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22 October 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 7:40am

What’s the difference between a Ken Loach and a Marvel film? I know which I’d rather watch

Once bold and necessary, the director’s modern portrayals of poverty now exclude the people they claim to represent.

By Emma Burnell

When people ask me what my favourite book is, I always say The Women’s Room. It is definitely the book that has made the biggest impression on my life and thinking. But it isn’t the book I read most often. The book I return to like an old friend, year in, year out, is a daft potboiler called Fortunes. It’s a rivalry between stepsisters vying to inherit an auction house. It’s silly and frivolous and wonderful.

I was thinking about this recently reading Ken Loach’s comments about superhero movies. While promoting his new film about the human impact of gig economy work, Sorry We Missed You, he told Sky News that Marvel movies are “boring”, “nothing to do with the art of cinema”, “a cynical exercise” to “make a profit for a big corporation” and “made as commodities like hamburgers”.

Let me first say that I’m not a huge fan of the genre. I saw the first Avengers film. I enjoyed Wonder Woman until the last 40 minutes, which were a boring plotless blur of CGI fighting. But I haven’t seen a superhero film since then and nor am I likely to. Unless Joker counts?

But I’m also not rushing to the cinema to see a Ken Loach film. And, more importantly, nor are my neighbours who all live in a part of east London where such films might well be set.

The films that Loach makes seem to almost purposely exclude any audience who would find themselves represented in them. Those going through the terrible systems documented by his films have enough of a hard time without paying through the nose to watch a fictionalised version of themselves.

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There was a time when Loach’s work was both bold and necessary. The charity Crisis was set up as a direct response to his TV drama about homelessness, Cathy Come Home. Kes showed the working classes on screen in a way that was rarely seen at the time. But that impact feels a long time ago. And, ironically, like the Marvel movies he decries, Loach’s work seems to be self-replicating.

Cathy Come Home was made 53 years ago. Loach has been an established director with a strong track record of making films about a subset of social issues ever since.

People know who he is and what to expect from his films, just as much as they do with a superhero movie or one with Minions in it.

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As such, people who choose to see these films know what to expect. In choosing to see them, we can assume they are already pretty sympathetic. These films don’t change minds, they preach to the converted.

I don’t have a problem with either superheroes or Loach films existing in the world. But I do get somewhat queasy when watching the latter is deemed as somehow a more moral act than watching the former.

Going to see a Loach film doesn’t make you a better person than not doing so. The issues that Loach raises in his films have other outlets and it is not in seeing them depicted on screen that we fight them but in taking action.

I don’t need to see a film to know that austerity has had a horrific impact on my local community. I just need to walk down the street. I don’t need a film to be stirred into action. I need concrete steps to take and ways to make an impact.

The left has an occasional habit of mistaking enjoyment in hard times for hardheartedness. It’s anything but the case. Leisure is a luxury we should be fighting for – not least because it is particularly hard to come by for those with the most precarious lives.

If they want to watch those lives depicted on screen, I am delighted that options for this exist. But if – instead – they choose three hours of escapist fun, I can’t say that I blame them or stand in snobby judgement of their choices.