Bathos in current cinema, or, ‘why I hate the Marvel Cinematic Universe’

Picture that famous image: Tobey Maguire hurtling through the air; webbing slipping through his crimson fingers; the menacing reflection of Doc Ock through an amber lens. Cheesy, yes – but nevertheless, Spider-Man 2 became an instant classic, and remains to this day one of the best of its genre. It was, dare I say it, somewhat sincere.

Enter 2018. A dystopia has gripped our world, and certain ‘cinematic universes’ have overtaken the box office. ‘It’s just a piece of entertainment,’ they all say, ‘a bit of fun.’ But I can’t help it – these movies make me sad. I feel sad that what they’re putting on our screens is just a continual advertisement for the next one. I feel sad that I need to be ‘educated’ about the comics, or have watched every single other superhero movie in order to ‘understand the nuances’ of these 120 minute senseless messes. I feel sad that these movies make 650 million dollars each. But mainly I’m sad because it’s not an anonymous mass which funds this industry – it’s the people who surround me: intelligent and educated people, who I call my friends. This machine is taking their money – my friends’ money – putting it into more terrible films, making more money, and starting the cycle again. And I hate them for it.

OK, rant over.

I was very much of this opinion about pretty much every single post-2008 blockbuster superhero film until fairly recently, when I was coerced into watching Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. It, unlike specifically alternative superhero films such as Logan, superficially fits this generic ‘type’ of superhero movie I’ve just described. Big-budget, action-packed: standard comic book movie fare. But when the credits began to roll, for once my eyes didn’t. I actually enjoyed it.

Why I liked Wonder Woman was a question which I asked myself for a while. And even after countless rewatches, it was a hard feeling to pin down. Eventually though I came to the conclusion that, unlike others of the same ‘type’, Wonder Woman was good because it was a superhero movie. Remember those? When superheroes were heroes? Saviours of ordinary people, instead of narcissistic pricks fighting aliens? When they were role models instead of just models? Perfection is not a prerequisite (in fact, it explicitly shouldn’t be), but heroes should at least be serious about their job. And it is this – this lack of seriousness – which destroys any real surges of drama or emotion. Of course comedy has a place, but this overuse and misplacement of goof is what I believe makes these films samey, repetitive and boring.

wonder woman movie

In his video essay on ‘What Writers Should Learn From Wonder Woman’, Sage Hyden pinpoints what this is – bathos. Essentially, it’s a literary term that describes when a climactic moment is undercut by triviality, which the Marvel Universe is especially ripe with. The example he uses is a comparison of a similar scene from Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, showing the heroes preparing for their respective ‘final showdowns’. Whereas in Spider-Man Peter Parker forges ahead, accompanied by warming brass and rising tension, in Doctor Strange the music builds up similarly, only to be thwarted by Strange’s mischievous magic cape.

I believe the MCU is so concerned with avoiding cheesiness that it plays the ‘safe’ option of undermining its own drama. But continually abusing mediocre comedy in order to keep it ‘light’ isn’t clever. Writing a good film is clever. Unhappy with your plot? With your script? Fix it. Make a movie about a hero, not a comedian with superpowers. Though Diana’s naiveté is often made the butt of a lot of jokes in Wonder Woman, it is never at the expense of a dramatic climax.

Now of course there may be some of you who actually find bathos funny. And that’s fine – humour is subjective. But this depends on what one wants from a superhero movie.

Unless handled darkly like Christopher Nolan or Logan, superheroes will always be ridiculous, from their figure-hugging, brightly coloured costumes to their ‘misfit’ novelty in collaborative teams such as The Avengers or Justice League. In this situation, all a writer can do is either embrace or attack superhero heritage.

Marvel and Joss Whedon have cultivated and popularised the ‘attack’ method. It’s cheeky, subversive, self-deprecating, and can be funny. To some extent it works in a film which is advertised as a comedy, like Guardians of the Galaxy, but its main problem is the fact it is a one-trick pony. It worked for Iron Man precisely because it was a new and different way of presenting a superhero movie, so on a first watch, I enjoyed it. But with nearly 20 films under its belt with no sign of slowing down, the MCU has flooded cinema with identical content. And it’s not just the humour, it’s also everything that goes with it – the plot structures, the character arcs, the action sequences. Making films that are so unashamedly similar to each other is not an exercise in good writing or storytelling, because it’s all been done before.

On the other hand, Wonder Woman ‘embraces’ the history of superhero films. It’s a refreshing break from the regurgitated bathos we’ve grown so used to. Some, however, would call it cheesy. But why is this term so pejorative? It reflects, I think, a deep societal fear of sincerity and honest self-expression, resulting in sarcasm and self-deprecating wit. It’s a very British humour which is moving stateside with an abundance of media exports. When done well it can be the pinnacle of comedy, but when applied too frequently and too lazily, it becomes dull.

So why should superhero films choose to ‘embrace’ their past? A writer who embraces the historical ‘cheesiness’ of the superhero, in my opinion, actually shows confidence in what she’s written. Sincerity is worth risking a few eyerolls. For without a sincere, emotional grounding, a story – especially one surrounding the character development of a hero – doesn’t really mean anything at all.

Sadly, this tradition does not look set to change. In fact, it’s making an impression upon other movies – look at Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which has been famously criticised for its Marvel-esque handling of humour. Things however could be on the up with Marvel’s new release, Black Panther, so it seems that, though bathos has made a large mark on current cinema, whether that mark will last remains to be seen.

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