It’s frankly surprising that until now, nobody has directly addressed the glaring class issues at play in James Bond movies. The world can only be saved, again and again, by a British man with upper-class tastes, an austere servant of the 1 percent who surrounds himself with luxury brand names? Seems pretty ripe for a takedown, and not by way of a Jason Bourne/Daniel Craig–style “realistic” deconstruction, either. That movie has finally arrived, in the form of Kingsman: The Secret Service, an action-comedy about a slick James Bond–type character named Harry Hart (Colin Firth) who enlists a lower-class chav named Eggsy (Taron Egerton) to join his super-secret spy organization. And the movie doesn’t shy away from pointing out the implications of class in the James Bond mythos, either. But why, oh why, did Mark Millar have to be involved?
In case you’re unfamiliar with the name: Mark Millar is the writer of The Secret Service, the comic book on which Kingsman is based. (It was drawn by Dave Gibbons, best known for his work on Watchmen.) And Millar writes the douchiest comic books in the history of humanity. His characters don’t communicate so much as brag, and his plots don’t twist so much as collapse under their own flimsy pretenses. Millar is a pitchman. All of his books are high-concept elevator pitches (some comics he’s actually written: What if Batman was a bad guy? What if cartoon animals had working genitals? What if Unforgiven starred Wolverine?) stretched out into smarmy, misanthropic bad-boy fantasies. His comics practically reek of Axe body spray. The women in his stories are objects to be possessed, the heroes are unspeakably obnoxious, and the social commentary is about as subtle as a chain-saw circumcision.
Kingsman marks the second Millar adaptation to be directed and cowritten by Matthew Vaughn, the Guy Ritchie producer who’s gone on to build a solid career as a stylish genre director. The first was Kick-Ass, a film that was much better than the shitty comic on which it was based, but which still suffered from a mile-wide mean streak. Kick-Ass was a blunt-edged satire that wanted to ridicule the decadence of superhero culture but ultimately didn’t have the courage to avoid ending the film with a climactic jetpack machine-gun fight. Vaughn added some entertaining elements—Nicolas Cage’s Adam West shtick, Chloë Grace Moretz’s inspired Clint Eastwood riff—but the film couldn’t decide whether to satirize its nerdy audience or give them a sloppy handjob.
Kingsman demonstrates the same aimless moral compass as Kick-Ass. This is a movie that’s politically astute enough to mark the 1 percent as the enemy, but it’s also a movie that wants to laugh at the dumb fucking morons who make up the lower classes. Millar and Vaughn are canny enough to target the Westboro Baptist Church and the TED Talks crowd for satire, but the blunderbuss approach they bring to the material fails to do any real damage. They mock the upper class for being insular and label-obsessed, and they expect us to somehow not notice that the movie features a host of “branding partners” from Adidas to Cutler and Gross selling high-end Kingsman-themed clothing and accessories. (Wikipedia notes that thanks to branding partnerships, Kingsman is “the first film from which customers can buy all of the outfits they see.”) In the eyes of Millar and Vaughn, everyone except the pair of heroes at the center of the movie are idiots who deserve scorn and/or death.
But Vaughn’s direction might be enough to make a large swath of moviegoers not care about Kingsman’s sketchy morality. One particular sequence is so beautifully hyperviolent that it’s truly impressive—my jaw literally dropped at the audacity of it—and another sure-to-be-controversial sequence later in the film is so politically over-the-top that audiences will undoubtedly cheer it on. Colin Firth, Michael Caine, and Mark Strong are their usual charming selves—nobody’s working too hard here—and Samuel L. Jackson constructs his villain around a terrible lisp that the audience at my press screening seemed to find endlessly amusing. The plot is warmed-over James Bond with a culture-war twist and more than a few obvious postmodern winks at the source material.
But what’s that old saying about underestimating the American public? The surface of Kingsman is shiny and in-your-face, and it’s likely to draw an audience of ardent fans. The same sorts of simpleminded suburban kids who somehow convinced themselves that the V for Vendetta film adaptation was meaningful political commentary might fall for Kingsman’s brutish charm. Hopefully, they’ll grow out of it before they make Kingsman-branded bespoke suits a popular protest accessory.