There’s this thing with Marvel movies I couldn’t put my finger on until now. I had previously reviewed Doctor Strange and thought that while it was good, it wasn’t the best and was even generic in tone. It seems that there’s something about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s signature style of storytelling that combines seriousness with levity, which worked for a good while. However, something recently came up that may put a damper on its current and upcoming films, including Spider-Man: Homecoming.
There’s this fantastic YouTube channel called Just Write, which talks about writing in films and how they drive narrative. The videos in it are educational and can help audiences better appreciate movies and the craft of filmmaking. There’s one in particular I’d like to focus on, and I’d like to talk about the many things it gets right, as well as the one BAD thing about it.
This Thing Called “Bathos”
It’s not exactly the sexiest of words, and it reminds me of either medicine or something related to baths. Write it in a certain way, and it’s software for your bleeding edge bathtub with augmented reality and Internet of Things features.
BathOS. Get it? Yuk yuk yuk.
As the video shows, it’s basically levity in the midst of seriousness. When done right, it’s meant to remind the audience not to take things too seriously. In certain genres and titles, this works well as that levity makes for more entertaining storytelling if it suits the overall tone of that particular work.
A joke in the middle of a serious discussion can lead to an awkward pause or a eureka moment, depending on how a scenario is made to play out. Bathos alleviates tension to unveil something else, usually a silver lining. If done just for the sake of a cheap laugh, that’s when bathos is bad as it takes away from the sincerity of a serious moment.
It was the main weapon in the war against cheesiness, which peaked during the late 2000s. However, as audiences now have somewhat rediscovered the wonders of the 80s, cheesiness is sort of back in vogue. It’s not like when bell bottoms came back briefly in the late 90s as it’s more of a reunion with good old-fashioned emotion.
Marvel Does Overdo It, But How Much?
You can say that Marvel is going through the motions at this point, especially with Joss Whedon no longer at the helm of the MCU. The Avengers set a precedent for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s distinct style, which others have since sought to replicate. All of this in the name of avoiding “cheesiness” in their movies.
But as the video shows, there is one who goes against this trend, namely Patty Jenkins. Her work with Wonder Woman was exemplary in one particular aspect—the outright refusal to crack a joke at the expense of the film’s overall tone. It’s not to say there were no moments of levity in the movie, but it was handled with a fair amount of grace.
In MCU’s latest film (as of this writing), the aforementioned Spider-Man: Homecoming, it was sort of all over the place. The good thing was that the main pivotal moment in Peter Parker’s development as Spider-Man in that movie was unhindered by bathos—it was even old-school in its treatment. However, most of the moments with Tony Stark in them (excluding the “taking the suit back” scene), as well as the washroom scene with Happy Hogan, were somewhat groan-worthy (at least for me).
The “taking the suit back” scene did have a pinch of bathos, but the impact of that moment for Peter Parker still dug in pretty deep. However, in the epilogue of the film, Tony Stark totally shatters the seriousness of that earlier scene by calling it “tough love” with what felt like a figurative shrug of the shoulder. I swear I heard a rimshot after hearing that line.
At least that epiphany Peter had while trapped under a pile of rubble was clean and clear.
The YouTube video showed Guardians of the Galaxy as a violator of over-bathos’ing, but that’s par for course with that franchise anyway. That’s pretty much bathos-flavored to begin with, but perhaps the narrator was trying to say that it then spread the infection to other films. We’ll see how it works out in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.
Meanwhile, that scene from Doctor Strange that was pointed out in the YouTube video—spot on.
Hold On, Pump the Brakes
The concept of bathos is one of those things you may not be able to “unsee” once you’ve grasped it. While learning more about the significance of storytelling is always a good thing, as with any sort of deep concept in creative media for the sake of better appreciation, the drawback here is that it may also take away from enjoyment as you start noticing bathos in just about everything you see. It may then turn you away from what used to be enjoyable, but only if it’s seen through a “foggy” lens.
Perhaps it may even take an extra step of making you cynical towards anything with even an ounce of levity in its narrative. In the case of superhero movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe may start becoming less appealing as a result of souring to its established formula of levity in the midst of dire circumstances.
It’s like that thing with ludonarrative dissonance when BioShock Infinite came out. All of a sudden, that term was being thrown around and the game was being undeservedly lambasted. There are indeed plenty of things wrong with that game, and the flaws being pointed out by those articles were indeed valid, but they were also focused on so much that it took away from the things the game did right.
When done right, levity is like a wink to audiences—especially the kids—when things get tough, ensuring them that things will be alright. In that context, it’s all good. Bathos is not a bad thing to begin with, much like how buzzwords like “cultural appropriation” were at first.
The lens with which you view media for better appreciation must not cloud your own personal judgment. Knowing more shouldn’t mean having less fun due to the fear of “being wrong.” That is the very definition of pretentiousness.
The problem I see here is that video essays like this can turn people from fans who just enjoy however they’d like to enjoy into zombies who worry about “getting it right” and/or “not being wrong” instead of just letting the experience take them wherever it may lead. Acquired pretentiousness is more common than you think, and it’s mostly due to feelings of inadequacy and fear of “being wrong” upon realizing just how deep the artistic rabbit hole can go.
All of a sudden, you don’t want to be the person among your group of snobbish friends who says, “I had fun watching the first Transformers movie.” Perhaps I’m just bothered by something that seems ineffectual to most of you, but I’ve wrestled with that pretentiousness for a very long time now. In fact, I worry the very act of writing this blog post is indeed an example of that very pretentiousness I’m wary of.
This is a warning to those who may be sacrificing their viewing pleasure for the sake of looking smart (a.k.a. the hipster disease). Always give everything the benefit of the doubt and do your best to not let outside influences change the way you enjoy media, whether it’s movies, video games, books, shows, or so on.
Being wary of bathos does not necessarily mean you should stop laughing at moments that make prodigious use of it. All I’m trying to do is make you think if whether it’s getting old for you or not at this point, especially if you’ve watched a majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other films that seem to make use of that formula.
This is just an attempt to make you think about what you watch.
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