Hanging a lampshade, sometimes referred to as hanging a lantern, is a technique where the story consciously recognizes something as being weird or cliché. Sometimes they can feel like the story is winking at the audience; a little “see what we did there.”
Some stories need lampshades to reassure the audiences that it’s not unreasonable to find something odd. A good example would be an adventure story like the Harry Potter series, where other characters remark on how frequently Harry manages to be in the wrong place at the right time, and how frequently it all works out in the end.
Lampshading can also be a source of humor, reminding audiences that many stories; particularly science fiction and fantasy, rely on a certain suspension of disbelief.
However, I’ve noticed that many of the recent Marvel movies are making excessive use of lampshading. More and more the scenes seem more centered around setting up a series of humorous winks or quips, poking fun at the traditional patterns of superhero stories, without actually building anything.
For example, I recently saw Thor Ragnarok, and at first the little nods and winks were amusing, but as the story progressed I found very little actual development, either within the characters or the narrative as a whole. The villain was simply there, an angry cliché determined to conquer for the sake of…providing a threat?
Meanwhile the heroes spend a lot of time trading playful barbs, making jokes at each other’s expense, and poking fun at their own genre, before abruptly cutting to a more serious “meaning”, where the hero actively takes control, makes a choice, only for the gravitas to immediately be undermined by yet another self-mocking gag, which is just as abruptly abandoned when the story reasserts the same “meaning” they just sabotaged for the sake of a joke.
I think this type of humorous lampshading has its place, but when that becomes the focus, the story undermines and subvert the existing narrative, but in this case, rather than replace it with some new meaning, Marvel tries to reassert that same meaning, even as they mock it.
In contrast, I would point to Monty Python’s Holy Grail, or Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. Both are fully and completely parodying the classic patterns of a medieval knight’s quest and a martial artist’s quest. But they do so consistently. They don’t try to alternate between irreverent and meaningful.
I definitely feel that visually the Marvel films are quite beautiful, but the narrative seems subservient to that agenda. Instead of building towards poignant climaxes, each scene feels like it’s competing with the others, setting itself apart with its own little gags and gimmicks, then hurrying on to a more serious note once the charm of the latest joke starts to wear off. It’s a fun ride, but in many ways that’s what it feels like, a ride, not a story.
What do you think?
Have Marvel’s films become overly focused on humorous gags & winks?
Or do they help to build and develop the story?