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If there’s one lesson that any actor who works with Marvel Studios should take from the recent Ed Norton/Avengers bust-up, it’s this: You do not want to mess with Marvel. But then again, why should we be surprised?
After all, Norton and Marvel had, reportedly, fallen out back before the 2008 Hulk was released over whose version of the final cut would end up being released, and the movie’s lack of success gave the studio the out it needed to be able to replace the actor (Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed some Marvel executives describe Marvel Studios’ history recently as Iron Man, then Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America, as if Hulk never existed; wishful thinking, especially when you consider that the character has been the source of two failed franchises in the last decade). The surprise, then, isn’t that Norton won’t be in Avengers, but that Marvel handled the whole thing so terribly.
Admittedly, that the rumor broke ahead of Marvel’s schedule – Presumably, they’d have rather announced the new Bruce Banner first, instead of having to admit that, no, it’s not going to be Ed Norton and we’ll get back to you later on who it will be – can’t be blamed on the House of Ideas, but the statement released in reaction is just stunning: In what world was insulting Norton out of the blue like that (The implication that he’s not “an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit” of other Marvel actors, nor one who “thrive[s] working as part of an ensemble” – Or, to translate, that he’s a difficult diva who only cares about himself) a good idea, especially as the first official comment from any of the involved parties? Norton’s own classy response, in which he thanked Marvel for the opportunity to “be part of the Hulk’s long and excellent history” and said that “Hulk is bigger than all of us,” just underlined the impression for many that Marvel president Kevin Feige – and, by extension, the studio as a whole – was, to be polite, acting like a bully.
Again, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: This is the studio that replaced Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle for Iron Man 2 and blamed the decision on concerns over Howard’s performance and behavior on set during the first movie – even though multiple sources confirmed that no-one had raised the issue to Howard or his reps earlier, as well as the studio that almost let Samuel L. Jackson walk away over contract negotiations at the start of last year.
Marvel Studios is almost impressively old-school when it comes to dealing with actors, it seems – It’s their way or the highway (Not just actors, of course; complicated contract negotiations may be the reason why we haven’t had official confirmation of Joss Whedon’s Avengers directorial position yet, and it’s been rumored that the studios’ writers aren’t necessarily well compensated for their efforts), and there’s definitely a way in which that should be applauded… But the studio also seems to be running the risk of thinking that actors and other talent is entirely interchangable, and that the most important ingredient is the Marvel brand and the characters – and anyone who’s seen Daredevil, The Fantastic Four or even X-Men: The Last Stand should be able to guess where that school of thought fails. Right now, of course, it’s not actually a problem for the studio – They’re still successful, they still have buzz and Hulk wasn’t enough of a flop to harsh anyone’s buzz really. But the day will come when contracts have to be renegotiated for the actors that can’t easily be replaced, and that’s when things will become interesting: Could Marvel really pull the same tactics they attempted with Norton on Robert Downey Jr. without it blowing up in their faces, for example? Would they be stupid enough to try?