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.
The creative team remains intact between X-Men and this sequel, which means that X2 is able to offer a serialized narrative. Most Hollywood film series demand episodic narratives. The Batman and Superman series were both essentially self-contained. (Batman Returns references Vicki Vale’s entrance into the Batcave; Superman II finds Lex Luthor still in prison. Otherwise, each sequel is remarkably self-contained.)
A serialized narrative, like the X-Men series, requires multiple installments. The 1930s Flash Gordon film serials are obvious examples, but each of those installments were much shorter than a contemporary Hollywood movie and distributed more frequently. X2 arrives three years after X-Men, but it behaves like the next Flash Gordon chapter. It addresses dangling plot threads from the previous installment and introduces new plot threads to be resolved in a subsequent installment. In doing so, X2 finally introduces a narrative format to the superhero genre, similar to the monthly schedule of the comic books upon which these films are based.
Marvel’s cinematic strategy at this point is to diversify, setting up production deals with different studios. Twentieth Century Fox produces X-Men; Sony’s Columbia Pictures makes Spider-Man; Universal will release Hulk within the year. But Marvel never surrenders their characters entirely. Starting with Spider-Man, a distinctive flipbook logo emerges to signify Marvel’s involvement with a project. (The first time I saw Spider-Man in theaters, audiences cheered for that logo.)
Spider-Man was a massive financial success — the first film to make over $100 million in its opening weekend. Other studios scrambled to make their own superhero movie. Daredevil is where Marvel’s diversification strategy begins to pay off. It is the first of four superhero movies released in 2003 — and one of three Marvel properties released theatrically that year. Marvel not only diversifies its distributors, but its content as well. Daredevil makes a number of aesthetic choices in response to Spider-Man, trying to assert its own distinct identity.