Masculinity in the Millarverse Part 3 - Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
In Part 1 of this article series, I argued that the filmic Millarverse (my term for all of the cinematic adaptations of Mark Millar's comics) is an interesting and useful arena in which to start a conversation about the intersection of gender and genre. Part 2 was a deeper dive into one specific film within this category, 2010's Kick-Ass. Throughout these articles, I have argued against the surface level critique of Millar's adaptations as being masculinist fantasy and nothing more. In fact, I've stated that the gleefully excessive 'masculinity' portrayed in these films is satirical, and undermines any notions of a 'true' and 'correct' way to be a man in the world.
If this wasn't a specious argument to begin with, discussing the 2014 Matthew Vaughn film Kingsman: The Secret Service certainly isn't going to help. By all accounts, this film enacts a problematic (at best) form of gender and racial politics. Tokenization of people of color and women? Check. Positioning those characters as villains? Check. Focusing on the white, male heterosexual heroes almost exclusively? Check. Yet despite all that, I don't think that a simple dismissal of the film is possible. But before I go into further detail about why, a quick synopsis of the film should help give some context for that argument.
Kingsman tells the story of Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), a young man with lots of potential who is languishing in his poor neighborhood in South London. He is approached by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who recruits him to the aristocratic Kingsmen, a British secret service agency beholden to no government or other juridicial body. With nothing to lose and no real prospects, Eggsy agrees and begins his training, a brutal process whereby a group of 9 recruits complete various dangerous missions, and those who fail are sent home. While Eggsy is in training, a nefarious plot is uncovered by the Kingsmen. The American technocrat Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) has concocted a plan to ameliorate the effects of climate change, which involves utilizing cell phone SIM cards to send a "neurological wave" that will cause mass mayhem and aggression, inciting the majority of the world's population to kill each other. It is up to the Kingsmen to foil this plot and save the world.
It would be impossible to fully explore the complicated and contradictory ways that this film theorizes masculinity in the space of this article, but I think a few specific points are worth mentioning here. Firstly, the three most important male characters in the film – Harry, Eggsy, and Valentine – could all be read as different 'types' of men. Harry is the gentleman – suave, debonair, deadly. Eggsy is the neophyte, taken under Harry's wing and given guidance on the ways of the 'true gentleman'. Valentine....well, Valentine is an enigma. He is a lisping technocrat who vomits at the sight of blood; he is protected by his female bodyguard, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), and is seen several times cowering in fear as bullets fly around him. None of these traits mark Valentine as a traditionally masculine or 'macho' character. But Valentine also is absolutely capable of violence [SPOILER: he shoots Harry at point blank range], he is incredibly rich and powerful, and – perhaps most importantly – he is played by one of the baddest-ass motherfuckers in the business, Samuel L. Jackson. If Eggsy and Harry reaffirm the standards of genteel masculinity that the audience expects from a Bond-esque spy film, Valentine utterly destroys any solidity that we could ascribe to the concept of masculinity.
Even the film's most controversial and misogynistic moment rings hollow in the face of these uncertainties about gender norms. After Eggsy has successfully 'saved the world' the beautiful Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) offers him anal sex, essentially as a reward. And although audiences and critics alike had mixed reactions to this gleefully crude and over-the-top final scene, I would argue that it really just serves to highlight the emptiness of male sexuality. The world is likely burning to ashes, Eggsy has just killed hundreds of people, and anal sex is offered up like some sort of bizarre consolation prize; is there any better way to highlight the problems of masculinity than to juxtapose violence and sex in this way, regardless of whether the director or writer intended such a reading?
In many ways, the plot and execution of Kingsman is standard spy/action film fare, with a bit of rags-to-riches thrown into the mix. But the generic pedigree of the film is far more complicated than it seems. Kingsman is part spy/action/drama film, but it is also a send-up of all things Bond, posh, and British. The action scenes are bombastic and unrestrained, which is reminiscent of Vaughn's earlier work in the superhero genre (including Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class). Elements of the film's plot are based in the logic of science fiction dystopia (using SIM cards to signal 'aggression waves' sounds like something from a Philip K. Dick novel), with a distinctly cli-fi (climate fiction) influence, as Valentine's murderous plan is an attempt to rid the earth of the 'human virus' and thereby 'solve' global warming. And all of these genres are relevant to a discussion of how the idea of masculinity is not just reflected in, but is constructed by, media. One common thread between spy, action, superhero, and dystopian sci-fi genres is that they all tend to focus on traditionally masculine characters, and they tend to be marketed towards a traditionally masculine audience (although clearly women consume and enjoy these films, too). So what does that say about Kingsman, a film that exists at the intersection of a handful of traditionally male-coded film genres?
The short answer: the hell if I know. But ultimately I think that the question itself here is more important than the answer. Because there has to be a reason I keep asking myself the question "what the **** is going on in this film?". Could it just be that the film is as misogynistic and phallocentric as it seems on the surface? Or do I feel the urge to watch and re-watch it because, beneath the masculinist veneer, I can see the thin spots where patriarchal assumptions have been worn down to almost nothing. Where the genre conventions and audience expectations and overdetermined ideas about manhood all meet, causing an implosion that allows the audience to rethink and rebuild our ideas of gender from the ground up.
Although I hope this is the case – that Kingsman among the other films of the cinematic Millarverse is actually deconstructing traditional notions of masculinity through a clever subversion of genre expectations – I sadly don't have much hope that most fans of Millar and/or Vaughn's work are as interested in the nuances of gender as I am. In an era when men's rights activists have latched onto films like Fight Club and The Matrix – films that clearly satirize and undermine white, heteronormative masculinity – I worry that Kingsman will become another in the list of cult classics that young men point to as examples of "real manliness". If Eggsy Unwin is set to become the Tyler Durden of a new generation of lost and aimless men, I have the same question that the narrator of Fight Club (Edward Norton) asked when faced with the ripped-abs perfection of a Calvin Klein ad: "Is that what a man looks like?"