Comedy, not Thanos, is killing the Marvel Universe (but he's also there to save it)
** WARNING: Minor spoilers below **
A criticism that has often been brought up against the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is that as its number of films increases, the formula its storytelling adheres to becomes more and more apparent.
The structure often begins with a reluctant male hero being thrust into an adventure after gaining a superpower/powerful object. A one-note villain — who on multiple occasions is a dark reflection of the protagonist — is able to come into possession of the same object/power.
The hero must then get over his issues and embrace his new identity, ultimately being tested by hardships that culminate in an act of near sacrifice. The hero emerges victorious. THE END...Oh, and don’t forget, a joke in every scene is a prerequisite.
Iron Man, the Thor movies, the first Captain America, Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man: Homecoming — examples of those that stuck close to this model. There are flukes in between, with the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and to some degree, Guardians of the Galaxy, but the formula or some permutation of it continues to persist.
Starting last year though, something happened. It seems that the MCU woke up and began a path towards self-correction. First addressing their larger villain problem, audiences were treated to the likes of complex antagonists like Ego the Living Planet (spoiler!), the Vulture, Killmonger (exceptional), and now Thanos (arguably the best).
(I guess now that Marvel basically has a guarantee to box-office success, they have more room to experiment.)
One down, yey! But when it comes to its comedy problem, Marvel’s proclivity to detract drama with the use of ill-placed humor is still present than ever.
The 18th-century poet Alexander Pope in his essay “Peri Bethous” coined the term “bathos,” a practice he describes as a form of anticlimax in which a poem’s tone would suddenly switch from serious to crass/trivial for the sake of humor. For Pope, this practice sinks poetry, stopping it from transcending into something greater, something more inspiring.
Now, why does this feel so familiar?
In the MCU, bathos is as prevalent as a Stan Lee cameo. In all of its movies, there is always a scene where a supposedly dramatic moment is kneecapped by a joke that breaks the dramatic tension.
Clearly, the intent here is to provide a tongue-in-cheek approach to drama, never making a scene feel too cheesy. But when you stave of cheese entirely, you end up with a story with a nutrition deficiency.
Take for example, the recent Avengers: Infinity War (oh no! spoilers!). At multiple times do we see dramatic moments, with real stakes at hand, get undercut by a gag. Whether it is Drax surprising Starlord and Gamora during an exchange that might impact a pivotal moment in the film’s later acts, or Bruce Banner tripping at basically the MCU’s equivalent of The Battle of Helm’s Deep; injecting humor at the last minute takes away the gravity of events that have or are just unfolding.
How can an audience take a scene seriously when its characters do not? These scenes can reach the sublime, linger, but don’t because of the MCU’s fear to appear sincere.
To set the record straight, setting a binary is not my intent here. Jokes are in no means a sign of a bad movie (look at early DC Films to see how the absence of levity might even be worse). Objectively, they can be funny — I would be lying if said that I didn’t chuckle to many of them — but it’s the frequency and timing of these jokes that we should take a look at.
The MCU’s history in jokes
In an infographic created by George Hatzis, as of Thor: Ragnarok (since Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War are not yet out on home media), the MCU’s Phase 3 has an average of 112 jokes per movie. This is an increase from Phase 2 and Phase 1’s average of 100 and 75, respectively.
Hatzis also notes that for Phase 3, jokes, on the average, have an interval of a minute and 13 seconds between each other. Phase 2 had one minute and 18 seconds, while Phase 1 had a two-minute average gap.
The possible rationale for this amount of humor is the precedent set by the first Avengers movie in 2012. Currently sitting as the fifth highest-grossing movie of all-time, The Avengers is also notable for having a staggering 161 jokes throughout its 2 hours and a half runtime, with an average of 49 seconds interval.
The Avengers director Joss Whedon was once quoted saying “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”
Give the first Avengers’ success, it’s not that hard to see that even after Whedon departed the MCU, his influence has become one of the most defining aspects of the whole formula.
Spider-man stopping the train
Back when I was young, one of the most awe-inspiring moments that imprinted itself in my young mind was a scene towards the end of Spider-Man 2. This was when an unmasked Spider-Man, after a battle with Doctor Octopus, is left to stop an elevated train full of commuters from careening off the tracks at top speed.
Forgoing all efforts to conceal his identity, we see Spider-Man rush to the front of the train to serve as its brake. The ordeal takes a toll on his body, and just as train screeches to a halt right at the end of the tracks — a close as a call it can get before plummeting to certain doom — he collapses. The passengers, through a broken window, catch him, and pull him to safety.
As our hero wakes up, the survivors hand him his mask and vow to keep his identity secret. Now imagine if at the end of this scene someone cracks about trying on the mask first before returning it to Spider-Man? See my point?
In its current form, you can’t get more sublime than this. While the MCU chooses to end scenes with cute ha-ha’s, Spider-Man 2 closes with drama that uplifts, that inspires. When was the last time we saw something on the same level, or even just close to this, in the MCU?
Well, I have an answer. Two, actually.
I, personally, see Killmonger’s ending scene at Black Panther as one, albeit partially. What really takes the cake for me though, is Thanos’ moment with the soul stone (especially if you add to context the flashback scene in the film’s second act).
Though Avengers: Infinity War’s sheer number of jokes is still an issue for me, what I appreciate is its intent to stave off humor in the blue moon of occasions that include Thanos. It’s as if Marvel and Disney released an edict to keep the gravitas in each and every scene of the sympathetic villain.
This is why the Soul Stone scene worked. This is why the controversial ending did so as well. We get to genuinely feel for the characters, feel the weight of the stakes.
Infinity War’s last scenes, particularly those of Thanos’ is a refreshing addition to the MCU because it treats the viewers with respect. It acknowledges that a film doesn’t need humor each minute to keep our attention for the rest of its runtime; that’s maturation.
Now imagine if more scenes in the future MCU films worked this way. I hope Marvel doesn’t need cosmic stones for that to happen. – Rappler.com