Over the three years I've been writing this column, I've yet to predict what will be the match to light fandom's gasoline. It's impossible. Major casting decisions are received with a shrug. Minor ones threaten to cause riots in the streets. (Well, if "the information highway" was a street, anyway.) Some films earn fervent cult followers that won't hear a negative comment; others are proudly and enthusiastically trashed no matter what goodwill may have gone into it.
When Drew McWeeny broke the news of Norton and Marvel parting ways, I expected a small flurry of a response. After all, rumors had swirled since Summer 2008 that there wouldn't even be a sequel to The Incredible Hulk. Stories of Norton's demanding behavior were rampant. Norton was honest about the silence between him and Marvel. "The minds of Marvel are sometimes opaque. I won't say [they're] obtuse, but I don't have any idea what they want to do."
As of November 2008, our readers really could have cared less whether there was a sequel. They seemed content to have him in The Avengers, and quite a few were happy to have Hulk merely appear as a CG character. As of March 2010, Norton made it clear and official that he wouldn't be making a sequel, though he told McWeeny that he hoped to be in The Avengers. As of June 4, when Jeremy Renner officially began talking about joining the Avengers Initiative, we knew that Norton and Marvel weren't even in talks. It wasn't even clear that Hulk was in the final line-up (despite two years of Kevin Feige & Co saying he was) but it seemed pretty clear that Norton wouldn't be coming back as Banner. Fans didn't seem to mind too much. They liked The Incredible Hulk ok, but looking at its total domestic box office, not enough to really matter. It was debated back in 2008 whether the film was even a hit or not, since it actually matched Ang Lee's Hulk at the box office. The reception to Norton's film was lukewarm at best. It wasn't an Iron Man. Even an Iron Man cameo didn't wind fans up as much as it should have.
Fast forward to July 2010, and hell hath no fury like fandom scorned.
The comments across our movie sites far and wide are astounding. Fans took McWeeny's heartfelt "do the right thing" plea to heart, and filled forums with their complaints. Suddenly, everyone loved The Incredible Hulk. Really, really loved it. We all adored Norton in the role. He was what would make or break The Avengers. We had all been waiting for this moment -- a moment that, as of a few weeks ago, no one cared whether or not was CGI or Norton mo-capped. Now The Avengers was something to boycott. Screw you Marvel! Your careful universe building means nothing anymore! You do this right before ComicCon, too! How dare they?
It's astonishing. It's fandom. It's the same energy that fueled the Captain America casting -- and the same people who now think Marvel is foolish scolded us for being critical of their casting choices then. Marvel knew what they were doing. Fans didn't. Fans were lousy when it came to the casting process. Remember when they didn't want Heath Ledger as the Joker, or Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man? We're mouth breathing morons. Wait a few weeks. Change the faces and names around. Now we should be catered to. Now our voices matter. It's hot and cold. It's madness. It's chaos. Fans are flocking to the calm statements of Norton and his agent, who gave the perfect "We all love Hulk!" statements that proves again and again to be such a soothing balm to a sore fandom.
If you spend your days and nights writing and analyzing this stuff, it keeps you on your toes and fills your inbox. When I initially wrote the "Norton's Out" story, I honestly expected a lot of "Who cares!" comments. I didn't expect such loyalty and enthusiasm for an actor who has kept himself fairly distant from fans and Marvel geekdom. I expected fans to side with Marvel. After all, just a month or so ago, I drew ire just for suggesting Iron Man 2 had been a disappointment. Now everything they do is a disappointment.
My gut says that once the footage, stars, directors, and script details of Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers are trotted out, fans will go back to the house that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby built. I don't think this will be some moment that Warner Bros and DC will seize. That implies an old Marvel / DC rivalry that's basically moot when it comes to film fans. But as I said, I can never predict that fandom will think, say, or do next. The honeymoon might be over. Marvel's strange and suicidal desire to mix and match their cast -- especially if they continue to be drawn to such difficult actors -- may prove their undoing with fans, box office, and industry pros alike. In 2012, we may point to this very public "There's the door, Norton, show yourself out!" spat as the moment when that seemingly well-knitted universe came apart ... or we'll laugh that we could ever be so easily lost to a game of public statements.
We'll see. Hold onto your SDCC swag bags. It's going to be a bumpy ride!