The World's End: A comedy of ideas as well as gags

Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg return for the final instalment of their "Cornetto" trilogy: a raucous comedy slightly gnarled by its lofty ambitions.

The World’s End (15)
dir: Edgar Wright

The sobering lesson at the heart of the pubcrawl comedy The World’s End – that the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there – is hardly an original one. When L P Hartley wrote that line, he may not have envisaged that the sentiment would be expressed in an apocalyptic comic thriller about a sleepy town quietly infiltrated by a race of alien beings with blue blood. Presumably the colour was chosen for its domestic connotations (think classroom ink or Harpic) and for its liberating effect on violence (you can spill as much blood as you like and still keep your 15 certificate when that blood isn’t red).

The satirical content in the film revolves around the homogenisation of a Britain where every pub is indistinguishable from the next and national idiosyncrasies have been wiped out by branding. “It’s Starbucking,” someone says. “Happens everywhere.” In its role as a comedy of ideas as well as gags, The World’s End places the blame on a force more sinister even than globalisation.

Fear of conformity also ran through Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the previous two film collaborations between the director Edgar Wright and his lead actor and co-writer Simon Pegg. The hero of the new picture, Gary King (Pegg), is a screw-up who never grew up, a fortysomething man-boy stuck in his student years (Sisters of Mercy T-shirt, black trench coat, oil-slick hair). Getting in Gary’s clapped-out Ford, his old pal Steven (Paddy Considine) is amazed to hear the early-Nineties mix tape he made for him back at college. “Where did you find it?” he exclaims. “It was in the stereo,” Gary replies, nonplussed. Development doesn’t come much more arrested.

Even the soundtrack choices comment on it: Kylie’s “Step Back in Time”, Suede’s “So Young”, Pulp’s “Do You Remember the First Time?” Most poignant is the shot of Gary and his friends gathered in the pub snug while Inspiral Carpets sing: “This is how it feels to be lonely . . .” (I always said Inspiral Carpets would come in handy for something one day and no one believed me.)

Gary is haunted by the memory of un - finished business in his home town of Newton Haven. After leaving college, he and his chums tried and failed to complete a 12-stop pub crawl known as the “Golden Mile”. These days, Gary is more 12-step than 12-stop but that doesn’t prevent him from convincing the gang to return to Newton Haven to give it another go. As well as Steven, there’s the Bluetooth-eared estate agent Oliver (Martin Freeman, a master of the gently disdainful reaction shot), the car salesman Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Andy (Nick Frost), the most grudging participant on account of bad blood – bad red blood – between him and Gary. Popping up intermittently is Oliver’s sister, Sam, played by Rosamund Pike, who is so charismatic – whether rebuffing Gary’s charmless propositions or wielding garden furniture like a martial arts master – that it beggars belief that the film sends her off-screen when it runs out of things for her to do.

Frost and Pegg have been playing BFFs since long before the world started talking in impersonal acronyms – as far back as Spaced in the late-Nineties, the fine-grained flatshare sitcom that also established Wright’s magpie-eyed film-making style. Their chemistry seemed exhausted in the science-fiction road movie Paul but there is a genuine ache and anguish to their scenes together in The World’s End. Andy still gets furious whenever Gary suckers him with another lie but mostly he’s mad at himself for being a pushover. Turning from mild to wild during a fight scene, he’s railing not only at his extraterrestrial adversaries but at his lot in the world.

Double-fisted gunplay of the type pioneered by Chow Yun-Fat was once all the rage in the action genre. Here, there’s a sweetly parochial equivalent when Andy takes on all comers with a bar stool in each hand, rather than a Glock. It’s still unfortunate that, after the first two dust-ups, there simply isn’t enough variety to keep the confrontations fresh. Or is it just that those of us raised on the oeuvre of Burt Reynolds will always be resistant to a bar-room brawl?

At least the film has the courage of its convictions where it counts. Rather than foisting redemption upon Gary, the film insists to its final frame that warts-and-all is better than nipped-and-tucked, personality-wise. If that message smacks of A Clockwork Orange, the tone of the film is more reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, John Wyndham or The Thing. Abundant the raucous comedy may be but it never quite cancels out the creepiness of certain images, such as the members of “the Network” emitting blasts of light from their faces that intensify their accusing eyes and O-shaped mouths.

In its final half-hour, the movie gets snarled up in its ambitions; the narrative alters shape so drastically that it becomes impossible for the brain to process the new information in a single sitting. Then again, maybe that’s another way of saying: this one’s a keeper.

Totally slaughtered: from left, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Eddie Marsan.

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 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.