Monday, March 9, 2015

'Kingsman', Masculinity Narratives, Class Warfare, and That Scene


After about two solid weeks of pestering from a person who shall remain nameless (but his name rhymes with Seth because it is Seth), I finally deigned to drive myself to the local movie theater and see Kingsman: The Secret Service. I had seen the trailer, but otherwise I had no particular expectations of this film. 

Matthew Vaughn is a competent director, and I like X-Men: First Stand, but not to the exclusion of everything else. Colin Firth is a good actor, but I've seen him make some dodgy choices in the past (never watch the original Fever Pitch), and Michael Caine seems to be willing to act in anything with a paycheck at this point, so...

The point is, aside from being vaguely aware that there was some controversy around part of this film, I really went into it without any preconceived notions of what it would be or even whether or not I would like it. Which is probably a good thing in the long run, because it allowed me to form my own needlessly complex opinion of the movie.

Basically, I liked it. It's a fun movie and I would enjoy seeing it again sometimes. But it felt at times, like during most of the movie, that there were really two movies trying to happen simultaneously. And while those two films managed to coexist happily for the majority of the movie, there were moments when they did not, and those moment really stank. What makes this more interesting, at least to me, is that the two movies are really two very different ways of understand masculinity and its relationship to violence and outward expression. And that's worth talking about.

So, the film is basically a loving sendup of classic spy movies, in the same way that Kick-Ass is a sendup of superhero flicks. Kingsman is about a working class tough recruited to be a secret agent for the incredibly posh Kingsman agency, an independent British spy agency that operates very much like a modernized version of U.N.C.L.E. or something like that. Our street kid has to undergo a series of hazing and training rituals meant to weed out the weak and find the recruit (there are eight or nine to start) who is most worthy to become the next Kingsman. Also there's a megalomaniac trying to destroy the world.

Like I said, it's very much an homage and sendup of stories we already know, and it does both of those things very well. But what makes it a good movie that I would like to see again is how the film takes those tropes we take for granted in a spy movie (the gadgets, the glamor, the suits), and turns them into a treatise on class and masculinity. It's actually a very smart and moving movie...Most of the time.

The other part of the time, it's a gleeful spray of blood and unremitting violence to a Quentin Tarantino-esque soundtrack. While the rest of the film asks us to examine how we consider violence and its place in society and espionage, there are certain scenes that ask us to toss those concerns aside and just revel in the blood spatter and gore. "Isn't this fun?!" the movie squeals as Colin Firth shoves a bannister through a church-goer's head, "aren't you finding all this gore cathartic?"

Well, no. Not really. The movie I liked was the other one, the thoughtful, fun, playful action movie that sought to examine how class and male socialization interact and what it means to be a gentleman. That was a good movie. This bit, with the violence and shock value and that horrible scene at the end, is not.

When I say that most of the movie is a really comprehensive examination of masculinity and class structures, by the way, I'm really not exaggerating. 

Our hero for the film is Eggsy (Taron Edgerton, who is phenomenal). Eggsy is in his early to mid-twenties, aimless, and while extremely gifted, also extremely limited. His father died when he was young and his mother later remarried to a local thug who beats her, brutalizes him, and threatens his baby sister. Eggsy is presented as a fundamentally good kid, but one going badly to seed. He has nothing to do, nowhere to go, and his life is horrible.

Naturally at this point he gets himself arrested (a la Good Will Hunting) and decides to call in the favor he's had since his father died. See, Eggsy's father wasn't some random soldier, he was actually a Kingsman recruit who died in a tragic accident. His father's superior officer, Harry Hart (Colin Firth), is the one who came to tell Eggsy and his mother what had happened and to give Eggsy this favor. So, when Eggsy calls it in, he's actually basically calling James Bond to bail him out. Not that he knows that.

This phone call gets Harry invested in Eggsy's life again, and the timing is very apt. A Kingsman agent has just been killed by persons unknown, which means that there is now an open seat at the round table for a new recruit*. Each of the Kingsman agents is allowed to sponsor a recruit for the selection process, and Harry decides (after seeing that Eggsy is well capable of keeping his mouth shut and has a lot of potential) to sponsor Eggsy just like he sponsored his father.

All of this so far sounds pretty par for the course, and it would be if the film weren't so concerned with pointing out to us all the class and social barriers that Eggsy faces in his recruitment. Arthur (Michael Caine), the head of the agency, is openly against recruiting non-aristocrats. As a result, Eggsy is the only regular bloke there. Furthermore, the Kingsman agency has a problem with sexism - there are only two female recruits, and no female agents. None of the recruits are black. And all of this would be normal for a movie, if the movie weren't making a point about it.

Like, the fact that Eggsy is the only working class recruit is presented as a bad thing. The fact that Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and Amelia (Fiona Hampton) are the only girls is seen as very bad as well. Harry even openly states that as Britain becomes increasingly diverse, it is important for Kingsman to reflect that diversity. Arthur disagrees, and hence a big part of our conflict.

The film also points out that for marginalized individuals facing off against privilege, life is easier when you band together. Amelia and Roxy are the first and really only friends that Eggsy makes in training. He and Roxy become very close not because they are romantically interested, but because they are both driven to prove themselves. They go far in the training because they're both very skilled, but also because they're cheering each other on. The implication is that they would both be happy to win, but they would both prefer the other to win over anyone else in the competition. 

SPOILERS from here on.

As the film progresses, the narrative widens to become a larger exploration of what class and masculinity really mean in terms of identity. Eggs and Harry have quite a few open conversations about what it means to be a man and to be a good man. Eggsy thinks that with Harry trying to make him into a gentleman (in a masculinized My Fair Lady move, which seems to be the only film Eggsy has seen), he's seeking to erase Eggsy's working class roots. But Harry actually dismisses that idea. Being a gentleman, he explains, isn't about accents or suits or wealth. It's about how one behaves.

"A true nobleman is not superior to his fellow man, but only to his former self." That's a rough paraphrase, but it forms the basis for Harry's understanding of identity. You want to be a gentleman because that means valuing people for who they are and respecting yourself enough to improve as a person. It doesn't mean that there's something wrong with being working class. It means that the wrong thing is devaluing a human being for any reason. And that's a motto I can get behind.

Harry becomes in the film a very intentional father-figure for Eggsy. He takes Eggsy in and checks after his welfare. But, as is different from a lot of other movies like this, Eggsy is concerned back. When Harry gets hurt, Eggsy rushes to check on him in the hospital wing. They have a good relationship built on mutual respect, and it's great to see a genuinely healthy mentor relationship on screen.

The other big aspect of the plot is your typical spy movie "bad guy trying to destroy the world" thing. But what's really compelling here is that this plot as well has an element of class tension. Our bad guy, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, for once playing against type), is an internet mogul deeply concerned with global warming. Since his efforts to get the government to do something have largely been ineffective, Valentine has decided to take more drastic measures. He and his awesome assistant/henchwoman, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), are going to end the world.

Well, sort of. Because global warming is clearly caused by humans, Valentine believes that the cure is to radically reduce the population of the planet. But - and this is the class warfare aspect - he's going to be the one to pick and choose who lives. His plan involves basically sending out a brain hijacking wave to everyone on the planet that causes them to go into a homicidal frenzy and kill each other. Only Valentine's select few, the influential, rich, and beautiful, are hidden away in private bunkers so that he can keep them safe and then they can emerge and rule the earth.

The class element here isn't just that Valentine explicitly saves the rich and powerful, but also that his method for killing everyone with this weird brainwave comes from giving out free sim cards for phone and internet. The sim cards, which release the wave when triggered, offer free internet and phone use forever. Naturally the people most likely to line up for these cards? The working classes who actually need them. So they will be the first and most to die.

This plot element makes Eggsy's rise through recruitment, and then his investigation of Valentine himself, more emotionally affecting. As opposed to all the other recruits, Eggsy has a real stake in this fight. He's not fighting just to save humanity in general, he's fighting to save his mother and his baby sister in specific. And that makes for a better story.

But. I did say, going into this, that there are two different movies in this film, and while I like one, I hate the other. So now we have to talk about the other movie.

The actual plot of the film is very much a condemnation of violence as a means to real change. There are several moments where we are lead to believe that something horribly violent has happened and then later we discover that it really hasn't. It was just a trick. As Harry explains, late in the film, Kingsman doesn't waste lives. It believes every life is precious, and so it only uses violence as a last resort. Which is a great motto, if only the rest of the film actually followed it.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of scenes in the movie that throw all this out the window and ask us to revel in moments of debauched, disgusting, senseless violence. Like, in a moment late in the film, Valentine and Gazelle choose to test out their rage wave on the members of a church hate group in America. Think the Westboro Baptist Church. Harry is there then as well, trying to figure out what Valentine wants with these people, and so when the wave is triggered, Harry is inside. And since he's a highly trained secret agent fighting machine who's just been hit with a rage ray, as has everyone in the building, he goes kind of nuts. And he kills everyone.

The problem here is that we're supposed to think it's funny. I mean, these people are terrible, right? They're bad human beings, so they deserve to die. But the movie never really bothered to set these characters up, they just put us in the church for five minutes to let us hear how hateful the preaching is (it is pretty hateful), and then expect us to celebrate that Harry is killing them all. Well, I couldn't do that. Not least of all because I knew that Harry as a character would not be okay with that.

I mean, Harry is the one who just scenes before was talking about responsibility for human life and being sure you never take it needlessly. So seeing him turned into a killing machine was affecting and sad. It works very well as a statement on how horrible Valentine's invention is, but it also feels like the movie wants you to be laughing during the whole thing. Which I was not.

Later in the movie there is another sequence like this, where thousands of, admittedly terrible, people are killed senselessly and with a catchy song playing in the background. I didn't like it, and I would argue that it really doesn't fit with the rest of the tone of the movie. It was pretty offensive, if only because I was offended by the idea that they thought I'd like that.

And then of course there's That Scene, the one everyone has been talking about from the end of the film. Eggsy, fighting his final battle and trying to save the world, happens across Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) who has been locked up by Valentine. In a break from the fighting, Eggsy comments to her that he'd like a kiss, because he's always wanted to kiss a princess. Tilde, who is still locked in a cell, tells him exasperatedly that if he gets her out she'll give him more than a kiss. Eggsy then proceeds to try to get her out, but is called away to finish saving the world. As he's leaving, Tilde calls down the hall to him that if he succeeds in saving the world, she'll let him have anal sex with her. Then Eggsy grins and keeps fighting.

At the end of the movie, we get a coda where Eggsy parades down the hall to Tilde's cell, from which she is still not free, and then opens the door so that he can have sex with her. He does not actually let her out of the cell, and while she is implicitly willing and smiling at him, it's still really disturbing. And unnecessary. And, like the violence above, completely tonally different from the rest of the movie.

Because for the rest of the film, Eggsy's relationships with women are all respectful and based on mutual appreciation. He and Roxy like each other because they're both very competent and because they're both fed up with the privileged boys they're supposed to compete against. Eggsy's relationship with his mother might be strained, but he loves her and supports her as best he can. He openly adores his little sister. He has a cordial relationship with Amelia. Even when he's told earlier in the film to seduce a woman, he comes to her with respect and kindness.

So this bit? This is completely out of the blue and feels like a different (worse) movie entirely. Which, I'm pretty sure, it basically is. See, the writing credits for this film list two main screenwriters: Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn. It's based on a comic book by Millar and Gibbons, but the actual screenplay was written by those two above. And I will take a wild guess that Jane Goldman wrote the bones of the story, the bits that I like, and Matthew Vaughn went in and added all the bits I hate.

I have no real substantiation for this, since screenplay authorship is pretty much the murkiest of things to determine, but I feel pretty confident that, based on the interviews he's given and the views he's expressed in the past, that Vaughn is responsible for the violence and the anal sex scene. And since I can't imagine him crafting a comprehensive look at class and masculinity, I'm gonna guess that was Goldman.

And that's really frustrating, you know? Because without those moments, I would love this movie unreservedly. It's the kind of movie where the fact that it's about a white boy becoming a real man doesn't bother me. It's so conscious of race and class and status that it makes me invested in what it really does mean to be a man. It's a great masculinity narrative, the kind of thing I would love to show to young men, to help them see that being a gentleman is about respecting others and valuing all people. I love that. But I absolutely hate the toxic ideas that gratuitous violence is fun and that sex is a reward that women owe men. 

It's just, there's so much that this movie does well that it really annoys me with all the things it does badly. Roxy and Gazelle are both amazing female characters who are unique, not sexualized, and really really cool. Roxy was in the army and is so good at being a Kingsman agent that she actually gets the job over Eggsy in the end. And deservedly so. We aren't told to be mad that she got the gig, we and Eggsy are both happy that if it had to be someone, at least it's her.

Gazelle, meanwhile, is one of the most interesting female characters I think I've ever seen. She's Algerian, a double amputee whose prosthetics she uses as weapons, never sexualized, and really funny. She's not some stoic "strong female character" who is too badass and competent to laugh at a joke, she's a real person. 

She's got mad parkour skills, a very strange sense of humor, and an indelible loyalty to Valentine that doesn't seem to be romantic, sexual, or filial in nature. He's her friend and she believes in what he's doing. Plus, we never see her in any state of undress, she's never presented as being bad at her job or untrustworthy, and in the end, the only way she's defeated is with poison. She's formidable, and the movie never feels the need to lessen her agency in order to make Eggsy look better.

And just...ugh. It makes me so mad that I can't unreservedly love this movie, because I really want to. It's exactly the kind of movie I've wished Hollywood would make, and I feel personally angry with Matthew Vaughn for screwing it up for me. Can we just not give him things to direct after this? Maybe?

But if you take anything away from this, I hope it's that the question of whether or not a movie is good is a complex one and it doesn't have a simple answer. I don't know if Kingsman is worth watching, because I don't know what you personally will get out of it. I just hope that my working through what I got is helpful in some way.

Image included for no good or defensible reason.
*The Kingsman agency operates on a very extended and not particularly subtle "Arthur and his knights" motif. All of their codenames are based on Arthurian legends, with Arthur as the head of the agency, Merlin as their tech wizard and training master, and the agents as knights of the round table. Harry's codename is Galahad, which is not important, but nice to know.

10 comments:

  1. Valentine explicitly saves the rich and powerful ... The working classes ... will be the first and most to die.

    While we know that there are a number of "chosen ones" who refuse to go along with Valentine's scheme, the one we *see* doing so is Princess Tilde - as young royalty, the very ur-example of unearned class privilege - yet she's the one who rails against the monstrosity of what will be done to people she might ordinarily never mingle with and barely think about. And thus she becomes a quieter example of Harry's observation on nobility as superior to others or to yourself (and expands it beyond masculinity).

    He does not actually let her out of the cell, and while she is implicitly willing and smiling at him, it's still really disturbing.

    Again, it would have been an example of Harry's observation if Eggsy had let Tilde out of the cell with no apparently thought of holding her to her offer (and they'd then busied themselves setting free everyone else who was locked in those cells).

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    1. Aside from that one ending scene, I really appreciate Princess Tilde. She just seems like a really fascinating woman and I would have loved for her to have more to do in the plot. But being the very literal princess prize at the end of Eggsy's quest cheapens all of her characterization. She really ought to have been busy helping him set people free. She could have even said the same thing and then at the end they joke about him getting her number after they finish freeing people. Just...ugh. I hate the way it turned out.

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  2. Well, I don't know. Tilde was the one asking for anal sex, it was not Eggsy's idea. She probably was feeling... uh, needy after being in that cell for weeks.

    And I think "Galahad" as a codename has a importat symbolism. If I remember right, Galahad in the legends was the more "saint-y" of the knights and the one who found the Holy Grail.

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    1. Yes, Galahad the Pure is how the legend goes. But as for Tilde's characterization, she's a fictional character who was written to behave in a particularly sexist way. Yes, it was "her choice", but really it was the writer's choice, and I dislike how that whole scene is handled.

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  3. Okay so I just want to put my two cents in. I know you didn't ask for it but maybe I can help you feel a little less annoyed. At least to some extent.

    On the topic of the violence. I agree. There was far too much of it and I understand why you think Matthew would want us to think its funny. The thing is I think the main reason he probably added it was because he wanted to reach out to more than just one audience. A lot, not all (as I am not trying to make a generalization, but make a point out of my own experience with people) men love this type of shock factor over the top violence. Some women like it too, I'm sure. There's just that kind of audience that does. I suspect that the reason it feels like there are two movies is because technically there is, as both "movies" are geared toward those different audiences. I absolutely loved all the parts you did more than any of the violence and fancy movies. I do admit that Colin's (Harry) line to the woman in the church made me laugh because it was awesome that he put her in her place (and not in her "place" as a woman either). He originally was very polite as he was trying to leave. She did not let him and was judging him and so he turned his sass on and had her speechless for a few moments. What follows after made me feel excruciatingly sad. I do understand the violence in this scene because we needed to see what the sim cards' waves could do. And the fact that it was someone we grew to care a lot for, it makes it even worse when he's the last one standing and returns to himself only to realize what he's done. The look on his face. The complete and absolute disgust we see in that moment because that is everything he is against. And then *SPOILER ALERT* (although by now I hope everyone who has wanted to see it already has) and then he is murdered. And the people closest to him (Arthur excluded, let me scratch his eyes out please) witness it.

    Which brings me to my next point. While the scene with the exploding heads was very distasteful and could have been done better, the deaths weren't exactly unfounded. Both Merlin and Eggsy were about to be murdered themselves. The transmitters were the only choice at that point. Innocent, unwitting people died but that is not to lie in fault with Merlin or Eggsy, as Valentine is the one who put them in without telling the people that he could in fact kill them at his slightest whim. And at that point rather than dealing with the, what would other wise be debilitating, grief---Eggsy has his game face on because this mission is all he has to cling on to. He's already lost TWO fathers now. He's lost the man who has made his life better and himself better for it. So that brings me to the end scene.

    I also think that the nudity was unnecessary but for whatever reason Princess Tilde wanted to have a little romp, and really it doesnt have to be because she owed it to anyone. All Eggsy asked for was a kiss. It was Tilde that suggested more (for whatever reason she asked, and she was more than willing). Maybe its just because they wrote it that way, but with it written that way, we can't really blame Eggsy (just the writer for that part).

    However, and hopefully this will make that scene just a little more bearable, or at least the notion of it happening as again the nudity was not necessary even for the split second it was there. The way I see it and it is my headcanon for Eggsy, is that the reason he is so gung ho about it, besides the fact that its probably been awhile since he's had sex/took care of himself, so of course he'd be horny after such an invitation--- but my headcanon is its just another way to get his mind off the fact that someone he came to care deeply about who cared deeply about him as well died. Before his very eyes. So Eggsy is not thinking clearly and isnt really trying to think clearly. He doesn't want to come to terms with that. Not yet. If ever. ... [continued in 2nd comment]

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    1. I think part of my frustration is that it felt like Vaughn didn't trust us to appreciate this movie unless he threw in some gratuitous violence and sex. It smacks of him not being confident in his own film, and that bothers me. The actual scene I really didn't like, but a lot of that was tonal. I didn't like that it was supposed to be funny, while I completely understood why it was in the story. And I do really like Harry's line before he goes nuts. That's a good one.

      No, the later deaths aren't unfounded, but it's still a tonal thing for me, as it is with the Tilde scene at the end. None of this really makes no sense in the narrative, it's all actually pretty well founded, but it's all just handled in such a way that it makes me uncomfortable. You know? Like that Eggsy is having sex with Tilde in her cell and she's technically locked in there with him? It's not actually anything wrong, but it feels bad. I do blame the writers on that one. I blame them entirely for the uneven characterization found in this film, much as I love it.

      I should say that I really do love this movie, actually. I just hold the things I love to really really high standards...

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  4. And even tho it is more violence, although Eggsy didn't start with it, I like the fact that the end scene in the pub is a mirror and a homage to his mentor. As if he was finally able to come to terms with Harry's death, at least to some extent. And he is finally able to save his mom from the abusive relationship and break her from Dean's hold and take his baby sister out of that really unhealthy environment, so at least just a bit I'm glad that Eggsy gives Dean what's coming to him. Although I have no idea what Dean isn't locked up. Harry should have just handed him over to the authorities instead of just threatening. But what can you do. But yeah, so whether the writer(s) meant that "sex" scene to mean what I've said or not, at least its a much better way to look at it. Hopefully it helps you as well.

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    1. [Above comment continued from the first]

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    2. I like the parallels that scene gives us, but again I think the tone is just slightly off. And I do completely agree, why the hell isn't Dean in prison? Yeesh.

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