by 2014, Norton gave NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross the below alternative explanation for why he never returned to the MCU:

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.

Norton added that he wanted “more diversity” with his career, which is all fine and good. Still, right off the bat, we have conflicting reasons from the same man about why he didn’t come back for a second round as Hulk. But there’s even more to the story beyond those explanations, as evidenced by looking at the statement then-Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige issue about Norton not returning for The Avengers to HitFix:

We have made the decision to not bring Ed Norton back to portray the title role of Bruce Banner in The Avengers. Our decision is definitely not one based on monetary factors, but instead rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members. The Avengers demands players who thrive working as part of an ensemble, as evidenced by Robert, Chris H, Chris E, Samuel, Scarlett, and all of our talented casts. We are looking to announce a name actor who fulfills these requirements, and is passionate about the iconic role in the coming weeks.

What was that all about? Well, for one thing, there were differences in creative vision over what The Incredible Hulk was supposed to be between Edward Norton and Marvel. In 2019, the former explained to The New York Times that he wanted to take the character in a direction similar to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Norton alleged that while Marvel was initially receptive to this plan, the company later reversed course. In the book The Story of Marvel Studios: The Making of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (via The Direct), Kevin Feige said the Godzilla movies heavily inspired the second MCU feature.

There were a variety of other problems that plagued The Incredible Hulk’s production, but as far as Norton is concerned, it’s also worth mentioning that in a Wizard Q&A, actor Tim Roth claimed that he was rewriting the script “every day” on set. In the end though, as mentioned earlier, the Writers Guild of America gave Zak Penn sole writing credit. Reported Anne Thomas later said on Indiewire that Norton “mostly changed dialogue, filled in gaps of motivation and developed character,” and the WGA felt he “had not considerably changed his screenplay,” with the Guild tending to “favor plot, structure and pre-existing characters over dialogue.”

All that would be more than enough for Edward Norton and Marvel Studios not getting along, but it doesn’t end there. Edward Norton sat out doing interviews for The Incredible Hulk during the promotional campaign. EW reported that this boiled down to a disagreement he had with producers over the movie’s runtime, as Norton wanted a “longer, more detailed” story, and Marvel preferred a “faster, leaner one.”

Additionally, in the book MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios (via The Direct), Terry Notary, who worked on The Incredible Hulk as the motion capture specialist for Hulk and Abomination, alleged that Edward Norton didn’t put much work into the motion capture side of things, and that he “wasn’t really engaged, as far as the Hulk stuff goes, unless he was transforming from himself into the Hulk.” This led to the VFX team having to manually render all of the Green Goliath’s facial expressions.

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner in Avengers: Endgame

(Image credit: Marvel)

How Mark Ruffalo Took Over Playing The Hulk

So things got so bad between Edward Norton and Marvel Studios that in MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios, it’s claimed by co-author Joanna Robinson (via Inverse) that Norton is the one MCU actor Kevin Feige has severed ties with for good. So this all explains why Marvel decided to hire a new actor to play Bruce Banner, but how was Mark Ruffalo selected?

Well, funny enough, in 2013, The Incredible Hulk director Louis Leterrier told HuffPost that he originally wanted to cast the Zodiac actor as Bruce Banner, but Marvel told him to pick Norton instead because he was “more famous,” and the powers-that-be at the company pinned Ruffalo as only doing “smart, intellectual movies” at that point. Leterrier and Ruffalo would eventually work together on 2013’s Now You See Me, and a few years earlier, Marvel decided to revisit the actor following the collapse of its relationship with Norton.

It’s explained in MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios (via CBR) that Marvel Studios chose Mark Ruffalo to succeed Edward Norton in the weeks leading up to the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, and the company wanted to lock him down so he could appear at the grand unveiling of The Avengers cast at the event. However, negotiations to bring him aboard weren’t finished until the last minute. According to insiders interviewed for the book:

Marvel Studios and Ruffalo's representatives negotiated the actor's contract until the last possible moment. The night before the Comic-Con panel, Ruffalo got a call from his agent: 'Look out your window at five o'clock in the morning. If there is a car there, you got the part. If there's not, just go back to bed.' The next morning, a limousine was waiting. Ruffalo stumbled into it and went to the airport to catch a plane to San Diego.

The rest, as they say, is history. Ruffalo debuted as Bruce Banner/The Hulk in the first movie to highlight Earth’s Mightiest Heroes alongside Robert Downey Jr. Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner (among others), and while, again, we’ve never see another solo Hulk movie in the MCU, there’s no denying that Bruce is still one of this franchise’s most important characters, be it as a supporting player in someone else’s movies or as an ensemble cast member in the Avengers movies. 

Edward Norton’s time in The Incredible Hulk and all of Mark Ruffalo’s MCU appearances can be streamed with a Disney+ subscription. Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with this aspect of the franchise’s history, learn what’s coming up by looking through the upcoming Marvel movies and upcoming Marvel TV shows.

Adam Holmes
Senior Content Producer

Connoisseur of Marvel, DC, Star Wars, John Wick, MonsterVerse and Doctor Who lore, Adam is a Senior Content Producer at CinemaBlend. He started working for the site back in late 2014 writing exclusively comic book movie and TV-related articles, and along with branching out into other genres, he also made the jump to editing. Along with his writing and editing duties, as well as interviewing creative talent from time to time, he also oversees the assignment of movie-related features. He graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in Journalism, and he’s been sourced numerous times on Wikipedia. He's aware he looks like Harry Potter and Clark Kent.