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holding out for a non-hero
it's a bird! it's a plane! it's a huge mistake!
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

I can't quite describe the feeling I got when I heard Edward Norton had been cast as The Incredible Hulk.

I can do it in words, kind of: my first flash of thought was "What??", the second was, "No, seriously, what??", and the third was, "Ohhhhhh, Ed."

Oh, wait. Disappointment. That's the feeling.

Why I should be so disappointed in a choice made by someone I don't know, someone I've never met, someone whose life will never intersect with mine, that's a little harder to explain.

There are only a few actors I've really attached to, people whose movies I've made a point of seeing whenever possible. John Cusack. Peter Sarsgaard. Edward Norton. That's pretty much it. (Ryan Gosling is on the way up but he's not there quite yet, plus I could review his entire oeuvre in an afternoon if need be.)

And heaven knows everyone on that list has made some bad choices: The Skeleton Key and Serendipity are not exactly works of lasting prominence. Pushing Tin was poorly conceived, Flightplan was nearly offensive in its stupidity, and the less said about America's Sweethearts the better off we'll all be. But with those choices I could always say, maybe it was the script. Maybe they really wanted to work with a particular actor or director. Of course, sometimes, it's the money. And I'm sure the movie where Cusack playing a war-wounded Jewish art teacher befriending the teenage Hitler seemed like a much better idea on the page. Didn't it?

But a superhero movie. A SUPERHERO movie. This, I cannot accept.

Because I just don't see how this is a wise career move, for someone who could really use one right about now.

Superhero movies are for two kinds of actors: complete unknowns, and small actors who want to get bigger. They are not for successful actors with Oscar nominations. They are for the Eric Banas and the Hugh Jackmans and yes, the Tobey Maguires, the actors whose names some of us might know, but only those of us who were paying really close attention and remember things like the scene in The Ice Storm where Tobey Maguire lifts a prone Katie Holmes and we say to ourselves, Hey, who's this Maguire kid, he's pretty good.

Because here's the problem with superheroes: they're iconic. And either you have to do a truly awesome job (which, I'd argue, Maguire has done with Spiderman, and Christian Bale with Batman/Bruce Wayne), or you fall way short and get laughed at and your career plummets in a serious way (oh, let's see, Affleck as Daredevil, probably Routh after another Superman, and don't forget how Clooney had to fight his way back up with a few well-chosen small pictures like Three Kings and Out of Sight before any of us would forgive him for Batman and Robin, which reminds me, when's the last time anyone spotted Chris O'Donnell or Alicia Silverstone?)

The chances of falling way short are much bigger than the chances of knocking it out of the park. Because the whole thing about superheroes is that they're outsize, they're bigger and better, they're utterly unreal. So it isn't really about your acting. No one really knows or cares whether Clooney actually did a good job embodying the tortured playboy soul of Bruce Wayne. It was all about the rubber nipples, the uberSchumacherfication of the franchise.

So many chances for things to go horribly wrong.

Here's the other thing about superhero movies: they're expensive. So in order for them to be successful, they need to make a whole hell of a lot of money, which is precisely why the Ang Lee/Eric Bana Hulk was considered such a spectacular failure, which... makes it even more unlikely and weird and ridiculous that Norton should choose it as a vehicle to return himself to the spotlight.

The risk is just way greater than the reward here. If it's a success, you're locked in and typecast; if it's a failure, you're a failure. Period. No grading on a curve.

If you have to be a superhero, Hollywood actors of reasonable stature and/or considerable talent, please remember these two words: ensemble cast. Nobody would hold Rogue against Anna Paquin, even if the first X-Men movie had tanked. Halle Berry survived a somewhat laughable appearance as Storm in the same franchise; but was nearly howled into oblivion after the failure that was Catwoman. And unlike Paquin and Norton, Berry actually won the Oscar she was nominated for.

Ah well. At least by this time next year I'll probably be celebrating John Cusack's Oscar win for Grace Is Gone, while the reality of Norton's screen appearance as The Hulk will still not yet have come to pass.

Ed, sugar, I think this could be a worse choice than Death to Smoochy.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


the best movies of 2003
coming not so soon to a theatre that may or may not be near you
by jael mchenry
topic: film
published: 7.3.02

how many blocks would a blockbuster block?
why netflix customers aren't tempted to stray
by jael mchenry
topic: film
published: 6.4.04


robert melos
5.4.07 @ 1:28a

I don't really think Norton will be typed if it is a success, or blamed if it's a failure. He's diversified enough in his career to survive both options.

If he survived Smoochie, which is arguably one of the worst films ever made, he can survive anything. His best work has got to be Primal Fear.

sandra thompson
5.4.07 @ 8:11a

The actors of my youthful generation were Brando, Dean, Beatty.... so these newfangled hotshot actors have a way to go before they grab my admiration, but Norton, Cusack and Sarsgaard are among those who have. I keep sending brainwaves to Gosling and Pitt that beauty does not preclude genius, but I'm not sure they're getting through. We have no recourse when our favourite actors won't do as we tell them. Sigh! They're a lot like congresscritters that way.....More sighs/1

russ carr
5.4.07 @ 8:24a

Beg to differ, m'dear: Paquin won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her very first film, The Piano, when she was a scamp of 11. That fact was part of the big buzz when the first X-Men movie was cast, because (until Halle Berry signed) the three biggest names attached were Patrick Stewart (classically trained thespian), Ian McKellen (classically trained thespian), and Anna Paquin (wunderkind).

erik myers
5.4.07 @ 8:55a

Hold on, now.

Is he playing The Incredible Hulk? Or is he playing Bruce Banner?

Because they're really two different things. One is a tragic hero and the other is an embodiment of rage that doesn't really take *acting*, per se.

Yes - the genre itself doesn't really lend itself to quality (a complete and total fault of the film industry), but the main reason, I think, that people choose to do them is this:

They're fun. Doesn't everyone just want to have fun at work?

Besides, remember all those geeks that hung out in high school that nobody talked to that got really caught up in whatever fantastical story and/or musical they were reading and/or listening and then retreated to the drama room/stage at the end of the day? Theater geeks? Those little pencil-necks?

Once upon a time Ed Norton was one of these.

No surprise to me that when the role was open - especially the role of Bruce Banner (NOT The Incredible Hulk) that someone would jump at it. Hell - I'd jump at it. The only moment he's got that would be painful to act would be the transition moment when you look at the camera in pain with yellow eyes before Lou Ferrigno steps in to take your place and break stuff.

So long as somebody's willing to take the film seriously and not just make it into a series of explosions, Banner's a really meaty role.

russ carr
5.4.07 @ 11:01a

Bah! Puny Banner! Hulk is MEATIEST ONE THERE IS!!

dave lentell
5.4.07 @ 12:04p

I don't think it's so much the fact that it's a Superhero that these actors are playing that's the problem. The problem is, studious are trying to catch lightning in a bottle and putting out CRAPPY Superhero films.

Christian Bale did a great job in Batman Begins and for the most part (despite my bitter, bitter, resentment that it screwed with Batman's origin story)it was a GOOD film.

Eric Bana and Jennifer Conley did (I thought) great jobs in the first Hulk film. That, however, was NOT a good film. The first time you see the CGI hulk, it's over as far as taking the movie seriously.

Look at the upcoming Iron Man film with Robert Downey Jr. I think he's a decent actor. If it's a GOOD film, it won't be a failure. If it's a bad film, then it's RDJs fault for signing on for a bad film.

Yes, the risks are great, but for a chance to break out and do something completely different and challenging, I can't think of any BETTER type of film than a Superhero film.

Besides, you also get PAID because the studios seem to think they need a name to sell these things. They don't. They just need better scripts. Case in point, Superman Returns. Most folks thought Routh did a great job. The script just didn't make for as good a film as it could have been. Maybe next time.


jael mchenry
5.4.07 @ 12:12p

Russ, thanks for the correction on Paquin. Doesn't change my main point about how no one would have held the X-Men choice against her because it was an ensemble cast, but I do hate making factual errors.

Erik, I see your point about the Hulk and Banner being two different roles, but I think the distinction will be lost on most moviegoers. I have bad associations with the Hulk and Eric Bana, although it wasn't Bana's choice to make the Hulk huge CGI, or stretch the movie out to a bloated over-two-hour extravaganza, or drive up the budget, or any of that.

I think I would probably be more OK with Norton as a superhero if it were ground that hadn't been trod on so recently. Why another Hulk movie, when we've already had one in the past four years? At least they let Batman rest for eight.

russ carr
5.4.07 @ 12:30p

Because in Hollywood, "cash cow" is spelled "franchise." It's not enough to make ONE superhero movie if three are possible...unless said movie is such a flop (Daredevil, Elektra, Catwoman) that there's no prayer of it coming back. I seem to recall that there were obligations that forced Elektra, even as the audiences turned a blind eye toward Ben Affleck.

By all rights, the first Hulk movie should have been outstanding. The problem is, Ang Lee was the wrong person to get involved with the picture -- not Eric Bana or Jen Connelly or Sam Elliott, all of whom were marvelously cast. And, to whatever extent the writers were pushed around by Lee, they were to blame.

I see Norton's involvement being as promising as Bale's was when "Batman Begins" was announced, or -- as Dave mentioned -- RDjr's signing on to play Tony Stark. Now we just hold our collective breath and hope that the screenplay matches the caliber of the cast.

brian anderson
5.4.07 @ 12:54p

My description of Ang Lee's Hulk is "an interesting psychological art-house flick wrapped in a standard love story wrapped in a crappy action movie."

However, when Jennifer Connelly is on screen, all is right with the world.

russ carr
5.4.07 @ 1:00p

Well, get ready for the world to end.

Liv Tyler has just been cast as the new Betty Ross.

Hulk make animal crackers gallop on her belly!

jael mchenry
5.4.07 @ 1:06p

Now I'm even more depressed.

I would so much rather watch Bale and Gyllenhaal than Norton and Tyler. Hie thee off, Arwen!

brian anderson
5.4.07 @ 1:08p

I rather like looking at Liv Tyler, too.

And Maggie Gyllenhaal, who has an added bonus of being able to act.

jael mchenry
5.4.07 @ 2:07p

Timely news: Spider-Man 3, which opens today, is getting pretty lukewarm reviews. I don't think Maguire's career will suffer for it, but that's because the first two were such winners, and this will probably make tons of money, which we all know matters more than reviews anyway.

Apparently Thomas Haden Church does a good job as Sandman. Who would have pictured this career arc way back when he played Lowell the mechanic on "Wings"?

robert melos
5.4.07 @ 3:14p

I think one ofthe problems with The Hulk is the fact Bill Bixby did such a fantastic job on television 25 years ago. While Banner and Hulk are two separate roles they both need to be able to pull off angst. Norton can pretty much do anything. He made Smoochie bearable.

And I don't think Daredevil or Elektra were that big of flops. They initially bombed, but have picked up cult followings bascially because there is a lack of comic book to movies out there and people will take whatever they can get. Some of the more artsy ones like Road to Perdition didn't hold their own too well initially, but are still bouncing about cable and video stores.

Personally I like Tyler more than Jolie. Tyler can pout so well.

mike julianelle
5.4.07 @ 3:37p

Honestly, I don't think there's an executive or actor on earth who, when considering making a new version of the Hulk in any medium, has ever said: "But Bixby owns that role, no one can top that."

Bixby did fine with it, but it's not exactly sacred ground. No one fears to tread on Bruce Banner territory because of Bill Bixby.

reem al-omari
5.4.07 @ 9:57p

Edward Norton is one of my favorites, too. He was in The Illusionist last, I believe, and I must say, that movie was not great. But you know, I've noticed a lot of great actors in movies that are just not as good as they are. For instance, Gary Oldman, one of my absolute favorite actors, and I think one of the most brilliant, had a teeny part in the last Batman installment. Granted that even though I don't like superhero movies, I liked that particular one. Of course, I must admit that Christian Bale made it extremely attractive to me, but I also found it so intriguing to see the likes of Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Cane.

Makes you wonder if those names give bad movies "a lift", or if the movies drag those names down. It's definitely a question to ponder.

alex b
5.6.07 @ 9:12p

Dang. Norton as the Hulk? Mistake. I'm with Jael on the time factor- not enough of it has passed from Eric Bana/CGI bloatage. But let's just hope Norton doesn't pull a Nicolas Cage- being great in oddball flicks like Wild At Heart and Raising Arizona, then making butthead choices like Gone In 60 Seconds and Ghost Rider.

tracey kelley
5.8.07 @ 4:37p

Personally, I'm tired of the comic book segue movie exercise. Not because the story isn't there, but because the formula is. I like good action flicks, but each one is a tired version of the next.

I feel the same about rom coms. The oomph just isn't in them lately.

ken mohnkern
5.8.07 @ 10:41p

Rom com = Romanian comedy.

jael mchenry
5.9.07 @ 8:57a

At least they finally seem to have realized that movies based on video games don't work. I think the Tomb Raider series was the only one that made any money at all.

You know, I know almost nothing about Iron Man except that Robert Downey Jr.'s in it, but now I'm kind of curious about it. Not that Downey hasn't made some bad choices (Two Guys and a Girl, "Ally McBeal", his personal life) but I think because it's an unfamiliar hero I'm a little more willing to wait and see.

brian anderson
5.9.07 @ 9:14a

A friend of mine recently reviewed Ghost Rider by saying that "it was better during the parts when Nicolas Cage was on fire."

jael mchenry
5.9.07 @ 11:47a

They should have tried that strategy in Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

jael mchenry
4.28.08 @ 9:36a

Thought this was worth a bump since Iron Man is coming out this weekend, and people seem to be looking forward to it, while Hulk has dissolved into one of those rumors-of-disaster flicks and last I heard Norton was refusing to do publicity.

Just what Norton needs -- more of a reputation for being difficult. We don't need another Val Kilmer.

russ carr
4.30.08 @ 9:29a

New photos from The Incredible Hulk only reinforce my opinion that this has dud plastered all over it. The casting, the plastic-action-figure CGI, the slam-bang plot... just scream "ill-conceived." They threw a lot of money at it, but there's little to no depth of vision.

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