Reviewed: This is 40 directed by Judd Apatow

Juddering to a halt.

This Is 40 (15)
dir: Judd Apatow

This Is 40 is the new movie from Judd Apatow, who has either revolutionised modern comedy or, depending on your view, made a mint out of merely dressing it in baggy sweatpants and a faded tee.

This much is beyond dispute: his is a track record to reckon with. This Is 40 follows The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People, as well as Apatow-produced hits such as Superbad, Bridesmaids and Lena Dunham’s fizzy HBO series Girls.

This Is 40 doesn’t quite cover it. This Is a Combined Box-Office Gross of $2bn would be nearer the mark.

This, then, is a man unlikely to hear the word “No”, even when he delivers, as he has done here, a glorified home movie where the humour is divided into cute things he and his friends have noticed about the onset of middle age, and cute things his children have said or done.

This is not so much cinema as four episodes of Outnumbered set to a coffeeshop playlist.

This can be blamed in part on the film’s neutralising mix of the vulgar and the twee, the in-jokey celebrity cameos, the indulgent space given to la famille Apatow (his wife Leslie Mann and their daughters), not to mention the XL-waistband approach to improvisation, structure and editing. (This was Apatow’s dry but amiable response when I put it to him that his films are unprecedented among cinematic comedies for being so damn long: “Well, don’t forget Berlin Alexanderplatz. And the Che movies...”)

This Is 40 takes supporting characters from Knocked Up – Pete (Paul Rudd), who had the earlier film’s most plangent line (watching his children playing, he sighed: “I wish I liked anything as much as my kids like bubbles”) and his wife Debbie (Mann) – and follows them into their midlife crises.

This is not the grey pound or dollar so much as the going-grey one.

This entails jokes about Viagra, declining body image, 40-year-old women demanding to be referred to as 38, men who hide from their wives by faking bowel movements, marital-rejuvenation mini-breaks and fantasies about the demise of one’s spouse followed by cheerful speculation about possible replacements.

This might sound like a distant relative to Hanif Kureishi’s observation in his novel Intimacy that “There are some fucks for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a frozen sea,” but only in the sense that Haribo is related to chateaubriand.

This is a comedy, after all, and one in which conflict is kneaded into the mix until it no longer exists. This tendency is epitomised by the film’s most abrasive and brilliant scene, which shows Debbie confronting a cherubic schoolboy whom she knows has included her daughter in his online “Not Hot” list. This prompts the mother of all dressingsdown and a scene pitched daringly toward horror: how far is Debbie going to go, we wonder, and will she stop once the child is sobbing helplessly? “This is more like it!” I thought, having endured over an hour of jokes about Pete pigging out on cupcakes, Debbie’s smarmy personal trainer being oversexed and middle-aged men trying to look up Megan Fox’s skirt.

This confrontation only leads, though, to a comic encounter that lets Debbie off the hook completely when it turns out that the boy’s mother (played by Melissa McCarthy) is as mad as a mescaline cupcake. This is screenwriting?

This Is 40 is at its least appealing when it asks us to share Pete’s concern over his ailing business while expecting us not to notice that he returns home each night to a mansion where each family member has their own iPad, that he takes Debbie on a luxury holiday during which they order every item on the room service menu just for fun and that he throws a party that would make one of Gatsby’s bashes look like a round of passthe- parcel in a squat.

This notion that an audience will empathise with Pete and Debbie, even as those characters whinge from the lap of luxury about their impending poverty, would likely have been implausible at any time in recent history; in the fall-out from a recession, it feels positively insulting.

This is only part of the problem, though, just as This Is 40 feels like only part of the title, less fitting than some of the other available options:

This Is 40 per cent Less Funny Than Any Previous Judd Apatow Film.

This Is 40 Minutes Worth of Material Padded Out To Fill Up Two-and-a-Quarter Hours.

This Is It?

A still from "This is 40".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.