Friday, May 30, 2014

The Wind Rises

‘The Wind Rises’ is a fantasia on the magic – and dangers – of flight, a meditation on the weight of history, a statement on human fragility and the brief time we have together, and a fitting swansong for Studio Ghibli pioneer Hayao Miyazaki.

The operative word being “fantasia”. Miyazaki doesn’t attempt to forge a traditional biopic; indeed, what could be more fraught than trying to tell the life story of the guy who designed the Zero fighter. Even the film in its extant form has the long shadow of Pearl Harbor hanging over it.

Miyazaki’s protagonist is Jiro Horikoshi, but rather than draw from the designer’s own writings (he was a precise and eloquent diarist as well as penning the part-memoir part-technical book ‘Eagles of Mitsubushi: The Story of the Zero Fighter’), Miyazaki creates a fictionalised history inspired, in part, by Tatsuo Hori’s short story ‘The Wind Has Risen’. The title of this, and by truncation the film, owes to a quote from Paul Valery that opens the movie: “The wind is rising. We must try to live.” These lines are quoted several times during the film’s often leisurely 126 minutes.

For all that much of Horikoshi’s life is jettisoned, altered or completely fabricated – for instance, he had a brother, not the sister bent on becoming a doctor who is one of the film’s more important secondary characters; while the business about his wife’s illness and the sanatorium she’s sent to is straight out of Hori’s fictional work – Miyazaki wholly embraces a documented fact about Horikoshi’s life that might otherwise have languished as a piece of trivia: Horikoshi was a vivid dreamer, and he particularly dreamed of aircraft of his own design.

It’s hardly surprising that Miyazaki seizes on this concept from the off, introducing Horikoshi as a boy pouring over European magazines then taking to the skies in the first of several flamboyant and hyper-stylized dream sequences that leave you in no doubt that the director of ‘Porco Rosso’, ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ and ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ is at the controls. Horikoshi’s dreams bring him into preternatural contact with Italian aviation guru Count Caproni – presumably Giovanni Battista Caproni, although it has been suggested that the character also stands in for Miyazaki himself – who serves as a mentor.

The Horikoshi/Caproni relationship not only allows for more delightful fantasias on flight, landscape and the purity of striving for a dream; it foreshadows the eventual bastardisation of Horikoshi’s aeronautical ideals. Caproni is variously depicted as designing a huge passenger aircraft that barely leaves the ground on its maiden flight before shattering apart, and building a far more successfully designed bomber for the Italian airforce. In a scene filled with gleeful hi-jinks, he takes scores of the neighbourhood children for a joyride in the bomber before he delivers it.

As Horikoshi matures from boy to student to designer to husband, he never develops Caproni’s rambunctious personality – he’s a quiet and somewhat introverted character – but he shares Caproni’s idealism (“aircraft are a beautiful dreamer” the Italian remarks, more than once) even if the nature of his vocation means that one’s national air force are more often than not one’s client. If Horikoshi remains something of a blank canvas throughout the film, it’s because he serves as a receptacle for so much of what has underpinned Miyazaki’s aesthetic as a filmmaker throughout his entire career.

Some friends have ruefully expressed a mild disappointment, saying they’d hoped Miyazaki would have returned to the magical mise-en-scene of ‘Spirited Away’ or ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ for his last go-around. Personally, I find it entirely fitting that a world-class animator in the autumn of his career should bow out with a profound and dignified consideration of history, humanity, war and idealism – and do so entirely on his own terms.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


Welcome to a city defined by lawlessness. Welcome to a city of brutalist concrete architecture. Welcome to a city tagged with graffiti. Welcome to a city where homelessness is endemic. Welcome to a city where crime is a fact of life and the forces of law and order would rather twat you than look at you. Welcome to Nottingham Mega City One.

Or, more specifically, welcome the Peach Trees tower block, the two hundred or so floors of which Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and rookie officer Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) have to fight their way to the top of when a routine call turns spectacularly nasty.

And it’s this I keep coming back to whenever I despair that Pete Travis’s stripped-down yet stylised action thriller was a box-office disappointment. Released in 2012, it came at the tail-end of two years’ worth of claustrophobic genre movies set in high-rise apartments, from grungy French zombie flick ‘La Horde’ to urban Brit horror ‘The Citadel’ by way of ‘Attack the Block’, ‘The Raid’, ‘Tower Block’, ‘Rammbock’ and however many others. Was it a case of audience familiarity breeds ticket office contempt? Or was the collective memory still polluted by the 1995 Sylvester Stallone film? Either way, ‘Dredd’ deserved better.

The plot is minimalist: Dredd is asked to evaluate Anderson and decide if she’s fit to be a judge (judge in this sense being more like an armed response officer for whom due process doesn’t exist, and less like the white-wigged chappie Rumpole of the Bailey pisses off on a daily basis); they’re barely out of the precinct when they get a report of a triple homicide at Peach Trees; they attend and in quick succession: (i) apprehend suspect Kay (Wood Harris), (ii) determine that sociopathic and actually kinda sexy gang leader Madeline Madrigal a.k.a. Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) has a stranglehold on the building; and (iii) find themselves outnumbered and devoid of back-up when Ma-Ma’s tame techie (Domnhall Gleeson) shuts down Peach Trees, effectively trapping them inside.

‘Dredd’ divests its sci-fi trappings within its first few minutes: the sprawling vistas of Mega City One and the expansive excitement of the van/bike chase that open the movie are quickly replaced by the grim claustrophobia of Peach Trees’s stairwells, corridors and apartments. Apart from one scene where heavy cannonfire punches a hole in a 76th storey wall, the outside world isn’t glimpsed again till the final frames. Once we’re inside the tower block, there’s only Dredd’s uniform and weaponry – and the specific side-effects of Slo-Mo, the drug for which Ma-Ma is using Peach Trees as a processing plant – to remind us that any of this is taking place in the future. For all intents and purposes, we could be watching something made and set in the 70s – a stripped down and über tense early John Carpenter flick, maybe, or an alternative version of ‘The French Connection’ but without the actual detective work and an only slightly more by-the-book version of “Popeye” Doyle.

Slo-Mo is a terrific concept: a drug that slows the user’s perceptions to those of a sloth on mogadon that’s chilling out next to a bonfire in Cheech and Chong’s garden. If you get what I mean. Ma-Ma’s favourite punishment for those who fall out of favour is to have them shot up with Slo-Mo and thrown off the top storey. The journey down lasts a lifetime for them. Then ends very abruptly in the atrium. Which is where Dredd and Anderson came in.

Anderson’s quirk is that she’s telekinetic, an ability that’s only really delved into in one scene – but it’s a damn good scene, and certainly the most unusual method of interrogation you’re likely to find in a crime movie. Your average James Ellroy character probably wouldn’t even recognise it as an interrogation and wonder where the baton and the rolled up telephone directory had gone. It’s also conveniently forgotten about in a scene where someone jumps Anderson from behind and she never “sees” it coming.

Thirlby’s performance is effective: Anderson is essentially the human element of the film given that Dredd is basically a non-character (he dispenses justice, usually from the business end of the gun, and if the dude has a life outside of his job, the audience sure as hell aren’t told about it) and Ma-Ma and her less-than-merry band of miscreants are thoroughly and unrepentantly degenerate. Having said that, Urban inhabits Dredd totally – the mask means that he has to give an entire performance via his upper lip, and I can honestly say I’ve never seen upper-lip work of this magnitude before. Lena Headey, as I may have suggested earlier, is some kind of awesome.

Finally, though, a film like ‘Dredd’ lives or dies by how tense it is and how explosive the action. It hits a home run in both respects. To such an extent that it’s gleefully easy to overlook just how fucking fascist the whole thing is. There are probably councillors for hard right-wing parties who watch ‘Dredd’ as an instructional video.

Here’s hoping its already noteworthy DVD afterlife (like ‘Fight Club’ it seems to be finding its audience post-theatrical release) means that a sequel isn’t just a pipe-dream. Poster-boy for enhanced police powers he may be, but Urban’s take on Dredd is as definitive as Robert Downey Jnr’s personification of Tony Stark. Except without the Audi or the party girls.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Pain & Gain

Father, forgive me.

How long has it been since your last confession?

December 20th last year, when I reviewed ‘Zombie Strippers’ for Winter of Discontent.

Tsk, tsk. And what have you done this time? 

Father, I find myself in the awkward position of having enjoyed a Michael Bay film.

And this is the first time you’ve felt this way. 

Well, there was ‘The Island’, Father, but that was more to do with lustful thoughts about Scarlett Johannson.

Ah, fine figure of a woman. And what temptress beguiled you in this one?  

Uh, Mark Wahlberg.

Ah, for shame, lad! Fancying a member of the same sex who isn’t a choirboy! 

Ah, but he gives a cracking comic turn, Father. 

Are you taking the piss out of my accent? 

Sorry, Father. 

Sorry, my cassock! You’re on a dozen Hail Marys already. Now tell me about the sinful fillum that you watched. And the next feckin’ line of dialogue you type for me had better not have “fillum” in it. Or “feckin’.” 

Sorry, Father. 

You will be. Now tell me about this sinful film. 

Well, Father it’s based on a true story and it earned brownie points right at the start for saying “unfortunately this is based on a true story”. Kind of satirised the whole pompous tendency in mainstream cinema to parade a “based on a true story” tag as if that automatically grants it special privileges. 

What’s that you say? Satire in a Michael Bay film? 

Actually, yes, Father. There’s some fine – if unsubtle – bits of comedy. Particularly a wonderful bit of slo-mo that gloriously punctures the “cool guys don’t look at explosions” iconography that Bay did so much to define in his earlier films.

The early, more explode-y ones. 

Yes, those. Nice Woody Allen reference, by the way. 

What are you trying to say? 

Uh, nothing, Father. Nothing at all. 

So, this sinful movie, what’s it about? 

Mark Wahlberg plays a trainer at a gym who spends his days envying wealthy male clients and lusting after statuesque female clients. He attends a motivational seminar and decides to embrace the whole “three step plan” ideology. Only his plan involves kidnapping, torture, extortion and finally murder. 

Set at the time of the Inquisition, you say? 

Uh, set in the 90s, Father. 

And the difference is? 

More cocaine and sports cars in the 90s, Father. 


So Wahlberg ropes in a fellow trainer (Anthony Mackie) and an ex-con (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) and they kidnap a Jewish millionaire (Tony Shalhoub) and beat the shit out of him – 

And this is available on rental, is it? 

Yes, Father. So they beat the shit out of him and get him to sign away all his worldly goods and eventually they leave him for dead. But not before royally fucking up any number of kidnap schemes and making an equally cack-handed hash of putting the frighteners on him. The gang’s sheer ineptitude is milked for all it’s worth and makes for some genuinely hilarious moments. In fact, Bay’s capacity for vulgar comedy suggests that with this material he may have found his metier: larger-than-life absurdity suits him well. 

What of the performances? 

Wahlberg’s in his element. He’s never more entertaining than when he plays a total douche. The Rock’s talent for self-deprecatory comedy, obvious from as far back as ‘Be Cool’, sees him on form and then some. Mackie, between this and ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, is emerging as one of my favourite men of the moment. Shalhoub delivers the fast-talking abrasive shtick he does so well. Meanwhile, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry and Rebel Wilson are all memorable for different reasons. 

And it contains violence, does it? 

It’s a Michael Bay film, Father. But it doesn’t feature robots taking a piss. 

In that case, you’re forgiven. 

Thank you, Father. 

When’s this year’s Winter of Discontent? 

Starts November, Father. 

I’ll see you then.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Zombies, whistling, excuses, excuses ...

Yeah, I know. I’ve been neglecting this blog. But you can get your fix of all things Agitation over at Dawn of the Unread where I’m reviewing the micro-budgeted German zombie film ‘Rammbock’.

Elsewhere in the web-o-sphere, there’s my review of the quirky new book ‘A Brief History of the Whistling’ on the Five Leaves Bookshop website, my poem ‘The Grayling Damnation’ is on the Poetry 24 website, and you can go here to download the “circles” issue of Here Comes Everyone which contains my poem ‘Prayer’.

Film reviews will return to these hallowed pages next week, with a certain comic book anti-hero with a square jaw, a big helmet and a rigid sense of justice; and with a look at Miyazaki’s swansong.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Under the Skin

Ladies and gentlemen, the Agitation of the Mind Award For Filmic What-The-Fuckey, Total Commitment to Anti-Narrative and Ability to Send the Audience Stumbling Out of the Cinema in a State of Wordless Stupefaction goes to … Jonathan Glazer for ‘Under the Skin’.

Adapted so loosely from a novel by Michael Faber that the English language really needs to find a new word to fill the no-man’s-land between “adapted” and “has the same title”, ‘Under the Skin’ is virtually impossible to synopsize - unless you render the half dozen or so key scenes as short impressionistic poems – and even more difficult to pin down critically. In fact I’m not sure why I’m even trying.

SPOILER ALERT. The film begins with an alien literally dressing itself in a human identity and ends with sloughed skin and an impromptu cremation in which the creature’s identity is so thoroughly obliterated that when its ashes descend in a flurry of falling snow there is no way to determine which is which as they rain down and blank out the camera’s lens. This sense of slipperiness, of arbitrariness, of impermanence seeps through every scene. SPOILERS END.

In its most basic iteration, ‘Under the Skin’ can be described as “Scarlett Johannson plays an alien in Glasgow”, the delirious unexpectedness of the three elements of that sentence almost making it sound like a comedy. It’s anything but. ‘Under the Skin’ is hypnotic, disorientating and disturbing in roughly equal measures. Two scenes in particular – one on a beach, one involving a gentleman with Joseph Merrick-like degenerative skin condition – troubled me more than anything I’ve seen on the big screen in a while.

In its lewdest iteration, ‘Under the Skin’ can be expanded upon as “Scarlett Johannson plays an alien in Glasgow luring men to their doom with the promise of sex”. And I suppose the least enigmatic statement the film makes is the tendency of most men to make decisions based on their libido. Get in an unmarked van with a woman who doesn’t act quite right? Follow her into a house in the shittiest urban hellhole imaginable, a house whose windows have steel plates bolted over them? A house that’s unlit, its interior almost pitch black, and its floor of a strange consistency? Aw, hell, why not – so long as she’s a looker!

But beyond the simple we-knew-that-anyway message of “most men think through their dicks” – we meet two types: the self-delusive wannabe lothario and the callous rapist – what is ‘Under the Skin’ finally about? 

What it’s certainly not about is the alien’s mission, or for what purpose her victims are culled, or even (beyond perhaps running the most unsubtle mop-up operation in the history of cinema) the other alien with the predilection for high-performance motorbikes has to do with anything. The novel apparently provides a rationale, but film refuses to explain anything. Seldom does cinema function on this level of the abstract without “Bunuel” or “Jodorowsky” kicking about in close proximity to the words “directed by”.

Glazer floats hints of meaning, specifically in the second half where the alien tries to assimilate human behaviours (while, paradoxically, withdrawing into an uncommunicative state as she/it does so), but a definitive reading of the film is surely something that can only ever exist on a personal level and influenced in varying degrees by the individual viewer’s aesthetics, imagination and level of recreational drug use.

I saw ‘Under the Skin’ with a friend who is both cine-literate and eloquent. It says something that, exiting the cinema, we were both lost for a coherent sentence. It took a long conversation in the pub afterwards for me to even sift my thoughts into this review – which is probably less a review than a ramble. A chap we spoke to in the pub said that he felt the film was pointless, but it was clear there were scenes and images that had – pardon the obvious turn of phrase – got under his skin. Same for me. I can’t pretend to understand, explain or cogently analyse it, but I have no doubt that ‘Under the Skin’ is art, in the gnarly Brueghel/Plath/Penderecki sense of art as a force that upsets, disturbs and deconstructs. And, from the shaken husk of the audience that has the confidence to engage with it, regenerates.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

At the end of Joe Johnston’s ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’, the newly revivified Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) finds himself in the middle of a bustling, neon-soaked metropolis. The world has moved on by six decades. No dialogue is necessary; it’s there on his face: I fought for this? Joss Whedon’s ‘The Avengers’ gives him no time for navel-gazing: Loki and the Chitauri’s threat is immediate and perilous enough that the team are thrown together with little time for formalities.

As Anthony and Joe Russo’s ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ opens, Rogers’s integration into the twenty-first century has progressed somewhat, up to the point of male bonding with soldier-turned-counsellor Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Then, kicking the action off in fine style, Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) turns up and SHIELD swing into action to rescue the hostage crew of a security vessel from a cut-throat group of terrorists. Said mission is accomplished, but Rogers discovers that Romanoff – acting on orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) not disseminated to the rest of the team – had entirely different mission perameters.

Rogers has it out with Fury, who bluntly appraises him of how much the world has changed since the war. Fury shows Rogers the next stage in SHIELD’s counter-terrorism mandate: three heavily armoured heli-carriers triangulated by a surveillance satellite, capable of identifying and neutralising a threat before it happens, a project Fury is urging SHIELD Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) to push through. 

Rogers is aghast at the implications and begins to question his role in SHIELD. Nostalgia in the form of a Smithsonian tribute to his 1940s incarnation tugs at him. A hospital visit to nonagenarian Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), now revealed as one of the founders of SHIELD, leaves him feeling even more at odds with his new life. Then an attempt is made on Nick Fury’s life by a heavily armed team lead by a notorious Russian assassin known only as the Winter Soldier and long thought to be a myth. Realising he’s been set-up, and with a fair few secrets of his own, Fury turns up at Rogers’s apartment but before he can impart any pertinent information, the assassin strikes again.

Factions within SHIELD move against Rogers. He finds himself on the run, with only the Black Widow and Wilson on his side. (Wilson, just in case anyone doesn’t know, later becomes Falcon; Mackie embraces the role with relish.) The mid-section of ‘The Winter Soldier’, a good old-fashioned chase/conspiracy thriller, hits the highest note Marvel have yet sustained. Evans nails Rogers’s moral fibre and righteous indignation to a tee, while the race-against-time narrative as Rogers and Romanoff piece together the clues to uncover corruption in high places, makes for a genuinely urgent and engaging viewing experience, particularly compared to the CGI-heavy silliness of Marvel’s last outing, ‘Thor: The Dark World’.

Naturally, this being a Marvel film and having a budget clocking in at £170million, spectacular action sequences are obligatory, and while a couple of Winter Soldier assaults which erupt into citywide on-the-street mayhem deliver the goods, the film enters shakier territory with the extended finale, not least because Cap-battles-Hydra-villains-on-bloody-big-plane is basically a rehash of the finale to ‘The First Avenger’ but without the human element of his regretful farewell to Peggy in that film.

Such human element as there is in ‘The Winter Soldier’ derives from Rogers’s conflicted response when the identity of his titular antagonist is revealed, and from Romanoff’s ever-so-slight thawing from kick-ass action amoral heroine agent to kick-ass action heroine who might actually have something vaguely resembling a moral conscience.

Elsewhere, ‘The Winter Soldier’ seems to be marshalling its ducks into a row for Cap’s third instalment, unfinished business with the Winter Soldier being the main promise as the credits roll (and, hopefully, a more significant part for Emily Vancamp’s Agent 13, shoehorned into the this outing for seemingly no other reason than to introduce the character). Meanwhile, a mid-credits extra scene points towards the ‘The Avengers: Age of Ultron’.

Overall, ‘The Winter Soldier’ is the most intelligent product of the Marvel stable to date … which – granted – isn’t necessarily saying much, but it’s refreshing to see a superhero movie not made by Christopher Nolan that gets its hooks into the zeitgeist, doesn’t wuss out with easy answers, and treats its audience like adults. Most Marvel films want to throw things at you and yell “whiz bang!” in your ear very loudly and very frequently until you get tinnitus. ‘The Winter Soldier’ wants to sit down and have a conversation with you. It wants to talk about politics, corruption, the surveillance state and the price of both liberty and security. And then it wants to go “whiz bang!” and send you stumbling out of the cinema with a denouement that’s a real game-changer.

Oh, and its ‘Pulp Fiction’ homage is inspired.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Marvel: the story so far

I started writing this as a few introductory paragraphs to a review of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ but in typical Fulwood stylee it got all verbose and out of hand and became an article in and of itself. So you can either completely ignore it and check back in the next day or two for the ‘Cap’ review proper, or wade through my complete opinionated thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a phrase that made me a little bit sick in my mouth when I typed it) and fill up the comments thread with all manner of outrage and correctiveness. Up to you.

Over the last six years, my interest in the MCU, if plotted on graph paper, would look like a polygraph test taken by an intermittent liar. Jon Favreau’s ‘Iron Man’ was first out of the traps and set the bar high: gripping origin story, iconic action set-pieces and a back-from-the-dead (or at least from rehab) turn by Robert Downey Jnr. Its rip-roaring success meant Marvel Studios got to play with the big boys right from the off.

Louis Leterrier’s ‘Hulk’ avoided the bouncy graphics and navel-gazing of Ang Lee’s take on the character, and was a bloody good chase movie up until the last twenty minutes when two screensavers basically twatted each other for what seemed longer than your average Bela Tarr flick. It wobbled at the box office, taking $263million against its £150million budget whereas ‘Iron Man’ netted £585million from a similar budget. It was two years until the next Marvel outing and the studio decided to play it safe with ‘Iron Man 2’ and Favreau back in the director’s chair.

This was where my interest started to dip: even the presence of Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell couldn’t disguise a meandering screenplay; it also made the cardinal mistake of giving us a vulnerable and insecure Tony Stark when all we really want to see is Tony Stark partying with dancing girls, driving a fuck-off cool Audi and throwing out smart-arse comments left, right and centre. Still, it rang the box office tills and it introduced Scarlett Johansson at Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff.

Then came ‘Thor’ and, here at chez Agitation, the jury’s still out on the ‘Thor’ movies. While Shakespeare wallah Kenneth Branagh was a good choice for helmer in respect of the mythological aspects of the story, he’s no-one’s idea of an action movie or summer tentpole director. On the plus side, Chris Hemsworth made something out of what could have been a very silly characterisation, and was ably served by a stellar supporting cast: who else could have played Thor Snr but Anthony Hopkins? who can deliver sarcastic line readings anywhere near as cuttingly as Kat Dennings? Best of all, though, it gave us Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Tom Hiddleston is the single best thing in the whole of the MC-motherloving-U.

‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ was the one I went into with the most trepidation. Let’s face it, “Cap” is the easiest character to screw up. He doesn’t have the girls, gadgets and glib one-liners of Tony Stark, the destructive creature-from-the-id unpredictability of Bruce Banner, or the commanding intensity and fucking big hammer of Thor. What Steve Rogers has is true-blue patriotism and a rigorous sense of right and wrong. He could easily have been boring. His origin story – a period piece, with him battling Third Reich splinter group Hydra against the backdrop of World War II – doesn’t key into the contemporary America that even Thor traverses.

My doubts, however, were groundless: with Joe Johnston calling the shots and bringing his ‘Rocketeer’ playbook to the table; with Chris Evans striking just the right note in his characterisation; with Hayley Atwell giving even Johansson a run for her money as a kick-ass, sexy and appealing heroine; with Hugo Weaving channelling Werner Herzog to create the best Marvel baddie this side of Loki; with a cluster of terrific action scenes that were coherently shot and edited; and with characterisation and period recreation at the heart of the entire production, it fired me up for Marvel all over again. It romped into first place as my absolute favourite of the Mike Charlie Uniform.

So, with all the origin stories told, and with what Marvel have rather self-importantly referred to as “phase one” drawing to its conclusion, all that remained was to unite them. Responsibility for ‘The Avengers’ (or ‘Avengers Assemble’ as it was retitled for the UK market, to avoid comparison with a certain Ralph Fiennes/Uma Thurman turkey) was handed to Joss Whedon and fair dues to the man, he stepped up to bat. Consider for a moment the poisoned chalice that an ‘Avengers’ movie was at that time: a script that had to give enough time to four very different characters and very different actors; a threat that had to be significant enough to require all four protagonists; a new actor to embed (Mark Ruffalo, taking over from Ed Norton in the role of Bruce Banner). The potential for fuck-up-ery was off the scale. Whedon negotiated the pitfalls with aplomb. And while ‘The Avengers’ isn’t quite in the first rank (a saggy mid-section; the already clichéd uber-villain-allows-himself-to-be-captured-in-order-to-facilitate-next-stage-of-cunning-plan plot device) it’s still arguably the best that could have been done given the material and the movie-going public’s expectations.

Shane Black’s ‘Iron Man 3’ repeated the ‘Iron Man 2’ cock-up: it chipped away at everything that makes Tony Stark the risible yet loveable arrogant twat he is. To the point at which it seems more like a surreal sequel to the earlier Black/Downey Jnr outing ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ than an actual Marvel film. I can only speculate that Black threw in a dockyard shoot-out in which Stark doesn’t don the suit but a dozen other (empty) Iron Man suits going flying around and blowing things up in order to placate the Marvel Studios suits and ensure he wasn’t given his little pink slip while a PR type dug around for Jon Favreau’s phone number.

I still don’t know what to say about Alan Taylor’s ‘Thor: The Dark World’ or – as I’m convinced that original draft of the script was titled – ‘Carry On Up Your Asgard’ except that Tom Hiddleston was in it and Kat Dennings still does sarcasm better than anyone. Yes, it was entertaining in a five-pints-and-a-kebab kind of way; yes, Rene Russo had one hell of an exit scene; yes, it prompted a couple of hollow laughs. But seriously, what the fuck was that big fight scene all about? Antagonists dropping through time and space, occasionally smacking each other a few times before disappearing into another dimension … it was like ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ as if Paul Verhoeven had directed following a week-long drug binge fuelled by back-to-back episodes of ‘Red Dwarf’. Only not as funny.

Somewhere around ‘Thor: The Dark World’ swinging its hammer at box office tills the world over, Whedon took Marvel to the small screen with ‘Agents of SHIELD’. Although Whedon has done some fine work for TV, very little of it has demonstrated the longevity of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. Moreover, Whedon’s internal quality control is iffy at best, and for everything that’s as downright well-written as ‘Firefly’ there’s plenty of material that’s messy, self-indulgent and riddled with pop-culture references. I’ll just say that I gave up on ‘Agents of SHIELD’ after two episodes and leave it at that.

Now we’re at ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, the middle instalment in Marvel’s “phase two”, after which an entirely new slew of characters will be introduced in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ – including, apparently, a racoon with a predilection for heavy-duty weaponry – before The Avengers reassemble for ‘Age of Ultron’ with Whedon back at the helm. Moving forward to “phase three”, two films are in pre-production: ‘Ant-Man’ and ‘Captain America 3’. The former piques my curiosity for no other reason than Edgar Wright’s involvement; and the latter, featuring the same creative team as ‘Winter Soldier’, is something I’m really hoping makes it three for three.