Is satire dead? I legitimately want to know. Because while it has been around for at least two millennia, and been utilized by such geniuses as Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Tom Lehrer, Stanley Kubrick and Stephen Colbert, its meaning has long been forgotten, taken away by groups of internet trolls who hide behind it as an attempt to say whatever pops into their head. Just because you say something racist or sexist and then say you were just being “satiric” doesn’t make it satire; it means you’re a racist and a sexist who doesn’t understand what the word “satire” means. Satire is all about challenging the norms of something, be it society, politics, or even a genre of filmmaking; it doesn’t just throw something up and say “Yeah, you’ll understand I feel the opposite of this.” It paints out a picture for its viewer/reader/audience that makes it clear that not only do you feel the opposite of the end result, but everyone should, and here’s why. I’m not saying that Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the death of satire, or even the most egregious example of this misuse of satire. To be honest, it’s not good or bad enough to be an example of anything. However, the fact it is a multimillion dollar misuse of the word satire, and completely misses the point of satirizing James Bond does make it a leading example in why filmmakers have to understand their own message before releasing the final result to the public.
It’s been one year since street thug-turned-suave agent Eggsy (Taron Edgerton) joined the Kingsman Secret Service and saved the world. While he’s content with his princess girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alström), he’s still mourning the loss of his mentor, Harry (Colin Firth). When a new threat arises from past enemy Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and his new employer, Poppy (Julianne Moore), a drug kingpin who wants credit for being the richest woman in the world, Eggsy and his weapons operator Merlin (Mark Strong) must travel to America to team up with their counterparts, the Statesman (Pedro Pascal, Halle Berry, Channing Tatum, and Jeff Bridges) to combat this threat and save millions of people all over the world.
I guess I should start by establishing that I hate everything about this movie’s aesthetic, both on a personal and objective level. It’s not that Matthew Vaughn is a bad director – I really don’t think that’s the case. It’s just that so much of this movie consists of shoddy filmmaking and off-putting aesthetic choices. Vaughn believes that, in order to make a cool fight sequence, you need to overdo the CGI so that the stunts look even more insane. That may seem like a good idea on paper, but on screen, it not only looks incredibly ugly and shoddy, but it makes the sequences incohesive. If the purpose of a fight sequence is to tell a story (punch A led to reaction B which led to counter C…), then this movie is a failure, because I can’t tell you a single thing about these fight sequences. The CGI results in cool looking jumps and dodges, but it cuts so fast that you can’t even see what’s happening in them. When mixed with a murky, confusing story in general, you get a story that no one cares about. And what’s worse, that story is two-and-a-half hours long. That’s right; this movie with less than an hour of story goes on for 145 minutes. To fill that time, we are introduced to a series of technology porn sequences that study the detail of the (fake-looking) technology for minutes on end, or introduce a series of MacGuffins that lead nowhere. Want an example? Well, you know how Channing Tatum is in all of the trailers? Well, he’s only in about eight minutes of this movie. That’s right, he serves no purpose to the plot whatsoever. He could be cut from this movie completely, and it would have no impact. Plotlines are introduced as if they will be important throughout the movie, only to be resolved fifteen minutes later and replaced with a new problem. Oops, Colin Firth was dead? Now he’s alive! Except he has amnesia, so I guess this is the plot now. No wait, now he doesn’t! Oh, there’s still an hour and a half left? Well now there’s a new location they have to go too! Oh, that was pointless and could have been cut? Not to worry, you’ll be beat over the head with a new one any second now! While all of this is going on, you could have fleshed out the new characters, or even given Mark Strong something to do. Mark Strong is a phenomenal actor. He tries his damndest in this movie. And yet they cut him short at every turn. I got so excited near the end because they promised me Mark Strong going crazy with a machete. And in the end, they do give him something awesome to do, but they completely forget to use Chekov’s Machete. How dare you, movie? How dare you get my hopes up and then screw me over with your ADD-riddled editing? You do not understand how to give audiences what they want.
To put this as bluntly as possible, this film should be right up my alley, what with its hyper-comedy-gore set to a killer soundtrack, and it just doesn’t do anything for me. In fact, it kind of puts me off. Let me put this into perspective. Compare this movie to two other action movies from this summer: Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver and the similarly themed Atomic Blonde. Both have sequences of action set to music, and both look spectacular. Atomic Blonde in particular has a visceral look to it as the action doesn’t necessarily depend on the music, and yet is lifted up because of it. Now compare it to the chaos of the opening “Let’s Go Crazy” sequence in Kingsman. The action is so stylized, and so chaotic, you can’t keep track of what’s happening. The CGI is the focus of the scene, not the timing of each hit. Whereas Blonde and Baby Driver use realistic effects to make it more awe-inspiring when each stunt is performed, emphasizing the marriage of action and music, Kingsman just looks like a jumbled mess with an iPod on, as if Vaughn saw this done in movies and thought “I guess that’s just what movies do,” and did it without understanding the why.
However, what upsets me the most is the way this film screws over the idea of satire. The purpose of satire is to use the weapon of an oppressing force or idea against it, to help deconstruct why it is such an issue. The purpose of the Kingsman series is to satirize the Bond franchise and the way it handles espionage, masculinity, and the treatment of women. Of course, this is what Vaughn wants you to think. If you read any interview with him where he is confronted with the ultraviolence and ultrasexuality of these movies, he answers with a quick “Satire, brah.” That’s all well and good, except saying something is satire doesn’t make it satire. That’s the excuse trolls on the internet use when they get called out for using a racial slur. Satire requires actual commentary on the thing it is spoofing, in order to find a deeper understanding. Take the Austin Powers movies, or the television series Archer. In both shows, we are presented with James Bond-esque figures who revel in female attention and espionage, only to have it critique attitudes of the past. Powers in particular is unique as he famously does an un-Bond maneuver in turning down a drunk woman’s advances because “She’s drunk, it wouldn’t be right.” Archer, meanwhile, is portrayed as hated by almost everyone, demonstrating how unbearable such a person would be in real life. Here, the closest thing we come to in satire is the portrayal of the War on Drugs, which raises some good ideas, but ultimately goes nowhere, and has a muddled message at best and an ultraconservative one at worst. I still can’t figure out what the villain’s plan was supposed to accomplish. And while you could ask Vaughn up and down what he was trying to do there, all he will say is that it’s supposed to be satire, which it, of course, isn’t. It all plays like the id of a thirteen-year-old boy. However, unlike other directors who use their id as a tool to create art, like Edgar Wright, Guillermo del Toro or George Miller, the id doesn’t have any counter. Baby is good hearted and treats people with respect, Max battles the patriarchy he helped establish, del Toro’s leads are often women battling a fascist system, so when they indulge in their teen boy fantasies, it never hurts anyone. All Kingsman does is give people rules of being a “gentleman” watered down with sexism and violence, so all it is doing is encouraging the creation of the Gilded Redditor, the man who sits on chat groups and explaining that the reason he is doxxing this actress or journalist isn’t because of sexism fueled by their inability to attract a partner, it’s because of “ethics in journalism.” And while it is kind of cool to see Colin Firth, Taron Edgerton and Mark Strong wear fancy suits, wax poetic about polite society, and then punch someone in the face, it never says anything more than “this is what guys should totally be like, hyuk hyuk hyuk.”
Speaking of sexism, let’s talk about the treatment of women in these films. Vaughn received a series of complaints after the first film, due to the fact that Agent Lancelot, aka Roxy (Sophie Cookson) proved herself the best agent on the force, only to be outshone by the dumb, unlikable Eggsy. Furthermore, the movie has a kind of funny joke involving Princess Tilde offering up anal sex to Eggsy should he save the world, only for him to charge off to do just that. That’s sort of entertaining in concept. Except all these leads to is a gratuitous shot of Aström’s ass. Vaughn was criticized for this, and he tried to hide behind satire (his go-to move), except that’s not satirizing the Bond films. That’s just doing the exact same thing to appease your thirteen-year-old fans, except worse. Vaughn tried to counter this along the way by making Tilde a real character in this film, and yet his way of making her a “real” character is by turning her into the shrill girlfriend that doesn’t understand the importance of Eggsy’s work, and eventually becomes yet another damsel in distress. Again, none of this is offered up as criticism of a genre; it simply exists as part of the narrative because this is the way things should be. What’s worse, instead of redeeming Roxy’s character by making her a real star and agent, the film uses her as incentive by killing her off in the first fifteen minutes, along with a dog (which, why?). How dare you. How dare you kill off your only strong female character at the opening of the film right when she finally gets her chance to shine. How is that necessary, enjoyable, or satiric? The answer is it’s not, and like Merlin, Roxy deserved so much better. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this movie features a super necessary scene where we follow a tracking device inside a woman’s vagina. Satire is dead, folks. We have finally killed it by allowing the id of the Reddit community to read one Kurt Vonnegut book and grow up watching Bill Maher.
However, if I’m being fair, there’s a lot that I want to compliment about this movie. For starters, Julianne Moore’s lair is pretty entertaining. It’s a fabulous set piece modeled on 50s nostalgia, and it makes for an interesting, hilarious location. There’s a use of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” that’s actually fairly powerful. A few of the action sequences have some real skill to them, including one involving a ski lift and the final shootout. And one sequence involving a large pit of cages is wonderfully dystopian in nature, and speaks to what kind of film this would have been if there actually was a little satire involved. However, above all, I want to talk about this film’s secret weapon: Elton John. Elton John plays a version of himself who has been kidnapped by Julianne Moore’s Poppy, who is a huge fan. She makes her captive play piano for her every night, and punishes him when he uses her secret stash of drugs. And let me tell you, John is a f*cking revelation. He gloriously pomps and preens around the film, swearing up a storm, hilariously using drugs, and getting not one, but two great fight sequences, scored to his own songs, and all while wearing the most flamboyant peacock outfit I have ever seen. Every minute he is in this film, it is an absolute joy, and he changes the tone completely. I’m dead serious when I say that if the Academy were properly doing their jobs, Elton John would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his incredible performance as Elton John.
Beyond John’s game-changing turn, I do want to say that most of the performances have some entertainment value. Taron Egerton may play an unlikable dick as street tough-turned-super spy Eggsy Unwin, but he does everything he can to make his character suave, sexy, and cool, and it almost works at times. Colin Firth and Mark Strong rarely ever get a chance to let loose onscreen, so seeing them have fun as Harry and Merlin, respectively, is sort of a joy. I don’t know what exactly Julianne Moore was doing in this film, but she is making choices, and I certainly respect her for them. Tatum may only be in eight minutes of this film, and Jeff Bridges is in even fewer, but both are respectable in their roles, and at least Tatum gets to dance. Berry is sort of wasted in her role, as every scene is undercut by the randomly changing plot, but I will say it is her best work in years (that’s not a high bar, though). And Bruce Greenwood plays the President of the United States for the third time, and quite frankly, he should just do that forever, alternating between serious and goofy forever. Unfortunately, Pedro Pascal and Poppy Delevingne (the least talented Delevingne, and the one whose CGI vagina we get to traverse) are wasted, both due to their own bad acting and the script’s failure to flesh them out (I honestly believe the talented Pascal was an afterthought, brought in to replace a Tatum who had dropped out at the last minute). They are the film’s weak links in an otherwise game cast.
I guess my final comment on this film is that I was just bored. From spy satire to scoring fight scenes to great pop songs I love to people in fancy clothes being awesome, this is a film that should be tailor-made for me, and I just found it off-putting. I’m sure other people will be all about its aesthetic. To be honest, I don’t necessarily blame them. It’s certainly not the worst movie I’ve ever seen; it’s not even the worst film I’ve seen this year. But that’s exactly my problem – it seems harmless enough, which leads to its danger. The problems with this film reflect a dangerous trend in modern society, from the minute issues of overused, ugly CGI to moderate issues of the murdering of satire to the macro issues of rampant, unfiltered sexism. Art reflects the beliefs and values that society accepts, should accept, or should avoid. If we as a culture are going to accept this film as the new standard, then we have no right complaining about the road we continue down. It may not be a terrible film, but it reflects a talented, cruel culture that I don’t want to live in, and I can’t live in. And quite frankly, if you care about art whatsoever, you should feel similarly.