The Slacker Is (Gary) King: The Triumph of the Man-Child in the Cornetto Trilogy
By Rachael Kelly (PhD)
Originally published in Infinite Earths (online; October 2013)
Slacker. Loafer. Couch potato. Man-child. Fuck-up. Dude. This modern filmic anti-hero has many names, and he has a special place in the heart of writer/director team Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Their Cornetto trilogy, which concluded this year with the spectacularly hyperbolic The World’s End, features an array of men who can’t or won’t grow up: from the titular Shaun of Shaun of the Dead, who tries to hold off the zombie apocalypse with his LP collection (but only the ones that aren’t worth anything); through Hot Fuzz’s Constable Danny Butterman, who dreams of “fir[ing] a gun up in the air and going ‘Aaarrgghh!’” a la Point Break; and ending with The World’s End’s Gary King, whose dress sense and maturity have failed to progress since the early 1990s. All three movies play their leads’ performance of masculinity for laughs, but all three share a similar affection for the loveable loser, for whom the performance of adult responsibility is out of reach. They’re informed to a considerable extent by the proliferation of the “slacker” archetype that has pervaded popular culture for at least as long as Generation X (and, more latterly, Generation Y) has had a name — an archetype that, as yet, shows few signs of losing its relevance, and which tells its own story about the plurality of modern masculinities and the struggle to define the boundaries of masculine performance in the wake of paradigm shifts in gender roles — and by the kind of self-effacing, pop culture-savvy humour that is a key source of the Cornetto trilogy’s appeal. And yet, while The World’s End is, in many ways, a more adult, less genre-referential piece of filmmaking than the two movies that precede it, it’s also, in no small measure, the ultimate veneration of the man-child sensibilities that the earlier two narratives sought to resolve. In fact, when considered on a spectrum of responsibility, the Cornetto trilogy can, in many ways, be viewed as a slide out of adulthood and back into what scholar Gary Cross calls “adultescence” (2013: 5). I want to use this article to discuss notions of “slacker” masculinity, maturity, and popular culture, and to argue that the Cornetto trilogy, while mapping a kind of cinematic coming-of-age for Wright and Pegg, also institutes a gradual exaltation of the man-child that escalates as the trilogy proceeds, culminating in an apotheosis embodied in the narrative arc of The World’s End’s problematic protagonist, Gary King.
The term “slacker” has a lengthy pedigree (going back to the late 19th century, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary), but arguably owes its current usage to Richard Linklater’s 1991 film of the same name. The movie, a meditation on the sense of disconnection from society experienced by the children of the Baby Boom generation (soon to be known as Generation X, from the title of the Douglas Coupland novel that helped sketch its defining characteristics), introduced a semiological complexity to the word and a instituted a problematic recuperation of its connotative meaning that persists, to a certain extent, into the current pop culture phenomenon. Linklater, says Tom Lutz in Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums, “thought of the title Slacker as akin to the gay community taking the social condemnation ‘queer’ and proudly appropriating it, and this makes sense given his own hardworking relation to the slacker ethos” (2006: 288).
Yet, while Linklater and Coupland sought to recuperate the terminology, later appropriations, while feeding into the same vein of disaffected youth and confusion about one’s place in the (adult) world, have been more straightforward in their application of the slacker philosophy. Where early studies concluded that “It’s not that Gen Xers are rebellious and sullen; they’re just clear about what they want. Like the Generation Yers, they have a free-agent mind-set, [Bruce] Tulgan says, so managers have to keep them happy or they will leave” (Lutz, 2006: 290, referring to conclusions drawn by Bruce Tulgan in 1995), the evolution of the slacker in popular culture has come to mean something rather more gender-specific, and has tended to tie it to notions of maturation, and specifically failure to achieve maturation.
Writing in 2007, New Yorker film critic David Denby identifies a trend that he calls “the slacker-striver romance,” which features the following hero:
His beard is haphazard and unintentional, and he dresses in sweats, or in shorts and a T-shirt, or with his shirt hanging out like the tongue of a Labrador retriever. He’s about thirty, though he may be younger, and he spends a lot of time with friends who are like him, only more so… When he’s with them, punched beer cans and bongs of various sizes lie around like spent shells; alone, and walrus-heavy on his couch, he watches football, basketball, or baseball on television, or spends time memorializing his youth—archiving old movies, games, and jokes… Whatever he does, he hardly breaks a sweat, and sometimes he does nothing at all (2007 [online]).
This is the generic cycle — or, more correctly, this is one of the generic cycles — into which the Cornetto trilogy feeds, but it’s the cycle that most visibly informs the masculine performance of its leads. Yet the key term in Denby’s description is romance: these are movies constructed around a central love story that devolves the protagonists into a masculine/feminine binary configured as the struggle against (and, ultimately, towards) adult masculinity. “[I]f he does have a girlfriend,” says Denby of his slacker hero, “she works hard.” He continues:
Usually, she’s the same age as he is but seems older, as if the disparity between boys and girls in ninth grade had been recapitulated fifteen years later… She’s good-tempered, honest, great-looking, and serious. She wants to “get to the next stage of life” — settle down, marry, maybe have children… When she breaks up with him, he talks his situation over with his hopeless pals, who give him bits of misogynist advice. Suddenly, it’s the end of youth for him. It’s a crisis for her, too, and they can get back together only if both undertake some drastic alteration… He has to shape up, and she has to loosen up (2007 [online]).
This is critical for the constitution of slacker masculinity, and is, arguably, a trope as old as society itself. Entering into a committed (heterosexual) union is a — perhaps the — key signifier of the achievement of hegemonic adult masculinity, and the slacker resists it for all that he’s worth, mostly because he’s entirely aware that it represents the abandonment of youth for manhood. In Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity, Gary Cross discusses at length the desire to resist adulthood that he has observed in the post-Baby Boom generation and compares it to generations past: “Many are frustrated and confused about what maturity is and whether they can or want to achieve it,” he says. “I call them boy-men. I’ve noticed how men deep in their twenties or even thirties, when their parents and grandparents had themselves been parents and homeowners, have not yet settled down” (2013: 1). Again, “settling down,” becoming “parents and homeowners” is closely related to achieving adulthood and maturity, and Cross considers that the statistics speak for themselves: “Once the key marker of maturity,” he says, “marriage has declined sharply in the United States, dropping from 70 percent of households in 1970 to just 53 percent in 2000” (2013: 3). Correlation does not imply causation, of course, and Cross is keen to emphasise that he is “not making an essentialist argument about ‘maturity,’” but rather that “the standards of maturity that were so strongly expressed in the postwar popular culture have declined” (2013: 24), that this is part of a growing tendency within modern western culture to reclaim and reconstitute youth and youthful pursuits as one way of performing modern masculinity, and that this mode of masculine performance goes hand in hand with rejection of the “adult” worlds of marriage, commitment, children, and/or career. Cross calls this the “man-boy.” Others call it the slacker.
To be clear, although the terminology describing this mode of masculinity has acquired a pejorative overtone, I am not intending to ascribe to it a value judgement, simply to situate it socio-historically as a product of modern popular culture, generational discourse, and gender performance. That, and to establish the groundwork for an examination of the evolution of slacker masculinity within the Cornetto trilogy.
Shaun of the Dead
The first film in the trilogy, Shaun of the Dead (2004) tells the story of the eponymous Shaun (Simon Pegg), a 29-year-old television salesman from north London, who shares a house with the career-minded Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) and his best friend from childhood, Ed (Nick Frost), an unemployed drug dealer who spends his day on the couch playing video games, drinking beer, and smoking weed. Shaun’s long-term girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), wants more from life than their routine trips to Shaun’s local pub, the Winchester, and, after Shaun fails to follow through on his promises that “Things will change. I promise,” she breaks off their relationship, leaving Shaun heartbroken and determined to win her back. Before he can get started, however, the zombie apocalypse begins.
As with all the Cornetto films, Shaun derives much of its comedic thrust from the collision of two separate but overlapping genres — in this case the zombie movie and the zeitgeist-friendly slacker movie. It works, in large part, because positioning the two leads as exemplars of slacker masculinity inverts the typical dynamic of the warrior hero, an archetype that embodies hegemonic masculinity at its zenith.
The hegemonic man, as defined by Mike Donaldson is, “A culturally idealized form, it is… both a personal and a collective project, and is the common sense about breadwinning and manhood” (1993: 646). The hegemonic man does not necessarily have to perform the warrior hero, but the warrior hero must exhibit hegemonic masculinity. Ben Knights describes him as follows:
Onto the figure of the hero as celebrated in social narrative are projected fantasies of a purified and invulnerable identity. He is a model both as a strong, admirable character, but also because he seeks out and confronts danger… The central masculine figure is imagined as a maker, rather than a victim of events… In representing strength and hardened boundaries against the chaotic — even treacherous — world on which he sets his mark, the hero glorifies the male body as a phallic weapon. He thus articulates a purified masculine identity achieved through courageous acceptance of risk (2004: 380).
Shaun, on the other hand, embodies an archetype much closer to Knights’ description of the anti-hero: “the male who through his clownishness, deviousness, or cowardice fails to live up to the high expectations placed upon the male leader” (ibid.). He fails to realise there’s a problem at all until the zombie invasion is already well advanced, instead getting drunk with Ed and mistaking the living dead for other punters as intoxicated as he is. He flicks idly through the television channels without noticing the increasing sense of urgency on the news, and, even when a zombie girl attacks him in his back garden, neither Shaun nor Ed registers the threat until she impales herself on the stump of an old whirligig and, instead of dying, struggles to her feet and comes back for more. It’s at this point that the duo spring to action, but their weapons are not the blades or guns of the warrior: they are assorted kitchen cutlery, a toaster, and Shaun’s record collection. And, though their quest to rescue Shaun’s mum and ex-girlfriend and carry them to a place of safety to wait out the invasion might just fit Joseph Campbell’s idea of the “road of trials” (Piper, 2011: 172, quoting Campbell, 2008: 81-90), the choice of the Winchester as zombie-proof fortress is much more in keeping with slacker sensibilities than heroic.
Yet, though he may not embody the archetype, Shaun is, unquestionably, the hero of the narrative, and, though, in the moments before the denouement, he laments that “I’ve really ballsed this up… I couldn’t save us” (Wright, 2004), in fact, he does save them: both he and Liz survive. This, as I’ll explain, is crucial.
Lynn Piper, in Slacker Bites Back: Shaun of the Dead Finds New Life for Deadbeats, argues that the collision of genres in Shaun is more than simply a comedic device. “Zombies and slackers get the same bad rap: unproductive deadbeats feeding off society,” she says. “But Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright reveal another side to these societal monsters in their 2004 film Shaun of the Dead. In Shaun, the zombie functions as the Other who is, nonetheless, uncannily familiar, and the slacker, rather than feeding off society, becomes its hero. If a society’s monsters expose the deepest anxieties of the culture that created them, then Pegg and Wright’s zombies follow George Romero’s tradition of critiquing capitalistic culture by revealing the life-sucking effects of modern urban culture on working-class London” (2011: 163). According to Piper, the positioning of the slacker hero is not coincidental; it is, in fact, critical to the narrative’s overarching allegory. “Ultimately,” she argues, “Pegg and Wright are not interested in merely eradicating zombies; they seek to examine how productive members of society already resemble zombies, and how we might compartmentalize those aspects of modern life that deaden us and nourish the more playful aspects” (2011: 169). Viewed in this light, the movie can be read as an interrogation of the pressures on Shaun to conform to adult, productive life and his resistance to its “zombificatory” potential, and several early scenes make it clear that these pressures are, in fact, turning him into a zombie of sorts before the apocalypse begins: he is coasting through his life, stuck in a job that he does not enjoy, and his behaviour is, on several occasions, mapped onto the iconography of the zombie — for example, when he shuffles out of his bedroom on unwilling feet, groaning a deep yawn. It is telling, also, that the first two main characters to be turned into zombies are the two main characters most closely affiliated with Adult: Pete — hardworking, responsible, and utterly exasperated with Shaun and Ed’s sophomoric antics — and Philip, Shaun’s step-father, whose insistence that Shaun achieve maturity despite Shaun’s desire to remain ensconced within his perpetual childishness is a longstanding source of conflict between them. These are the two characters most closely conflated with the spectre of maturity, and they are, therefore, according to the narrative’s central conceit, already subject to “those aspects of modern life that deaden us.” In effect, they were zombies before they were bitten.
What Shaun wants is to be allowed to dictate the terms of his own maturity. Yet, for his goals to be achievable — save the people he cares about and win back Liz’s affections — he must mature, at least enough to assume the status of warrior and thereby demonstrate his entitlement, through his (broadly) hegemonic masculine performance, to the adult heterosexual union. The means by which the movie accomplishes both are intriguing. In the first place, for Shaun to relinquish Boy, he must resolve the Oedipal crisis at the heart of his relationship with his mother and stepfather, which is achieved through Philip’s dying act of reconciliation with his stepson (and, indeed, Philip’s death), and, later, through the death of Shaun’s mother herself. Reincarnated as a zombie, it falls to Shaun to kill her before she kills them, which both serves as a visual signifier of his progression to warrior, as he places the safety of the group above his own personal tragedy, and, on a deeper level, as a metaphor for the repudiation of the childishness associated with Shaun’s reliance on her.
This somewhat extreme severing of the apron strings, however, is not sufficient to mark Shaun’s rejection of immaturity — there remains one important signifier of his resistance to adulthood, and this is Ed. If Shaun embodies slacker masculinity, Ed is its zenith: the man-child trading in fart jokes, obscenities and inappropriate behaviour, and for Shaun to achieve the adult, Ed’s influence must be excised. When Ed is bitten and elects to remain behind in the Winchester while Shaun and Liz — the only other survivors of the group — make one last, desperate bid for safety, the understated emotionality of Ed and Shaun’s final farewell works both diegetically, as two friends saying goodbye for the last time, and on a deeper level as Shaun’s ultimate surrender of his youth. By leaving Ed — and childhood — behind, Shaun and Liz are able to make their escape, and the crisis, in all its forms, is resolved. The sequence that follows shows Shaun and Liz, six months on, comfortably cohabiting in Shaun’s old house, now transformed from the beer cans and mess of bachelor life, into a clean, comfortable, throw-rug-festooned home for an adult male and his partner.
Yet what is notable about this sequence is that, although Shaun and Liz have reconciled and appear content, the scene inverts Liz’s earlier complaint that “I need something more, more than spending every night in the Winchester,” when she sets out their plans for a lazy Sunday: “Right, a cup of tea, then we get the Sundays, head down the Phoenix for a roast, veg out in the pub for a bit, then wander home, watch a bit of telly, go to bed” (Wright, 2004). That she has been able to accommodate Shaun’s preferred routine is an indication of how successfully he has been able to integrate his new adult masculinity into his old adolescent lifestyle, and this, according to Piper, is a question of Ed — the spectre of immature masculinity — and, more specifically, his containment:
Although Shaun has found a way to keep Ed in his life, now Ed is chained in the shed… Shaun holds in check the friend who formerly had held him back. The shed and the video games may beckon, but the rest of Shaun’s life is Ed-free. By compartmentalizing the monster, Shaun is able to regain his relationship with Liz. He also manages to deconstruct the loser/hero binary. The loser who nonetheless wins in the end, the slacker who heads, he is always both (2011: 174).
Maturity has been achieved, but it’s on the slacker’s terms.
However, while the maturation arc may be conditional within the narrative of Shaun of the Dead, inasmuch as it’s contingent on the possibility of retaining Boy (albeit in a manner that allows it to be held separately from Adult), it is, at least, present. Shaun of the Dead is available to a wide range of readings, but one of them is, unquestionably, the manner in which adolescent masculinity throws off the iconography of childhood in order to progress towards adulthood and thereby get the girl. Hot Fuzz, by contrast, begins with adult masculinity — and proceeds to deconstruct it.
“In Hot Fuzz,” says director Edgar Wright, “you’ve got the professional who sacrifices his life for work, and the naive idiot. They have to find a middle ground – one of them’s going to get dumber and the other’s going to get smarter, and they’re going to meet in the middle” (Huddleston, 2013b [online]). “Naive idiot” is one way to describe Constable Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), and, to be fair, it’s probably more appropriate than “slacker.” Danny holds down a career of sorts that he neither resents nor particularly dislikes (if he does express a level of discontent with the lack of thrills in small-town policing), and, if he and the Sandford police force are not exactly invested in solving the mysterious series of deaths plaguing their village, this is framed more as bucolic inexperience than disconnected apathy. Moreover, far from the slacker’s passive disinterest in the iconography of adult responsibility, Danny is the only member of the service to express enthusiasm for the theories expounded by the diligent, conscientious Sergeant Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg). Finally, this text contains no heterosexual object choice to act as the reward for either of the male leads’ progress in learning to perform the hegemonic, since it sets out to poke gentle fun at the homoeroticism of the buddy cop genre.
However, commonalities persist. For Shaun’s LP collection, we can substitute Danny’s extensive selection of DVDs, among the few items he has managed to unpack since moving into his house “about five years ago,” and which are stored in a walk-in cupboard that takes on the aspect of a shrine as he steps inside. For Shaun’s fondness for video games, there is Danny’s almost fetishistic appreciation of weapons, encapsulated in an awed “By the power of Grayskull!” as he steps into farmer Webley’s armament-packed outhouse. And there’s also his “By the power of Greyskull!” refrain, echoed by Pegg when he sets eyes of Danny’s movie collection, a reference to the 1980s cartoon series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe — exactly the kind of retro-hip pop-culture reference that is the slacker’s hallmark (what Denby identifies as the practice of “memorializing his youth”). Like Shaun, Danny drinks to excess; like Shaun, his social world revolves around the local pub. And, while he may not feel stifled in his job, he’s content to do as little as possible in the performance of his duty — to quote again from Denby: “Whatever he does, he hardly breaks a sweat, and sometimes he does nothing at all” (2007 [online]).
Moreover, even those traits that are not specifically slacker could most usefully be described as infantile: he dresses up, with his dad, in cowboy costumes; the police station is a hotbed of cake and ice-cream consumption, led by Danny, whose drunken indiscretions are atoned for by the involuntary purchase of high-sucrose comestibles; his conversational style most closely resembles an excitable pre-pubescent boy; and, in the sequence during and immediately after the church fete, he’s cuddling an oversized stuffed monkey toy, won for him by Angel at the rifle range. Finally, although his trajectory is not specifically Oedipal, like Shaun, he must overcome the father before he is able to realise his progress towards adulthood, repudiating Frank’s influence in the final act in order to locate himself further along the path to mature independence.
And then there’s Angel. Much of the movie’s comedy focuses on the “fish out of water” motif invoked by planting the serious, career-minded, incorruptible sergeant in the middle of rural Gloucestershire and watching him struggle to adapt to emergencies like escaped swans and the blight of the Living Statue, but Angel is also useful in establishing an alternative, oppositional mode of performing masculinity to that performed by Danny. He is highly decorated, focused, and deliberate; he is educated, capable, and ambitious; he works out, does not drink alcohol, refuses cake, and consumes no caffeine after midday. Where Danny’s physique is of the overweight, out of condition couch-potato type, Angel’s body is a temple: all lean, spare lines, honed to perfection by his daily runs and a course in advanced cycling. His intuition tells him that something is rotten in the state of Sandford, and he has the tenacity, self-knowledge, and expertise to follow it up, borne of his superior embodiment of what Moss calls “the traditional male heroes – firemen, policemen, soldiers” (2012: 7). Yet, for all that several tropes of the masculine ideal find expression in the body of Nicholas Angel, he does not achieve the hegemonic paradigm, as several clues within the narrative make clear.
In the first place, the movie establishes in an early scene that not only has Angel’s masculine performance, as articulated through his devotion to his “traditional male hero” role, not rewarded him with his choice of love interest, it has actually been instrumental in destroying his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Janine. “You were already married to the force, weren’t you?” she snaps as Angel tells her about his transfer to Sandford. “It’s only ever about the job. That’s all you care about… You just can’t switch off, Nicholas.” Moreover, Angel’s single-minded devotion to his calling has isolated him from his peers; when he insists that his team will object to the transfer, he discovers instead that they’ve already set up his leaving party, and he fares no better in Sandford, alienating the majority of his new workplace and several locals within twenty-four hours of his arrival as a result of his immutable observance of the law. Adult masculinity, as embodied in Angel, is neither ideal nor particularly healthy: it is excessive, divisive, and frustrates the progress of daily life.
If Shaun dramatised the struggle of the slacker to achieve just enough maturity to make him an acceptable choice of mate, Hot Fuzz inverts the narrative arc and positions adult masculinity, from the beginning, as disruptive and undesirable. The “middle ground” that Angel and Danny end up sharing involves the former learning to swear and make crude jokes, to drink beer and open up to the possibility of bending the rules enough to make room for human companionship. Danny’s progress is less in evidence. True, he is able to relinquish Boy to the extent that he steps out from his father’s shadow and begins to act autonomously, but there is little evidence beyond this that he has made significant progress out of the realms of slacker masculinity. Indeed, the closing exchange between Angel and Danny suggests precisely the opposite: on receiving a report of “some hippie types messing with the recycling bins at the supermarket,” Angel comments to Danny, “Sergeant Butterman, little hand says it’s time to rock and roll.” It’s an overt reference to the high-octane, Hollywood cop movies that Danny reveres — the Point Breaks and the Bad Boys IIs — and evidences, rather than Danny’s surrender of the preoccupations of youth, Angel’s acceptance of their place within adult life. Danny’s response confirms this when he replies with, “Bring the noise,” and Angel throws the car into a handbrake turn and speeds off. It’s less a middle ground between “the professional who sacrifices his life for work and the naive idiot” than the encroach of the slacker sensibilities into the hegemonic, to everyone’s benefit.
The World’s End
Gary King, however, is another matter entirely. Where Shaun required the protagonist to achieve adult masculinity only inasmuch as this allowed him to contain and compartmentalise Boy (as embodied in his relationship with zombie Ed), and Hot Fuzz required Angel to sacrifice a measure of his adulthood in order to partially embrace slacker sensibilities and his own personal happiness, The World’s End, on first glance, apparently presents a wholly negative picture of the man-child who cannot or will not grow up. Gary King (Simon Pegg) is a forty-something loser obsessed with the glories of lost youth. These found their apogee in a pub crawl on the night of June 22, 1990, in which he and his friends, Oliver Chamberlain (Martin Freeman), Peter Page (Eddie Marsan), Steven Prince (Paddy Considine), and Andy Knight (Nick Frost), attempted to take on the twelve pubs of the legendary Golden Mile in their native middle-England town of Newton Haven. The plan sputtered to a drunken halt halfway through, but it has been elevated, in Gary’s mind to the best night of his life, a pinnacle of hedonism that can never be matched.
Oliver, Peter, Steven and Andy have all transitioned into successful middle age, all with good, productive jobs, and Peter and Andy are apparently happily married at the beginning of the narrative. Gary, on the other hand, wears the same Sisters of Mercy t-shirt and long black trench coat that he favoured in the early 1990s, listens to the mix-tape that Steven made for him in school, and drives the beat-up old car that he bought from Peter in his late teens. But, more than that, he retains the abrasive, obnoxious, self-centred attitude of a spoiled teenage boy a little too accustomed to the unproblematic adoration of his peers, and is completely unable to recognise that, not only do his peers no longer adore him, they actively dislike him.
We’re introduced to Gary as he relates the story of the Golden Mile in voiceover flashback, and, on its conclusion, we discover that he’s actually speaking the words in-text — telling the story of his youthful alcoholic shenanigans to a circle of listeners that looks suspiciously like an AA meeting. That this does not strike Gary as inappropriate — in fact, there’s a sense that he’s supremely proud of his story, and expecting the wholehearted approbation of his companions — serves as an effective positioning mechanism for his character. Tom Huddleston, reviewing the movie for TimeOut, sums him up perfectly when he writes that “As Gary, Pegg boldly plays up the most aggravating aspects of his persona; it’s hard to remember a movie hero as unashamedly obnoxious as this… [he] flirts dangerously with bearability: yes, we recognise and understand Gary’s flaws, but it can still be hard to resist the temptation to punch the screen” (2013a, online). And, if the audience is left wanting to inflict actual bodily harm on the man, how much more insufferable must he be to his diegetic companions, left to suffer the consequences of his excessive, uncontainable childishness?
The World’s End pulls no punches in establishing Gary’s performance of slacker masculinity as thoroughly disruptive: he is greeted with cold-blooded fury by Peter’s father, manager of the upmarket car showroom where Peter now works, and a hissed, “What’s he doing here?” as Peter tries to get him out the door. Gary has no interest in Peter’s life, wishes or desires, to the extent that he cannot remember the name of Peter’s wife, even when Peter has told him only moments earlier. He causes havoc as “the helmet without a helmet,” when he walks, blithely unconcerned, across the building site where Steven works, lighting a cigarette and waving as workmen struggle to avoid dropping rubble on him. Oliver, now an agent for a boutique real estate company, is showing a young couple around a £1.2 million house when Gary turns up, foul-mouthed and inappropriate, and cheerfully assures the couple, who are uncertain as to whether or not they can afford the asking price, that “He’ll knock some off for you — what’s it on for?” “One point two million,” replies the husband, to which Gary sputters, “Fuck off!” Unsurprisingly, they do, despite Oliver’s attempts to salvage the sale. Finally, Andy: once Gary’s closest friend, he has now cut him out of his life entirely, replying to his secretary’s announcement that, “You have a friend here to see you,” with “No, I don’t.” As the narrative unfolds, it emerges that, several years ago, Andy crashed his car while drunk during a desperate attempt to get Gary, who was mid-overdose, to hospital. Andy was seriously injured in the crash, but Gary suddenly recovered from his OD and fled the scene, leaving Andy to face the consequences alone. This revelation, however, comes late in the narrative; for the majority, all we know is that Andy harbours a long-standing antipathy towards his erstwhile friend and, though we don’t need the details, by this stage in the narrative — no more than ten minutes in — we’ve seen enough of Gary to understand that, whatever it is that has come between the two of them, Andy’s complaint is sure to be well-founded.
What the opening section establishes, the text follows through: Gary pretends to be Peter when he’s pulled over for speeding, and it turns out that he’s been doing this for several years, and has accrued a number of penalty points on Peter’s license. He rings doorbells and runs away, leaving his friends to bear the wrath of the angry home owner. He impugns Andy’s masculinity when Andy orders water instead of beer, having given up drinking alcohol after their crash. He makes inappropriate comments about Oliver’s sister, Sam, with whom Gary had sex in the toilets of the Two Headed Dog on their long-ago pub crawl, and follows her into the ladies room of The Old Familiar minutes after she arrives to say hello to her brother, assuming that they’ll be having sex again. And it’s Gary’s insistence that they continue their pub crawl that keeps them in Newton Haven, even after all four have expressed a desire to leave — and even after it emerges that their lives are in danger. Moreover, as Wright explains, “the thing that’s different in this movie, as opposed to Shaun of the Dead and some of the apocalypse films around at the moment, is that in Shaun, it’s not his fault that the zombie apocalypse is happening, and it’s not his job to save the day. In World War Z, it’s not Brad Pitt’s fault, he’s just a guy. But in The World’s End, Simon’s character Gary literally provokes a cosmic intervention. We liked the idea that you take this character who’s a walking car crash, whose fuck-ups have become legend. And he goes from being a social nuisance to becoming a galactic nuisance” (2013b [online]). Gary King’s slacker masculinity is not just an annoyance to the folks around him: it’s a causative factor in bringing about the end of the world.
And yet, for all of their frustration and amply justified irritation, there remains a sense that, though they might not like to admit it, adulthood has invested the lives of Gary’s friends with a certain ennui at best, outright dissatisfaction at worst. Peter, might have a good job, a nice house, and a wife and family, but he remains cowed by everyone: his father is formidable in his brief scene at the car showroom, and it appears that Peter is regularly required to seek his wife’s permission before he acts. Steven’s marriage ended and he’s now dating a much younger woman, though he has remained in love with Sam from afar ever since their schooldays, when Gary wooed her after discovering Steven’s crush. Finally, Andy’s marriage is in difficulty, as we discover in an emotional scene at The World’s End, in which he reveals that his wife left him three weeks earlier. But more than this: despite Gary’s skill at manipulation and his habit of getting his own way, none of the four had any obligation to join him in his quest to reach The World’s End, and yet they all turn up anyway, protesting to each other that it’s against their better judgment. And they all remain — to Sam’s horror — even once it’s clear that they ought to leave, and even after she offers them a way out. There is a sense that, no matter how exasperated they might be, a small part of each of them shares Gary’s hankering for days gone by; that the performance of adult masculinity — with its attendant responsibilities and concomitant surrender of freedoms — is less than satisfactory, however undesirable they may find Gary’s choices. They don’t want to be him — except they do, just a little bit.
It is, however, the film’s coda that provides the most interesting insight into the movie’s positioning of masculinity, both adult and slacker. The World’s End, it turns out, is not simply the last pub of the Golden Mile, it’s also the nexus for the alien invasion of Newton Haven. Simon Pegg describes the film as “a quest movie with an extremely irresponsible King Arthur at the helm of it” (Shaw-Williams, 2013 [online]), but, irresponsible as Gary may be, his quest, in fact, appears to be the only spanner in the works of the Network’s plans, which are now in an advanced state of readiness. Had Gary done the sensible thing — the adult thing — and quit the town when he had the chance, had he abandoned his irresponsible quest, the planned assimilation of planet Earth would have proceeded unchecked and there would have been a whole lot more robot simulacra running around, and a whole lot less free will for the human race. The Network, it emerges, have spread across the galaxy in a reign of peace and harmony (instituted by infiltrating planets and indoctrinating them, willingly or otherwise, to their way of thinking) and they’ve “seen something” in humanity that has sent them Earthwards.
In fact, Gary’s interview with the voice of the Network resembles nothing so much as a discussion with a school guidance counsellor, in a nod to a number of references throughout the narrative to Guy Shepherd (Pearse Brosnan), the fatherly teacher from Gary’s school who always wanted to talk to him about his future. “We are here,” says the voice (played by Bill Nighy), “to enable your full potential.” The scene that follows plays out like an argument between a rebellious teenager and any figure of authority, but what is most interesting about it is that it resonates perfectly with the complaints voiced against Gary by his companions throughout the movie — except that now Steven and Andy are siding with Gary, and, by extension, positioning themselves as performers of the same adolescent tendencies that he expresses. When the Network argue that “we are here for your betterment… you are children and you require guidance,” Andy’s response is to ask, not unreasonably, “Who put you in charge? Who are you to criticise anyone?” His point is undeniable, but it’s the first step on his path that leads inexorably towards conflating the behaviour of Gary King in a world full of adult masculinity with the behaviour of the human race in a galaxy full of Network-based tranquility and consensus. “You act out the same cycles of self-destruction again and again,” points out the Network, to which Gary replies, “Hey! It is our basic human right to be fuck-ups! This civilisation was founded on fuck-ups! And you know what? That makes me proud!” “Yeah!” agrees Andy. “And me!”
In the space of minutes, Andy has shrugged off the self-denying adult masculinity that caused him to wrestle Gary to the floor of The World’s End, yelling, “You need help, Gary!” and assumed a Gary-lite mantle of “adultescence” (Cross, 2013: 5) to make the heartfelt argument that the human race “are more belligerent, more stubborn, and more idiotic than you could possibly imagine. And I am not just talking about Gary.” His point is that, if the Network thinks humanity will sit back and accept blind acquiescence to a galactic order, they have seriously underestimated our desire for freedom of thought and will, but, in so doing, he has explicitly conflated that desire with Gary’s life choices: humanity’s freedom from the Network’s constricting conformity is no different, in the final analysis, to Gary’s freedom from the constricting conformity of adult masculinity. Freedom is aligned with childishness, and, more than this, the freedom of childishness is positioned as fundamental to human happiness. Conformity, constriction — the maturity required by the Network — is, by extension, antithetical to the human spirit, which can only be truly free if it retains the “basic human right to be fuck-ups.” And thus Gary’s slackerdom is recuperated, integrated with the all-consuming human need for self-determination — regardless of the cost — and invested as a fundamental aspect of human existence, and something in which to take pride. “Face it!” snaps Gary. “We are the human race, and we don’t like being told what to do!”
There’s a loaded pause. Then, the Network asks, “Just what is it that you want to do?” Gary’s answer, true to form, is the answer of the man-child, who seeks to evade the responsibilities of adulthood: “We wanna be free!” he says. “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time.” And this, it seems, is what it takes to convince the Network to withdraw. “It’s pointless arguing with you,” says the voice, a replica of Andy’s words from earlier in the narrative when the group were attempting to talk Gary out of one more wildly irresponsible idea that would inevitably lead to trouble for everyone but himself. “You will be left to your own devices.” Slacker sensibilities, extended to the human race as a whole, are more effort than they are worth to the exasperated Network, and humanity’s freedom is thereby assured: nobody is going to make us step up to mature conformity.
But the Network’s withdrawal is not the end of the narrative. A spectacular explosion follows their departure, levelling Newton Haven, and it’s only the timely return of Sam, who had earlier escaped the town in the group’s single working car, that saves Gary, Andy and Steven from being levelled along with it. They gather on the hillside to view the ruins of their home town in a reprise of the movie’s opening sequence, in which Gary and friends watched the sun come up on the morning of June 23, 1991, and it’s possible to read this scene as fulfilling a similar function to Shaun and Ed’s farewell in the cellar of the Winchester at the end of Hot Fuzz: a final goodbye to youth, in the sense that Gary is watching the destruction of the site of his exalted adolescence in a manner that overtly echoes the zenith of his glorified past. In fact, though it signifies change — a paradigm shift, in fact — it is not the metamorphosis from Boy into Adult that we might expect. Rather, as suggested by the preceding scene in The World’s End, the shift is in the narrative positioning of Boy.
As they watch the town burn, a voiceover from Andy segues us into the final sequence, set in a post-apocalyptic world laid waste by a global technological shutdown that was precipitated by the Network’s retreat. As the scene cuts, it turns out that he’s telling their story to a group of children huddled around a fire by night, effectively tying up the remaining narrative threads, and the generic shift from effects-heavy, killer-robot sci-fi hyperbole to gritty, near-future dystopia is both startling and, narratively speaking, completely unexpected. In fact, the final five minutes of screen time might be drawn from a completely different movie — except for the manner in which they draw to a close the movie’s interrogation of Gary’s masculine performance.
The other characters have restored some level of adult, responsible normality into their post-apocalyptic lives, integrating their new reality into the old, for the most part (on a superficial examination, at least) successfully. Steven and Sam have finally become a couple and live in a caravan outside London. Oliver and Peter, replaced by simulacra — or “blanks,” as the characters refer to them — have returned to their old lives; Oliver as an estate agent in a world without real estate, Peter as the henpecked husband of Vanessa (says Andy, of Peter’s reincarnation as a robot, “I’m not sure his wife noticed”). As for Andy himself, he was able to rescue his marriage, both parties having decided that their marital problems didn’t seem quite so significant in the face of the end of the world.
And Gary? Nobody has heard from Gary since “the lights went out,” but, though Andy isn’t able to relate his story, we see it play out as he concludes his tale. “Wherever he is, I hope he’s happy,” finishes Andy. “That’s all he ever wanted really — to have a good time. I just hope he found it beyond the bottom of the glass. Because real happiness, real friends — those are things worth living for. Worth fighting for.” As he speaks, we see a masked man at the head of a team of five who, as they emerge from a smoky haze, turn out to be the robotic younger versions of Steven, Andy, Oliver and Peter from the Network’s Newton Haven HQ, now reanimated and following a mysterious leader. They approach a lonely rural bar, emblazoned with a sign proclaiming “NO BLANKS.” Unperturbed, the group enter anyway, crossing the floor to mutters of “Blank bastards” from the patrons. As they approach the bar, their leader removes his mask to reveal a clean-shaven, smiling Gary, who cheerfully asks the barman for “Five waters, please.” “You can have one,” says the barman, “but I ain’t serving this scum.” “Oh well,” says Gary, with a grin, “I’m afraid it’s all for one and one for all. You see, my young friends and I are on an adventure — a quest, if you will — and, since we find ourselves in need of refreshment, you, sir, have the honour of drawing first blood.” As chaos, predictably, breaks out, the barman growls, “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Me?” says Gary. “They call me the king.”
And, with joyful abandon, he flings himself into the fight. The others may have found quiet, adult contentment in their post-apocalyptic world, but Gary has found something more profound: his true place. Freed forever from the constraints of civilised, responsible society, he is able to devote the rest of his life to the pursuit of old glories, riding at the head of his erstwhile teenage compatriots. Healthy, happy, and ebullient, this is the slacker in his element: transported to a place where his performance of masculinity is no longer derided, but is, in fact, actively as useful as any other. The world has not managed to persuade Gary King to change, to relinquish his slacker masculinity in order to fit a proscribed role. Instead, Gary’s slacker masculinity has, effectively, reordered the world itself so that it fits him.
Conclusion: The Triumph of the Man-Child
The Cornetto trilogy, according to TimeOut, is “a tale of emotionally stunted boy-men trying to find their way in an unfriendly universe” (Huddleston, 2013a). “They’re all relationship comedies, and they’re all about perpetual adolescence,” says Edgar Wright of his movies the close of a saga in which The World’s End figures as “a final act — and it is very final” (Huddleston, 2013b). It’s true that the trilogy was not conceived of as such, and, in fact, only became a trilogy in the minds of its creators after the second instalment was already on cinematic release (Shaw-Williams, 2013), but the interrogation of the slacker archetype remains consistent throughout, indicating a certain investment in this particular mode of performing masculinity. The first two movies may have been conceived of as standalone texts, but the third was instituted from the beginning as a coda to a set of three, and so its gender paradigm is constructed in such a manner as to integrate it with its predecessors. As such, the conclusion is all the more noteworthy. Where Shaun’s narrative arc dragged him, somewhat against his will, out of his adolescent rut and obliged him to overcome the disruptive influence of Boy in order to ascend sufficiently to adult masculinity that he was capable of performing Warrior and reconciling with his love interest, and Angel, already a performer par excellence of responsible maturity, found that the path to fulfilment required him to partially relinquish Adult and embrace the more playful aspects of slacker sensibilities, Gary’s masculine performance is the trilogy’s final word on the matter, and it is, in the final analysis, the most overt celebration of the man-child to be found in any of the three films.
It’s true that his performance of masculinity has rendered him unable to function adequately within adult society, to the extent that he has alienated all his (adult, responsible) friends and, as we discover on the floor of The World’s End, such is the depth of his misery that he has recently attempted suicide. Moreover, the film goes to considerable lengths to pathologise his efforts to remain infantilised, his inability to leave the past behind, and his veneration of an idealised lost youth which he seeks to recapture in order to validate his refusal to achieve adulthood: he is deceitful, manipulative, inappropriate, oblivious, disruptive, threatening to the established hegemonic performance of the other players, and irritating enough that it’s “hard to resist the temptation to punch the screen” (2013a, online) when he speaks. And yet, despite all this, the narrative resolution actively glorifies the infantilism, to the extent that his happy ending is to re-enact his mythologised past as a quasi-heroic figure -– essentially unchanged, other than the fact that what was formerly pathetic is now redeemed by virtue of the fact that the paradigm has shifted so completely that this rebellious, fringe behaviour is recuperated, made noble, and given prestige within the new reality.
The genre conventions invoked by Gary’s final appearance recall the Outsider Anti-hero of Mad Max, himself an echo of an archetype of masculinity intrinsic to the western, with its interrogation of civilisation/wilderness, and its conflation of this binary with feminine/masculine. This final sequence, then, undermines the gender discourse of the previous two hours, in which excessive, infantilised adult masculinity is the disruptive, dis-ordering force that threatens the settled status quo, and, to a certain extent, inverts it: Gary has not shifted to accommodate the paradigm — the paradigm has shifted to accommodate him. The extreme shift of the final few minutes of the movie recuperates him into a warrior hero of sorts, embodying a traditional – even essentialised – performance of masculinity. And, while it is, perhaps, not fair to say that Gary’s infantilised actions have explicitly caused the paradigm shift, they have caused the abandonment of “civilisation,” now problematised (and, essentially, rejected) by its affiliation with The Network. Gary, it seems, was right all along: adulthood, conformity, responsible social productivity is a trap. Human beings are not designed to function in this way. It’s a fundamental mis-reading of our essential nature –- and the solution, it would appear, is to revert to a pre-industrial stage of human evolution in which the constrictions of modern, adult life are removed and everyone is free to make their own, individualised determination of what appropriate masculine performance ought to look like. It’s a testament to the slacker aesthetic embodied in the Cornetto trilogy that its ideal is a return to playfulness, the endless quest for adventure, the denial of adult responsibilities and everything that entails: a world in which the man-child is King.
Gary Cross (2013). Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity (New York, Columbia University Press)
Denby, D. (2007, July 23rd). A Fine Romance. Retrieved September 18, 2013, from newyorker.com: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/07/23/070723fa_fact_denby
Huddleston, T (2013a, July 8th). The World’s End. Retrieved July 26, 2013, from Timeout.com: http://www.timeout.com/london/film/the-worlds-end
Huddleston, T. (2013b, July 9th). Edgar Wright: ‘I Can’t Watch Zombie Movies’. Retrieved July 26, 2013, from Timeout.com: http://www.timeout.com/london/film/edgar-wright-i-cant-watch-zombie-movies
Tom Lutz (2006). Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums (New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)
Lynn Piper (2011). “Slacker Bites Back: Shaun of the Dead Finds New Life for Deadbeats” in Christie, Deborah and Lauro, Sarah Juliet [eds]: Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie As Post-Human (New York, Fordham University Press)
Shaw-Williams, H. (2013, June). ‘The World’s End’ Featurette: The Accidental Cornetto Trilogy. Retrieved July 27, 2013, from Screenrant.com:http://screenrant.com/the-worlds-end-movie-featurette-cornetto-trilogy/