Kingsman: The Secret Service, out in theaters Friday, February 13, 2015, is a rip-roaring good time. It has its weird tonal imbalances here and there — particularly as it navigates the turn from second act to third — but it's mostly an enjoyable riff on spy movie tropes, one that keeps looking over toward the James Bond franchise and offering the broadest of winks possible.
It's basically Harry Potter with spies. A bunch of young British people are brought into a super secret, private spy service called Kingsman, and compete to see who will fill the seat of a recently deceased agent. The film blends the best of sports movies (since the kids are all competing against each other, and there's a definite "snobs vs. slobs" component), action flicks, and spy stories where a megalomaniac has a grand plot to take over the world.
It's a lot of fun. But there's also something very bizarre about Kingsman. Namely, its politics are incredibly strange, wildly vacillating between a kind of egalitarian progressivism and the equivalent of shrugging wildly and saying, "Who cares! The status quo is fine!"
Naturally, to talk about this in any depth, spoilers will follow, but I'll keep them as mild as possible. For the curious, go see the movie, then come back.
1) The movie's read on the class system is hopelessly confused
One of the chief ideas of the film is that a "gentleman" can come from anywhere. A gentleman can even be a woman, as we see with Sophie Cookson's character, who makes it very far in her Kingsman training.
The film's central conflict in the beginning is between young Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the lower-class son of a deceased Kingsman, and the upper-crust world of the agency. He frets endlessly about his social status and class, and how if he, too, had been born with a silver spoon up his ass, he would have done just as well as anybody else.
The rest of the film, then, proves that anybody can become a proper Kingsman and gentleman, as Eggsy makes his way through the training and slowly learns the elements of style. He doesn't even have to change his accent, like in My Fair Lady. His sense of style and decorum mark him as a gentleman.
But the issue here is that the markers of class become the sole determinants of class. Eggsy rises through the system because he grows more willing to be the kind of poncey asshole he railed against earlier in the film. And he has a hand up from Colin Firth's character, who might as well have a giant sign above him reading "blue blood" at all times.
There's potentially something smart in this about how assimilation into privilege often means adopting the appearances of privilege and about how money often determines social affect. This is especially true when one considers Samuel L. Jackson's character, the super-rich villain of the film who gilds his enjoyment of McDonald's food in the trappings of wealth. But it's as if the film loses track of what, if anything, it's trying to say about all of this. Instead, director Matthew Vaughn and his co-screenwriter Jane Goldman (who adapted from the comic by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons) just keep nodding to these ideas, then saying, "Isn't that something?"
2) Global warming is real, but we're all fucked, so better to not do anything about it
Our supervillain's plan ultimately involves killing most of the human population in order to stop global warming. (Those he aims to save include — and I'm not kidding about this — Iggy Azalea.) His reasoning for this is that carbon emissions are ultimately a red herring, and the planet is just heating itself up naturally to try to kill off the "virus" (humanity) that is infecting it. (The idea is vaguely based on a misreading of James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis.) That's not just his crazy theory; in the context of the movie, it's really what's going on.
The result is a truly strange — but admittedly unique — take on global warming. Yes, it's happening, and yes, it should be stopped somehow. But there's also really nothing humanity can do, short of killing off the majority of the species. So better to just throw up our hands and wait for our own inevitable deaths. It's as if An Inconvenient Truth had ended with Al Gore saying, "Nothing we can do, so let's cheer ourselves up," then started showing photos of LOLcats.
But even more interesting here is that our heroes succeed, foiling the villain's plot, as you'd expect. They've saved the world — but only so it can be destroyed decades later. It's, again, kind of a cool twist on the usual spy film, but advocates of fighting climate change aren't going to like this movie much.
3) Sex isn't a thing until it is
It's impossible to deal with the spy franchise without talking about sex at least a little bit, and it's impossible to do a riff on James Bond without talking about it a lot. But Kingsman kinda sorta ignores sex for most of its running time.
The two main characters we follow through Kingsman training are a man and a woman, and there's occasional suggested romantic chemistry between them (that the film never follows through upon). There's also an enjoyably sex positive sequence where the three Kingsman finalists — two men and a woman — compete to seduce the same woman.
But mostly, the movie pretends sex isn't really part of this line of work, until the very end, when our hero finds himself meeting a beautiful blonde who makes sexytime promises to him. The movie ends on outright objectification, which isn't necessarily a terrible thing in this particular genre, but feels incredibly weird coming out of nowhere as it does.
4) The movie portrays American conservatives as backwoods hicks
During the film's most troubling sequence, Firth's character goes to a sermon at a church that serves as the central rallying ground for a hate group. But outside of a few awkward racial slurs peppering the service, the viewpoints of said hate group are … pretty common to many American Christian conservatives. The characters don't believe in evolution, and they're politically opposed to abortion.
Yes, they use slurs in describing black people and gay people, but that mostly seems to be so the film can make them utter cartoons, all the better to make it so we're unconcerned when they're all killed in a slaughter of cartoon violence a few moments later.
But the violence is only made more disturbing by how willing Vaughn is to write off the denizens of the church as somehow subhuman, when they're mostly portrayed as impolite at best and racist at worst. It's the very worst of Hollywood's cartoonish portrayals of conservatives.
5) The film gives Samuel L. Jackson a lisp for no real reason
This isn't really a political point. It's just weird.
6) The movie is caught between its progressive desires and the genre's inherent conservatism
Really, all of the above fall under this umbrella, but it's also worth looking at more broadly. Kingsman is aware of how Bond films objectify women, and it wants to do better on this score. But it's also part of a genre that inherently rewards the indulgence of the status quo. James Bond is a great character, but he's also one who celebrates the rewards of unchecked privilege.
Again, there's nothing wrong with Bond's approach. Movies should be able to express all sociopolitical philosophies, so long as they stay honest to themselves. It's on that latter suggestion that Kingsman fails in various places. It wants to offer a check and balance to the indulgence of Bond, but it also wants to engage in the same indulgence.
7) Barack Obama's head explodes because he's in on the supervillain's dastardly plot
Seriously, this is a thing that happens in this movie, and it's sort of surprising nobody's made a big deal out of it, because it's pretty rare for movies to kill off a sitting president by suggesting he's in on an evil plot.
Granted, the president is never named, but he's got the recognizable profile of Obama (ears and all), and the brief impression of him is clearly meant to sound Obama-esque. And the sequence where his head (and the heads of his joint chiefs of staff) explode is cartoonishly fun, set to Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" and all.
But it's still weird to have the president — like a clear signifier of an actual president — involved in a plot to kill something like 99 percent of the world's population. It would be one thing if this were a hard-hitting political satire, but all other heads of state portrayed in the film are fictionalized characters (though the Queen of England gets name-checked).
So remember: The upper classes are no better than you but can teach you everything about how to live your life, women are incredibly competent human beings you should objectify as often as possible, and the president just might be plotting to kill you to stop global warming. All important lessons taught to us by Kingsman: The Secret Service.