It’s been quite a year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Avengers: Endgame – a three hour movie without a single frame wasted, with no scene that outstays its welcome, and with enough self-awareness and originality to have one character’s barely competent goofiness ultimately save the day rather than any grand sweeping act of nobility – broke pretty much all known box office records and brought an epic tale told very slowly across twenty two films (twenty three if you count the enormously fun post-script Spider-Man: Far From Home) and eleven television series to a breathtaking conclusion. A silly row about whether Spider-Man would be improved by wearing Malibu Stacy’s new hat and as a convenient side note make Ian Sony even more money accidentally by mistake was settled when everyone realised it was probably a good idea to leave the character in the hands of the only production team who have ever really got it right. A slate of new projects featuring such excitingly unlikely characters as Shang-Chi, Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel was announced, alongside confirmation that Blade is coming back and that there will finally be a proper bloody Fantastic Four movie that people are actually able to watch without the aid of anti-depressants and caffeine supplements. And Martin Scorsese, Ken Loach and Peter Hatface from The Ironic Review snarked from the sidelines like grumpy old sods.
No doubt there are already more than a few readers hurriedly hitting the back button on their browser and wondering out loud how I could possibly be so uncouth as to brazenly show such deep and ignorant disrespect to two of cinema’s truest and greatest auteurs (and a man made up by Lee and Herring who went “aaaaaaaahhhh” a lot), so let’s just be unambiguously clear from the outset. This is absolutely not what I am doing, no matter how you might try to twist and interpret it for the sake of a badly punctuated lower-case quote-tweet. I adore Mean Streets, The King Of Comedy, After Hours and No Direction Home and although I haven’t seen The Irishman at the time of writing, I have every confidence it will be another a three hour movie without a single frame wasted and with no scene that outstays its welcome (although probably with less Ant-Man). I will openly admit that am not personally that keen on Ken Loach’s cinematic output but understand and appreciate the appeal, importance and value of his films, even if I do wish he’d put a bloody sock in it over half century old feuds with people who probably left the BBC in 1972. That said, I could tell you an absolutely terrifying amount about his culturally crucial and really very good indeed television plays Up The Junction and Cathy Come Home, although in balance I could also tell you an equally terrifying amount about the slightly less pivotal A Madhouse On Castle Street, Coast To Coast, The Black And Blue Lamp and Barnaby Spoot And The Exploding Whoopee Cushion. Which brings me round to precisely the point I want to make here.
I love Deep End, O Lucky Man!, Celine And Julie Go Boating, Tenebrae and Eraserhead. I also love Pacific Rim, Big Trouble In Little China and the The Fast And The Furious franchise and if I’m looking for a fun evening of escapism would far rather spend my extortionate popcorn money on a big dumb action movie with robots punching each other. Above all I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has taken characters from comics that I read single stray issues of from cover to cover again and again and again as a youngster and made them into a witty, dazzling and cleverly interconnected set of films that have usually – I am not an uncritical fan and will hold my hand up and say that The Incredible Hulk, Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age Of Ultron didn’t quite hit the mark for me (and let’s not even get started on Iron Fist and the first series of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) – taken the excitement levels right through the multiplex roof. Which is why I do not take especially well to being told that what I am enjoying on a fun evening out away from news, politics and more tedious day to day annoyances is ‘not cinema’, a ‘theme park’, devoid of ‘human beings trying to convey emotional psychological experiences to another human being’, lacking ‘imagination’, made ‘like hamburgers’, and swamping cinemas to the exclusion of ‘real’ films that ‘matter’ to the extent that by going to see Captain Marvel twice in one weekend I was allowing the fascists to win, and then in turn being curtly told not to question this by those who affect to understand ‘real’ cinema and/or believe that a low budget film aimed at an already on-side audience can somehow save the world if enough people are made to watch it against their will. It’s an arrogant, snobby slap in the face for audiences who have every right to make their own decisions and are perfectly entitled to just be entertained rather than lectured at like some aspect ratio-fixated counterpart to when Mark Thomas dropped ‘Comedy’ out of his show title, and at the risk of entertaining accusations of counter-snobbery towards myself, how many of those brow-furrowing cineastes lining up to defend their comments on the basis of knowing what’s best for the poor deluded mainstream audience have a shelf of full of Blurays with Billy Liar at one end and Vampyros Lesbos at the other?
Even the bracketing of ‘Marvel Films’ together as an entity, whether to be looked down on or otherwise, is an act of sheer wilful pompous ignorance as you’ll find more diversity (in all senses) between the individual films than in pretty much any other cinematic franchise ever. Even just picking out a couple of random examples, Captain America: The First Avenger is an effective wartime costume drama that never lets the fantasy elements get in the way of that. Doctor Strange is a fantastic collision of sixties psychedelia, modern spiritualism and, well, House M.D.. Agent Carter resembles a Coen Brothers movie that has decided to start kicking men in the bollocks. Spider-Man: Homecoming pits a gawky, idealistic teenager in the middle of his own high school comedy romp against an upstanding citizen turned arms dealer who you almost end up conceding has a point. Black Panther respects native culture, boasts more strong female characters than male, and uses a passionate but misguided nationalist taking charge by force as the basis of its troubling narrative. Daredevil is an unremittingly grim look at why vigilantes might not necessarily be the force for good they believe themselves to be, especially once The Punisher shows up halfway through. Captain Marvel is a clever pastiche of nineties sci-fi franchises combined with a superbly observed post-Grunge Riot Grrrl-inspired attitude with pitch-perfect pop culture references. Jessica Jones is a powerful statement on male entitlement, coercive control, and abusive relationships in all directions. Ant-Man And The Wasp is not just a screwball romantic comedy, but one about emotionally damaged divorcees trying to fit romantic overtures and crime fighting around child access; what’s more, it’s a film that for a certain percentage of its audience is difficult to avoid feeling enormously ‘seen’ by. They’re all as distinct from each other as Raining Stones and… well, um, I’m struggling a bit there. And then there’s Guardians Of The Galaxy.
If you’ve never seen either of the two films charting the hilarious space-battling escapades of the crew of The Milano, then it’s probably worth giving a quick rundown of the ludicrous escalating runaround thus far. In the first film, half-human half-celestial self-styled intergalactic policeman Star-Lord – born Peter Jason Quill in Missouri – is tasked with retrieving the Power Stone, one of six terrifyingly powerful cosmic stones that the films’ primary antagonist Thanos is keen to retrieve to enact his plan to wipe out half of all existence in the universe, for safekeeping, leaving behind a trail of bad dates but never leaving behind the Walkman and compilation tapes of soft-rock classics that once belonged to his late mother. Thanos’ daughters Gamora and Nebula – not exactly likely to be each other’s bridesmaid – are also both after the stone, for purposes that run decidedly counter to those of their father. Bounty hunters Rocket – a genetically engineered military grade cyborg raccoon – and tree creature Groot are after Star-Lord. Drax The Destroyer, a worryingly literal muscleman, is after any opportunity to confront Thanos and avenge the deaths of his family. Star-Lord’s disreputable associates The Ravagers are after whatever they can get their hands on that will make them risibly small amounts of money. And the real intergalactic police, The Nova Corps, are after the lot of them.
In Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, Star-Lord, Gamora, Nebula, Rocket, Drax and Groot – soon to be bolstered by the arrival of comically naive empath Mantis – have joined forces as a shakily-aligned team with an even shakier romantic attachment between Star-Lord and Gamora, planning to both protect and steal some precious Anulax Batteries (or are they Harbulary Batteries?) when things get even weirder still. Ineptly violent discord breaks out amongst The Ravagers, videogame-obsessed pompous and superior know-alls the Sovereigns are out to teach The Guardians a lesson over an ill-advised spot of light-fingeredness, and Star-Lord’s shadowy estranged father Ego is up to something but nobody can quite work out what; and of course Thanos is hovering menacingly in the background too. And as much as I love the first film, it’s the second that has really connected with me in a manner that few films have ever seemed to.
I’m not sure I can really explain how and why this gloriously silly, retro-styled, wah-wah guitar-drenched, David Hasselhoff-obsessed slab of nonsense has slowly but steadily become my favourite movie of all time ever, but believe me it has. There are those who know me personally who will never miss an excuse to point out that there’s a lot about Star-Lord that reminds them of me, and it’s not always meant entirely flatteringly – that said, if the opportunity ever arose to charge at reality’s most powerful being armed only with a weak blaster shouting “LET HER GO, GRIMACE”, then just watch me step up and blow that nutsack of a chin right off his face – but I honestly think it goes a good deal deeper than that. No matter how many times I watch it, I still laugh along with “You’re telling me… YOU WANNA BUY SOME BATTERIES?”, “it’s called a Zune…”, “Mantis! Look out!”, “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!” and “tell me you guys have a refrigerator somewhere with a bunch of severed human toes??”; punch the air at the reunited Ravagers showing up at the end and Yondu taking down the mutineers to the sound of Come A Little Bit Closer; get my heart broken by the argument about Cheers and the Bring It On Home To Me slow dance; chuckle embarrassedly at the ‘romantic… sexual love’ reading; and generally concur that Rocket screaming laughing at Taserface’s name in the face of imminent execution is a pretty good way of tackling life. It has everything I want from a film and all in the right place and the right measure; as I’ve sometimes remarked of The Italian Job, when a film is this good it becomes like listening to a song you love, listening out for the beats and peaks that get you every time. Not too dissimilar to the seventies tracks that Star-Lord obsessively listens to, in fact. It carries the same sort of emotional resonance for me as I Believe In Miracles or At The Chime Of A City Clock, and there aren’t many movies I could really say that about. I recently flagged up a television showing of Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 by Tweeting that “it will hit you in the heart and fair near make you laugh your head off”, and I stand by every word of that.
The emotional resonance doesn’t end there, either. I went to see Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 at the cinema with one of the most important people there has ever been in my life; I’ve always believed who you watch a film with is important and sometimes it’s like the stars – or indeed the Infinity Stones – literally align. Since then, I’ve watched it after a long and difficult day saying my last farewells to an old friend, when a complicated romance came to a grinding halt, and sometimes just when I’ve needed a night in with my own company. These are days when a theme park is the last place I would want to be, and it’s a film that has conveyed emotional psychological experience to me like nobody’s business. If that’s ‘not cinema’, then I’m not sure I’m especially interested in whatever actually is.
Of course, when The Guardians Of The Galaxy showed up next in Avengers: Infinity War, everything took a slightly darker turn. After answering a distress call from Thor, they head off to take on Thanos one more time, and it’s all hi-jinks, disco hits and plans to finally topple their long-term adversary until something very unexpected happens and, well, you can read more about that here. Unsure if they’ll ever get to see their friends – or, as Rocket uneasily admits, family – again, a depleted Guardians continue the literal battle for reality in Avengers: Endgame, which brings me around to my favourite ever joke surrounding the Guardians Of The Galaxy franchise. And it’s one that wasn’t even in any of the films.
I went to see Avengers: Endgame with someone who had never seen a single Marvel movie but who insisted on coming anyway, purely on account of the fact that I was so excited about it. Despite promising not to ask any questions and just join in with the whooping, cheering, booing and hissing with everyone else in the Odeon, she piped up in a loud whisper almost straight away. Why are they in space? Why’s she blue? What can he do? I thought The Hulk was usually stupid? And on and on and on, until I was starting to get very annoyed indeed. The sort of level of annoyed I used to get when someone ‘well meaning’ would phone up during Doctor Who to check that I knew that Doctor Who was on. This must have been written all over my face, as when Thor squared up to Captain Marvel, she tugged hard on my sleeve until I turned round, and asked, with a not even cursorily disguised grin, “what would happen if he bummed her?”. It was childish, in dubious political alignment, utterly unbecoming of, well, a divorcee attempting to fit romantic overtures and crime-fighting around family commitments, and may well have turned the stomachs of several readers for several reasons, and it made me fair near fall off my chair laughing.
I am fairly confident this will not ever have happened to anyone during I, Daniel Blake.
You can find more chatter about the Marvel Cinematic Universe in this feature about the ten best endings of all time, and in the edition of Looks Unfamiliar with Mitch Benn here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.