“Why… so… serious?”
In the role that, in case you’ve forgotten, won Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar just as the two defining film genres of our age – the superhero film and the gritty action reboot – were peaking in popularity, Ledger menacingly snarled out the question that may as well be an inquisition into our entire cinematic disposition circa 2015. We are just now waking up from the collective psychosis that led to a Spider-Man reboot so dark and gritty that the Spidey suit, in hopes of being more realistic, looked like a regulation basketball. The Oscars expanded the nominee pool partly in hopes of including a well-made blockbuster like The Dark Knight; did we really think the only reason Nolan’s film got that honor was because of its straight-facedness? Something about the complete and total embrace of The Dark Knight’s ambiguous and nihilistic virtues mixed with our morbid fascination surrounding the details of the death of its breakout star led us down this road of brooding – even each Iron Man film has gotten progressively darker, drowning out the winking charm of Robert Downey Jr.
Also: Superman snapped a dude’s neck! Then fell to his knees sobbing… It’s been a strange few years.
Along the way, one director was off to the side, giggling at the grandstanding. In 2010, he adapted Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass, in which a little girl – essentially Batman’s daughter – is a cussin’-and-killin’ machine. It could have been a meditation on society, but it was really just supposed to be a rollicking good time at the expense of superhero overseriousness. In 2011, he revitalized the flagging X-Men franchise after Brett Ratner had killed off half its characters and a spinoff film had introduced a mute Deadpool (of all things). How did he do it? By reintroducing bright colors, kicky montages, and campy villains. He had Kevin Bacon monologue in German to open his movie! He pulled unexpected pathos out of a globetrotting vigilante Magneto, but he also appreciated that he had locked up-and-comer Michael Fassbender into a role where his character could pull a man’s gold tooth out with his mind! In doing this, he might have saved more than the X-Men; he might have saved us.
That Magneto-as-Bond section was a pretty neat warmup for director Matthew Vaughn’s next trick – a movie that blends the best parts of his emerging superhero aesthetic with the iconography of the spy film. Kingsman: The Secret Service is a serious film about the difference between the rigid class system and the actuality of “having class.” It is also, while not undermining that nuanced rumination, occasionally klassy with a K – it is unabashedly laddish, ending with a scene in which an older man catches the beginning of a younger man’s adventures in anal sex, thanks to spy glasses. (Okay that particular shot of a Swedish princess’s derriere as it prepares for entry might actually undermine some of the film’s classiness.)
What it is most of all, though, is kinetic with a K. It is a perpetual motion machine of nifty ideas stuffed into a colorful package. It is unafraid to be garish, camp, or silly. It wants to make you laugh and think and gasp and shudder, and, just about every step of the way, you follow its orders. Why not give into it? It feels like one of the first live action movies in a long time that just wants you, its viewer, to have fun.
It helps that Vaughn is a visual stylist par excellence, with a particular eye for the beauty of violence. He had to tamp that side of his filmmaking down for the all-ages X-Men: First Class, but he gets to unleash that id all over again in Kingsman, particularly in one church brawl that filmmakers will be swiping ideas from for years to come. His bursts of action aren’t choppily edited brawls. They don’t suddenly revert to slow motion (Snyder…) to let you consider the consequence of every punch for seconds on end. They are ballets – both literally in the case of an exploding head symphony, and figuratively, as in the film’s bravura centerpiece, where Colin Firth and his stunt-doubles move gracefully from bigot to bigot as a mass murder in a Westboro Baptist Church analog unfolds to the rousing breakdown of “Free Bird.” Their timing is everything. It’s musical.
The next scene is an even better encapsulation of Vaughn’s aesthetic. It is cheeky, referential to the very Bond films it apes, even satirical; but in doing this it never abandons the consequences one would expect from a real plot featuring real characters. Kingsman may be a pastiche, but it’s no Scary Movie. This is a satire with heart and gravitas. Sometimes it evokes less the granular ribbing of a parody film that aims its sight at recent film trends; Kingsman is smacking massive human foibles with a sledgehammer, Dr. Strangelove-style.
So critical to the film’s success is the wicked topicality of its villain’s evil scheme. If trailers led you to believe that Samuel L. Jackson’s heel turn was all lisping and no substance, the scenes in which he and Firth verbally spar will be a quick corrective. Jackson is actually in fine form, and he knows precisely what he’s doing palling around with a sword-legged henchwoman named Gazelle (how long has it been since we got fun henchmen?). He plays his tech billionaire gone bad as affable and completely convinced of his own righteousness. His plan is to lock away the one percent in a safe location while he forces the rabble outside to bludgeon each other to death until the 99% becomes a figure that is drastically lower. It’s insane, but also a bit beguiling; he sees, not incorrectly, stasis and he has the means to move the needle. He sees it in the government and he sees it in the people fighting back. He has found a way to do something about it, and to the people he promises to spare, he can be very persuasive. As he prepares to kick his plan into high gear, he tells the people at his one percenter sioree to buck up and start having some fun, they’re not the villains here. When Noah spared a chosen few from the onslaught, he wasn’t the villain after all, right?
The only group willing to stop him are the extraordinary secret spy agency, the Kingsmen, who happen to be going through a recruiting process. As the class issues are writ large in Jackson’s genocidal scheme, they are intimately explored through Taron Egerton’s aspiring Kingsman Eggsy, who is attempting to overcome preconceived notions his fellow recruits have about him based on his station. Egerton’s is a star-making turn, with warmth and charm and just enough of an upturned eyebrow to guide us through the delightful world of the Kingsmen. The world he is attempting to enter is wonderfully realized, and this is where it would be prudent to mention that Kingsman, like Kick-Ass, is adapted from a Matthew Vaughn comic, The Secret Service. Much has been changed from the comic, and the film imagines most of what makes the world of the Kingsmen feel so delightfully lived-in and imaginative. The Kingsman were the world’s finest tailors who banded together their immense wealth to start saving the world, forming an independent spy agency modeled after King Arthur’s Round Table. Their Lancelot has just passed away, and a group of young faces are brought in to try out for the role. Only one can be fitted for the bulletproof bespoke suit and thick glasses with computer chips inside that serve as the Kingsman’s armor.
Eggsy (who is a superhero level parkour master apparently because he was an Olympic level gymnast in his youth) is Hart’s choice, and the bond they form once Eggsy realizes that this posh, older man can see beyond his circumstances, his clothes, his accent, all the markers of class, is a touching one. While Hart works to soften a class-conscious Arthur (Michael Caine, who totally would have played Eggsy fifty years ago), Eggsy is bullied bellicosely by the tight-knit group of Oxford and Cambridge men for not belonging. Eggsy finds acceptance from the recruits’ taskmaster Merlin (one strong scene sees Merlin prove Eggsy’s assumptions about his prejudices wrong) and a Hermione Granger-like striver named Roxy. Hearteningly, Roxy is presented as equal to Eggsy in every way, and as far superior to all the boys that look the part of suave British spy, like the entitled Charlie. In the end, Roxy even wins the role of Lancelot, though she is at that point shoved off to the B-Plot while Merlin and Eggsy do the heavy-lifting. I’d hoped that Eggsy and Roxy would fall in love so that Roxy could stick around and show some close-combat bona fides, and I was extremely disheartened when a captive Swedish princess promised Eggsy they could “do it in the asshole” if he saves the world. It seemed like he was spurning a woman presented as his equal for a quick roll in the hay with a woman who is there to serve solely as his sexual object. The friend with whom I watched Kingsman offered a counterargument: that the film didn’t go the obvious route and make Eggsy’s romantic feelings Roxy’s ultimate validation, instead letting her competence stand on its own. I’ll buy that half-heartedly, but still wonder if indulging the worst parts of the Bond mythos (okay, the race stuff is the worst part, but the womanizing runs a close second) as the closing notes to Vaughn’s symphony struck some sudden discord that might just set Kingsman back.
Still, I struggle to fault Vaughn for indulging one last time in what makes most of Kingsman such a delight: its audacity and verve. It is bright, kooky, and a little kinky, a campy superhero film in everything but costume, It elects to clothe its Avengers in the finer wear rather than tights. In its quest for populism, it makes an Iggy Azalea reference that will do it no favors fifty years from now, but I hope it will be fondly remembered by then as an all-around fun movie that tackled some legitimately serious things like class and global warming, a turning point when “Why so serious?” turned from a desperate inquisition to the filmmaker about why they elected for that all-grey color palate again into a good-old fashioned jibe at the expense of over-brooding.