The 2015 film and its new sequel reveal in part what animates the populist right, and what ails it.
On the surface, 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service might not look like a particularly political movie. Director Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the comic book by Mark Millar is an exuberant, cartoonishly violent spy romp that sends up both James Bond and superhero films, depicting a world in which a band of well-dressed, well-trained superspies fight dastardly villains on behalf of the common good.
Yet once you watch it, it’s difficult to see it as anything else. In both story and sensibility, it may be that no recent big-budget film leans more overtly to the right in its politics: This is a movie that gives explicit, approving nods to both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (a component from the Strategic Defense Initiative figures heavily into the denouement); that pits its heroes against a wealthy coastal tech mogul who is obsessed with global warming; and that unravels a plot between the world’s financial and intellectual elites to kill off most of the world’s population in order to save the planet from the threat of climate change. It is literally a movie about how environmentalism is a secret plot by liberal elites to kill off billions of ordinary people.
Just in case you didn’t fully grasp the movie’s outlook, it includes a scene in which the villain convinces President Obama — or, according to Vaughn, an actor on a White House set who is intended to be “reminiscent” of the former president — to go along with the plan. At the end, in a moment of triumph for the heroes, the pseudo-Obama’s head explodes, along with the heads of the rest of the world’s villainous, self-dealing elites.
Released in February 2015, as the most recent presidential race was still in the preliminary stages and most observers assumed that Donald Trump would never run, much less win the GOP nomination and the presidency, Kingsman: The Secret Service nonetheless channels something like the energy that eventually resulted in Trump’s upset victory. It wasn’t a warning, exactly, but in retrospect it’s hard not to see it as an early sign of the nascent populist fervor that helped power him to the presidency.
In many ways, the film — and to a lesser extent its new sequel, The Golden Circle — offer a political snapshot in pop culture form. Not of conservatism as a whole, but of a particular strain of right-of-center thinking that has been ascendant over the past few years, one that is vulgar, snarky, populist, and defined more by what it’s against than what it is for. Taken together, the two films reveal what animates this part of the conservative movement, and what ails it.
Kingsman is not a message movie, but it exhibits a populist anti-politics worldview
It would be a mistake to treat the first Kingsman as an argument. It doesn’t act as a brief for any particular political point of view. Yet many of the habits and hang-ups of the modern conservative movement are embedded in its DNA.
For example, like many of today’s conservatives, the film traffics in a kind of cartoony 1980s nostalgia. The references to Reagan and Thatcher come across not only as approving nods to conservative heroes of the Cold War era but also as contrasts with the feckless contemporary elites the movie casts as its villains.
Yet the movie offers little sense of what those leaders stood for; it puts forward a celebratory but somewhat shallow form of pop-Reaganism, the idea that the leaders of that time were great and strong and noble, without any sense of what they did or why. It is almost certainly too much to ask for a detailed history lesson from what is essentially a light superhero film, yet the sense of free-floating admiration for the conservative politicians of the 1980s reflects the ways in which segments of the right have become disconnected from the actual records and achievements of their political heroes.
At the same time, it indulges in a familiar anti-elitism, one that views politicians, corporate titans, and the environmentalist ethos as a kind of scam perpetrated on the public. The wealthy and the politically powerful are shown in fancy clothes and homes, separated from the concerns of everyday people and unconcerned with their welfare. Secret Service’s chief antagonist, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), is a stylish, effete internet mogul who speaks with a lisp; he is squeamish about violence, even though he plans to perpetrate the largest act of mass murder in history. He is insulated, in other words, from the suffering he aims to cause. And President Obama — or his likeness, anyway — is, of course, a partner with tech titans, the global political class, and other elites.
At the heart of Kingsman’s worldview, then, is a form of populist anti-politics, one that simply assumes that political elites are distant, stupid, venal, cynical, awful, and entirely uninterested in — and perhaps actively aligned against — the lives of ordinary people. It is a slyly political film that it is intensely disdainful of the very idea of politics.
Kingsman is not a message movie. It is not designed to convince its viewers, or to sell anyone on a particular ideology. Indeed, at times it almost seems be trolling, like a highly sophisticated, $80 million adaptation of a Reddit thread. Heads explode in colorful, musically choreographed fireworks; Valentine serves a dinner of expensive wine and McDonald’s Big Macs; there’s a show-stopping, utterly bonkers sequence in which one of the heroes, under the influence of Valentine, murders an entire church full of congregants in rural Kentucky; the film closes with a gag about a particular sex act with a blonde Swedish princess. This unapologetically R-rated film has no interest in the more scolding forms of right-wing moralism; its populism is distinctly secular and post-religious.
Its comic sensibility blends droll wit, violent surprise, winking juvenile hijinks, and vulgar scatological humor. It is wildly, deliriously outrageous — a movie that constantly threatens to go too far, and frequently does. Indeed, its willingness to do so is part of its appeal.
The first Kingsman’s high-low dynamic gave it a moral center that the new sequel loses sight of
Yet what keeps Kingsman’s wilder impulses in check, and what makes it such an enjoyably electric experience, is the way it offsets its vulgarity with a distinctly British appeal to manners, competence, selflessness, tact, and propriety — when it’s called for.
Much of the first movie is built around the lessons that superspy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) teaches to his young, ill-mannered protégé Eggsy (Taron Egerton). Harry quotes the old adage that “Manners maketh the man,” and then spends much of the movie teaching Eggsy what that means. In addition to more conventional spy training, there are lessons in how to dress and how to eat a formal meal — how, in other words, to behave in polite society. And part of that means refusing to ever look down on others. “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self,” Harry says. In broad strokes, it is a coming-of-age story about the making of a proper English gentleman.
The expertly balanced high-low dynamic is part of what makes Kingsman: The Secret Service so surprising and entertaining; it’s a gutter romp in a tailored suit. That mix, and the jolts it provides, is also what gives the movie a moral center. As unruly as it sometimes gets, it is restrained by the way it always insists on dignity and decency, on true selfless virtue rather than the flimsy, self-serving brand indulged by the movie’s unkind elites.
The Golden Circle maintains much of the first’s film’s gonzo energy. The violence is still both cartoonish and horrific. The humor still blends low adolescent vulgarity with spy movie satire and sophisticated sci-fi sight gags. If you’ve ever wanted to see Elton John dressed in a feather suit fighting off rechargeable robot guard dogs, this a movie for you.
The blunt populist political sentiments are still there too: In the second movie (spoilers ahead), the villain is Poppy (Julianne Moore), an international drug dealer who holds millions of drug users for ransom by poisoning the illegal drug supply. After offhandedly declaring the United Nations useless, she negotiates with the president of the United States — this time a generic presidential type played by Bruce Greenwood — who agrees to pay a ransom in exchange for the antidote, part of which includes legalizing all drugs.
But he has no plans to actually play along. Instead, he decides to lock up the contagious users and let them die, on the logic that it will rid the world of the scourge of drug use forever. “This presidency has just won the war on drugs!” he exclaims. Once again, the movie sets up a global conspiracy in which the world’s political and business elites have effectively teamed up to destroy the lives of ordinary people.
For the most part, I rather enjoyed Golden Circle’s giddy antics, its creative vulgarity, and its lampooning of the war on drugs and the cynical way that politicians exploit it for political gain. It works hard to surprise, shock, and entertain, and it frequently succeeds on all counts. But what I missed this time around was the underlying sense of honor and decency that helped keep the original from simply being an extended sneer.
So just as The Secret Service seemed to capture many of the sentiments of the populist right in the moments before Trump made his mark, The Golden Circle seems to take its cues from the way it has transitioned and transformed under Trump’s ascendency. The energy is similar, but both the movie and the movement have lost their sense of values; they know what they’re against, but not what they’re for.