The Limits of Satire: “Kingsman: The Secret Service” Review

Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service is a spy film defined by its sense of meta-awareness and self-biting irony on the spy genre. Take for example one scene, where Galahad (Colin Firth), a knight of the service, is having dinner with Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is the antagonist of the film. Galahad and Valentine haven’t revealed their identities to one another and instead, choose to play a tense game of cat and mouse. Valentine quips that he wishes he were a spy going on grand adventures and Galahad retorts that he wishes he were a billionaire megalomaniac villain. The dialogue between the two here is more than clear references to the early James Bond films for which Valentine reveals he has a penchant for but also work to highlight the current situation at hand. Kingsman: The Secret Service is filled with moments like these, where the characters in the film point out the absurdity of their situations and so the film plays out as an almost satire on the spy genre, yet what prevents Kingsman from doing so, is also a sense of seriousness in the film. There’s clear inspiration from Tarantino here, especially in the film’s action scenes which are over the top and bloody but what’s lacking in Kingsman that is present in Tarantino’s films, for example Kill Bill which is probably Tarantino’s bloodiest work, is a full dedication or perhaps balance to one genre or the other. The same tropes found in spy film’s that Kingsman satirizes, the film also partakes in but attempts to distance itself from by pointing out these same tropes, hence the meta-awareness. While the self-references can be funny, pointing out flaws in the film and using them yourself doesn’t make those flaws positives and in combination with the seriousness that Kingsman can at times have, the film becomes part of the pantheon of spy movies that it makes fun of.

After the death of his colleague who sacrificed himself in order to protect his teammates during a raid, Harry Hart, otherwise known as Galahad, visits the aforementioned agent’s widow Michelle Unwin (Samantha Womack), in order to deliver the news. In a scene similar to Pulp Fiction’s “Prelude to the Gold Watch” chapter, a young Eggsy (Alex Nikolov) is bestowed with a medal by the enigmatic Hart, who tells him to call the phone number engraved on the back if he is ever in need of help.

Seventeen years later, Lancelot, a knight of service is killed in action. With the service now needing a replacement Hart decides to recruit the now young-adult Eggsy (Taran Egerton). Eggsy lives a life of juvenile decadence, getting into fights both at home with his new abusive step-father and in bars with local bullies. After being arrested for grand theft auto, Eggsy decides to phone the number given to him nearly two decades ago and is subsequently rescued by Hart. Hart takes notice of the potential in Eggsy, pointing out Eggsy’s excellent grades in school, as well as results in the youth’s early marine training. Apprehensive at first, Eggsy finally decides to take Hart’s offer and is soon conducted into a test of trials to become the next Kingsman. Modeled after the Knights of the Round Table, Hart reveals the Kingsman as an apolitical secret unit of super spies who save the world time and time again from various dangers.

While all this is going on, the audience is also introduced to Richmond Valentine, an internet philanthropist who is slowly concocting a plan that’s slowly revealed throughout the film. Valentine is never to be seen without his right-hand woman, Gazelle (Sophia Boutella). Gazelle strikes an unforgettable image; the secretary/assassin sports  prosthetic blades which function as both weapons and legs.

There’s something to say about how women are portrayed in Kingsman. Vaughn parallels Gazelle to Eggsy. Both are young, both are mentors to respective enemies and both are shown to be more than capable on the battlefield. As an important character in the film, given her screen-time, women are seen to be given an importance equal to men in the film, an aspect that would truly eschew the spy genre, which proves itself to be male-power fantasy dominated field. Yet for all her screen-time, her smarts, usefulness to Valentine, and her deadliness in combat, Gazelle never truly parallels Eggsy.

With Eggsy, the audience is given his back story, his family’s back story, and most obviously Eggsy’s own characterization and transformation from delinquent to super spy. Gazelle, on the other hand, is only defined by her blade prosthetics and role to Valentine. Why does she work for Valentine? What happened to her legs? How did she get into this situation? Hints are given that Valentine may share a mutual romantic interest with Gazelle but this is never explored beyond a playful pat on Gazelle’s behind from Valentine.

Princess Tilde (Hannah Alström) is also shown to quite intelligent in contrast to her counterpart, the Swedish Prime Minister (Bjørn Floberg) but by the end of the film, Tilde is also reduced to a sex object. Vaughn has responded to criticism for the handling of Tilde’s character and that response can be read here. For those of you who haven’t watched the film there are slight spoilers ahead.

In the article linked above, Vaughn argues that him and co-screenwriter, Jane Goldman, sought to subvert the sexual innuendos found in Bond films by having the female character say the innuendo rather than the male. As Vaughn puts it, this act of switching gives the female agency and therefore is pro-feminist. While Vaughn does make a convincing point and one that comes from good intentions, the execution of the subversion is lazy and lackluster. As a fictional character, Tilde is unable to have any sort of agency as she is constructed by someone else entirely. While Goldman, who is a woman, also co-wrote the screenplay, that doesn’t mean women aren’t as capable as men when it comes to being misogynists. My own argument here isn’t meant to be an attack on either Vaughn, Goldman, or the film necessarily but rather act as a way to further explore and expand upon the dialogue concerning the role and handling of female characters in mainstream Hollywood cinema. If Kingsman is seeking to subvert tropes found within the spy genre, then it has gone one step forward and two steps back. Tilde’s out of left field sexual prompt towards Eggsy doesn’t remove her from her traditional spy film counterparts but rather still aligns her with them, as both are still by the end of the film, sexual rewards for the white male protagonist.

The subject of the white male protagonist also makes for a good segue into an analysis of Kingsman’s action scenes and through those action scenes, in combination with other moments in the narrative, such as the one described above concerning the character of Tilde, Kingman’s portrayal of the white male power fantasy. Without a doubt, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a stylish film. From the fashion, to the gentleman attitude, and soundtrack which features pulsing dubstep and frenetic rock, Vaughn and his crew are successful in embedding the film with a certain flair of cool. Colin Firth as Galahad is the embodiment of charming and zest, and Vaughn highlights these aspects not only in dialogue but also in the manner which Galahad fights. Like other spy films, there’s a slew of unconventional weaponry hidden as everyday objects in Kingsman. Rings are tasers and umbrellas are bullet-proof shields and Firth gets the chance to utilize and show them all off. The action scenes are as bloody as it gets and Vaughn enhances both the viscera and brutality of it all with jolting zoom-ins and outs, as well as rapid movement. While at first, the camera does accentuate the action, the scenes become nearly schizophrenic in their over-usage of rapid movement. Fight scenes that are meant to be eye-candy soon become eye-sores and headaches.

On the subject of violence, Kingsman is interested in violence for the sake of violence. There’s no taste or art to the action scenes and one particular scene that finds Firth fighting a multitude of enemies, turns into a stomach-churning bloodbath, yet the portrayal of these scenes appraises the action and it is clear that Firth and the other characters who partake in the violence are meant to be self-inserts for audience members who can relate to them. It is through this conventional Hollywood narrative device then, that a character like Eggsy or Firth are examples of the white male power fantasy in cinema. Eggsy works from rags to riches, single-handedly takes on multitudes of enemies, which then allow for the character to be shown off as “cool,” and at the end of day, is rewarded with sexual pleasure.

In satirizing the spy genre, Kingsman: The Secret Service is successful in only pointing the tropes which dominate the genre but is never successful in escaping those same tropes itself. The film then falls into a strange genre-limbo where the dialogue is self-reflective of the actions of the film, but the film itself continues to behave in the same manner that it also criticizes.

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