This is the 49th essay, and it’s one I didn’t bother to write for (oops) two months — so maybe it’s time I restate this project’s goals. I want to codify the narrative and visual patterns of the superhero movie genre, because that might explain why we keep telling these stories. I’ve been writing about superhero movies for more than a year, but this still feels like a relevant question to me. Despite a growing sense of franchise fatigue, this year’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 still made $700 million worldwide. And while that, apparently, a disappointing figure, it still indicates that audiences will pay to see these movies. Why?
I think it has something to do with distinctiveness. The first screen adaptation I wrote about, Flash Gordon, appeared in 1936. Superhero movies are still being produced 78 years later because they play with forms of distinctiveness. Sometimes it’s the characters: Superman is an alien, separate from us humans; Batman originally appears as a monster, again something inhuman; Wonder Woman is a god and a woman, conceived in response to her violent, masculine predecessors. In other texts, distinctiveness can be found in the aesthetics: Tim Burton’s Batman redefined what Gotham could look like, while Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II used an aspect ratio shift and liberal CGI to frame its vampire hunter in a more fantastic context.
Del Toro now returns to the superhero movie genre with Hellboy. The visual style (particularly the aspect ratio and the color palette) resemble what he employed in Blade II, yet the film still feels like a startlingly fresh approach on the typical superhero origin tale. How was this accomplished?
Superhero films at this time — like Blade, Unbreakable, and even Spider-Man — treat the protagonist’s extraordinary means as a point of horror. Power makes these characters different, and these films perceive difference as frightening. It’s a curious paradox for the genre, as the narrative and visual patterns expect audiences to both admire and fear these characters.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen harnesses the anxieties of its time, setting its action in an alternate version in 1899 where technology advances at a more fantastic pace. The Rocketeer depicted advanced technology with wonder, but this film — based on Alan Moore’s 1999 comic book series — dreads the tanks, automobiles, and submarines. And perhaps more than the technological advancements, it dreads the characters who can protect us from them.
Daredevil distinguished itself from Spider-Man with brash music choices. Marvel’s next production, Hulk, seeks to distinguish itself yet again: the visual iconography adapts to suit the themes embedded in the superhero’s backstory. (Daredevil used religious imagery to reflect Matt Murdock’s spiritual dilemma; Hulk uses extreme close-ups on natural patterns to suggest Bruce Banner’s psychological issues.) This adaptation is evident from the film’s opening frames: the red flipbook Marvel logo, used in three prior franchises, is now tinted green.
Hulk doesn’t look or sound like any previous superhero movie — which is conspicuous, because it’s a completely distinct adaptation of a character we’ve seen on screen before. Hulk incorporates a Lou Ferrigno cameo, acknowledging its screen legacy, but otherwise makes starkly divergent aesthetic choices. But are those choices motivated by a need to construct suitable narrative facility crises for this character, or by an anxiety to distinguish this film from its peers and predecessors?
When Peter beats up Flash Thompson in Spider-Man, an onlooker calls him a “freak.” In Hulk, military contractor Glen Talbot refers to the restrained Bruce Banner as a “pathetic freak.” A bully calls newly-blinded Matt Murdock a “freak” in Daredevil. And now, in The Powerpuff Girls Movie, a government employee refers to three girls playing superpowered tag as “freakish.”
Identifying the empowered as abnormal has been a common trope in superhero movies since Batman. But the implications of this term never really sank in until it was leveled at Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup — innocent children who are just trying to play a game.