Bathos is a storytelling technique that consists in the rapid succession of 2 “moments” that have drastically different tones. Usually, we’re talking about a serious or dramatic moment followed by a gag or a ridiculous moment.
Nowadays both audiences and filmmakers have a vague idea of what bathos is and know that it can be either intentionally used for comedic effect, or be the result of terrible writing.
Bathos seems to be the “secret ingredient” that always makes people laugh no matter the context or the type of movie. Because of this, many of the movies that came out in recent years have been using it a lot… maybe even too much.
The most glaring case of using bathos “a little too much” concerns the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This franchise became the most famous cinematic universes in the world partly thanks to its frequent use of bathos for comedic effect. But with the years that humor started to become a little predictable, and in some cases even a bit annoying.
Here’s the problem: bathos isn’t a “magical” thing that makes everything funny.
Doctor Strange, in some countries titled “If Iron Man had magical powers” is a good epic adventure into a mystical world ruined by the occasional silly joke.
Timing is extremely important when it comes to bathos. Not only it’s the timing of the joke itself is crucial (the ridiculous moment must immediately follow the serious moment or else it wouldn’t be that funny), but also the context.
Bathos needs good timing
The problem with Doctor Strange is that it tries to be at the same time epic and mystical but also silly and funny.
In this scene, the Doctor has already faced the minions his foe, Kaecilius, in a fight and barely survived. He has learned that if he doesn’t stop them they will bring Dormammu to Earth and wreak havoc to the planet.
The stakes are high, his mentor just died, and he will have to face his foes all alone. Now, tired and half beat, he has made up his mind, he is ready to law down his own life for the sake of the planet.
Stephen straightens his collar, looks at his reflection on the mirror and… the silly cloak starts poking his cheeks.
It’s funny, yes, but also a little distracting.
Straightening the collar is supposed to represent the fact that he is finally “ready”, he is going to risk everything for the sake of the people he loves and become a hero.
Cutting a scene that is supposed to be serious in half with a joke takes away all the importance of this moment.
Some scenes are not supposed to be funny
You have to find the right pacing when writing the script of a movie. An epic and important scene which is a pivotal point for the character shouldn’t be used as a setup for a joke.
Here’s another more evident example:
Stephen meets Kaecilius for the first time, and they immediately jump on each other’s throats. But first… a little misunderstanding leads them to a hilarious exchange.
So the scene basically pauses to make room for the laughs.
This way, the first encounter between the hero and the villain starts out as intense and thrilling, becomes a joke, goes back to be thrilling and intense again.
This is, unfortunately, a common effect of bathos, if it’s not used well it seems that the writer tried to force a gag into a serious scene for no reason.
Thor Ragnarok uses bathos way more than Doctor Strange. This movie is basically a bunch of comedic gags that happen to have the same blonde dude as a protagonist.
So, why did this movie succeeds where Doctor Strange failed?
What kind of movie is this?
Surtur: Thor, son of Odin.
Thor: Surtur son of… a bitch. You’re still alive?– Thor Ragnarok
The secret is in the tone.
They are both superhero movies, but Doctor Strange is closer to an action-fantasy while Thor Ragnarok is more like an adventure-comedy. Basically, Thor’s movie is lighter and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
It’s common to say that the first 10 minutes of a movie will “tell” the audience what kind of movie they are watching.
If in the first scene there is a man falling down a very long flight of stairs, getting up once he has reached the bottom and saying “I should have taken the elevator”; the movie is probably a comedy.
If, on the other hand, in the first scene the same man falls down the same stairs but instead of getting up he simply lies there at the bottom, dead, leaving a pool of blood on the floor; the movie is probably a thriller, a horror, a noir or, at the very least, not a happy one.
Thor Ragnarok throws the bathos in the face of the audience immediately:
The very first scene sees Thor chained in a cage at the bottom of a dark pit with lava and flames beneath him. He starts telling his story with a grave and serious tone, then… he starts cracking jokes with the skeleton that’s in the cage with him.
The action sequence that follows has 4 moments that could be counted as bathos:
- “Surtur, son of… a bitch, you’re still alive?!”
- “Hang on. I’ll be back around shortly”
- “This is the crown, the source of my power” “Oh, that’s a crown. I thought it was a big eyebrow”
- “Because that’s what heroes do… wait, I’m sorry I didn’t time that right”
Comedy is a constant presence throughout the movie because the tone is light bathos doesn’t seem out of place even if the technique is used over and over again.
Bathos and drama don’t mix
In the cloak scene above from Doctor Strange, the gag sucks away all the emotion and the importance of the moment.
Thor Ragnarok doesn’t make the mistake of mixing drama with jokes. The movie has only a few instances of “seriousness”, but all of them play out without interruption.
With those two movies as examples, it’s easy to see how and when bathos works: Thor Ragnarok succeeds because it’s a comedy and it doesn’t try to be anything else, while Doctor Strange fails because it tries to be too many things at once.