For a satire to be effective it needs two things: first, it must understand the staples, patterns, and clichés of the genre and find a way to subvert them without making them unrecognisable; and second, it must also understand the genre’s purpose. And even though it may subvert, poke fun at, or even insult every superficial aspect of that genre, that does not mean it’s also destructive. At its best, satire’s engine is love, and it dismantles a genre in the name of rediscovering why we need this kind of story. Kingsman: The Secret Service is not only an entertaining satire, in its irreverence it manages to accomplish something far more impressive: it’s genuine.
Kingsman is, of course, a send up of the spy genre, and in particular, the shadow in which every spy film is made (whether they admit it or not): James Bond. There are, thus, innumerable references to 007. To highlight just a few:
- The music is recognisably Bondian in many scenes, including the musical punctuation of action sequences and witty moments.
- Many of the locations are also Bondian, including a ski lodge, a mountainside layer, and a row of hotel-quality prison cells (à la Dr. No).
- The villains, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and his hench-woman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), are fully in the Bond tradition of villains with a physical anomaly: Valentine has a lisp and cannot stomach the sight of blood; Gazelle is a double amputee whose lower legs are replaced with blade runners housing two actual blades (this kind of visual pun would also be at home in a Bond film).
- A shoe hiding a blade tipped with poison in the toe is standard issue for a Kingsman, straight out of From Russia with Love (except Bond is on the poisonous end).
- The action sequence at the film’s climax makes repeated use of a first-person perspective reminiscent of GoldenEye for the N64.
- Harry (Colin Firth) tells Eggsy (Taron Egerton) he’ll teach him how to make a proper martini and later, Eggsy orders a drink which is the exact opposite of Bond’s typical order: Bond tends to ask for a vodka martini which would also contain vermouth and, of course, orders it “Shaken, not stirred.” Instead, Eggsy orders a martini made with gin, “stirred for exactly 10 seconds while looking at an untouched bottle of vermouth.”
- Movie posters:
- And I will not spoil the film’s final joke except to say that it is a rather more literal interpretation of Bond’s typically suggestive dénouement.
Of course, there are other references, too, including a rather ingenious tribute to the infamous car chase from The Bourne Identity, and even a very subtle reference to the British icon Bulldog Drummond (to whom Bond owes a great debt) when Eggsy selects a puppy believing it’s a bulldog only to find out it’s a pug. Eggsy also gives the television series 24 a nod in naming his new companion.
In many ways Kingsman undercuts Bond by bringing the spy genre out of the clouds. For one thing, even though the recent Bond films have begun to admit that bodies bleed when they are shot, stabbed, or otherwise assaulted, the violence in Kingsman is much more graphic and life-like than you’ll typically find in a spy movie, particularly Bond. For another, characters in Kingsman not only register shock, and sometimes horror, at the incredible things going on around them, they also actually swear. To borrow an English saying, Kingsman also “takes the piss” out of Bond’s exacting and particular taste. Early on in the film a Kingsman named James – whose code name is, tellingly, Lancelot – attempts to save a kidnapped professor. After handily dealing with the henchmen in the room with a handgun featuring Bond’s iconic silencer, he manages to save a rare whiskey from spilling, identifies it by smell alone, and manages to explain to the professor exactly how “tasteful” it is before he’s unceremoniously sliced in half. It’s an early indication that in this movie, Bond’s brand of heroism is neither useful, relevant, nor effective. This is underlined boldly later in the film with the repeated reference to the much maligned pattern in Bond movies of villains disclosing their entire plan to Bond while he’s captured, and then allow him an opportunity to escape by putting him in elaborate and indirect death trap. As the Kingsman characters reflexively repeat: “This is not that kind of movie.” … Except that it is.
You see, Kingsman is as much a love letter to Bond as it is a two-fingered salute. Not only does Kingsman revel in the zaniness of the early Bond films, many of the Bond references are made with reverence. Gazelle, for example, recalls Dr. No’s metal hands, Tee Hee’s clamps, and Jaws’s metal teeth, but her literal blades are not a gag in the movie. Her action scenes are as awe-inspiring and elegant as they come. But most important of all, Kingsman understands what so often goes unrecognised in Bond: exactly why we need secret agents.
Ian Fleming came from wealth. He’s the grandson of Robert Fleming, a financier who founded the bank Robert Fleming & Co. Ian’s father, Valentine (wink wink), attended school with Winston Churchill (who, incidentally, wrote his obituary) and was a member of Parliament. Ian Fleming was, for all intents and purposes, about as upper class as possible in England without being royalty. Certainly, this leaves an unmistakeable mark on 007 who loves baccarat, skiing, and his Bentley, all things rather out of the grasp of the average English citizen in the 1950s. But Fleming’s Bond, though a snob as far as style goes, is not particularly classist. Bond isn’t highly paid, and while he owns a Bentley it’s only because M allows Bond to keep the £15,000 he wins from Hugo Drax in a game of bridge Fleming’s Moonraker. And in Fleming’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond turns down the offer of a million dollars from Tracy’s father, declaring “Too much money is the worst curse you can lay on anyone’s head.”
But beyond this, James Bond became important to the average British citizen for reasons that are perhaps not readily apparent. In Kingsman, Harry explains to Eggsy that the organization was founded following the First World War, after a generation of young men were killed and many wealthy men were left without heirs. Likewise, James Bond is born in the rubble of World War II (and incidentally, although Ian Fleming never gave Bond an “official” birthday, it is generally agreed his birthday is November 11, 1918). Once again, a generation of young men had been lost, but this time, the British Empire went with them. It was not easy to be British after the war. Britain was on the edge of bankruptcy and in a desperate attempt to hold the Empire together, austerity measures were taken and both rationing and conscription continued. Even bread was rationed, and chocolate was rationed as late as 1954. In fact, shopping for the average household was actually more difficult after the war then during it. Not to mention, barring the bright spots of a royal wedding and hosting the Olympics in 1948, morale was in the gutter. There were many places in London where you could see the underground trains through the holes in the street left from the air raids. And to add salt to the gaping wound, Britain was losing her colonies. The sun was setting on the Empire, rising on America, and the average British citizen knew it.
Then along comes 007. Perhaps Britain was no longer the world’s obvious superpower, but Bond became an icon through which to anaesthetise the pain of that slipping world influence. Bond is a secret agent, he is the most powerful man in the world that nobody knows (well, except for the concierge in every 5-star hotel in the world). Bond became a projection of Britain’s concept of itself as still powerful and influential throughout the world, though now, perhaps, it was only less visible. Not only was Bond saving the world, the “mighty” US deferred to him. Leiter is more of Bond’s sidekick than a strategic ally, and the CIA is only too willing to help Bond out, even on American soil. Oddly enough, Ian Fleming did actually influence the creation of the CIA: he penned a memorandum making recommendations to the Americans about how to set up a secret service.
Yet, Bond wasn’t just a fantasy figure because of his adventures, he was a window into another life, one desperately hoped for by the average citizen. At a time when commercial flying would have been astronomically out of reach for the average Brit, Fleming goes into great detail about what it’s like to go through an airport and board a plane; likewise, in Casino Royale he spends a whole chapter explaining the rules of baccarat; Bond visits the most exotic places in the world (the ghost of Britain’s former colonies – it isn’t a mistake that Fleming so often chooses Jamaica as the setting for his novels, and his own estate, as it didn’t separate from Britain until the early 60’s). Although a modern reader probably wouldn’t notice some of these “exotic” experiences, at the time, Bond’s lifestyle was outrageously out of reach, but it wasn’t held over their heads. Rather, it was offered as comfort, a vicarious escape, and as hope. Bond was very clearly a fantasy about what it could mean to be British. But more than that, Bond’s unfailing ability to save Britain, and the world, made him an avatar of security – he mitigated the real-world loss of Britain’s power, keeping the British self-concept stable, and helped the British people feel proud again.
This aspect of Bond is not one that is often recognised, but to its credit, Kingsman does. but Kingsman takes a slightly different point of view than Bond. The class divide in Britain is front and centre in the film, where the suave, gentleman secret service recruits the working class Eggsy for a shot at becoming a Kingsman. The film’s plot itself also addresses issues of class and who we, consciously or unconsciously, care about and believe are “important.” Eggsy struggles not only with the assumptions others have about him due to his background, but those he has about others. Indeed, rather than condescend to Eggsy’s background, the film rather celebrates his less-than-posh accent and slang.
Of note, too, is that while Bond may not have been classist, he was certainly a lot of other things. Fleming was not immune to the prevailing attitudes of his time and social status about race, sexuality, and gender, and Bond has been back-peddling these attitudes ever since. In a rather brilliant sequence, Harry visits a church in the Southern US whose pastor is preaching and encouraging extreme, and hateful views about basically anyone outside the parameters of a heterosexual WASP. When Harry tries to leave the service and is confronted by the woman sitting beside him he quips: “I’m a Catholic whore, currently enjoying congress out of wedlock with my black Jewish boyfriend who works at a military abortion clinic. Hail Satan, and have a lovely afternoon.” I won’t spoil what happens next, but needless to say, the film’s stance on such bigoted ideas is clear, and in one fell swoop cleans the film of Bond’s murky past. Likewise, in the film’s climax, the “important” people of the world are dealt with in a highly stylized, dramatic fashion that isn’t played as any kind of tragedy, but as pure spectacle.
Which brings us to how Kingsman mirrors the social role Bond occupied after the war. Kingsman not only invokes the lineage of spy fiction, but one of the strongest traditions in English literature: the myths of King Arthur and his knights. Each Kingsman has a code name which corresponds to one of Arthur’s knights: Harry is Galahad, Eggsy’s father and the ill-fated James were past Lancelots, the Kingsman’s equivalent of Q is Merlin (Mark Strong), and the Kingsman “leader” goes by Arthur (played by Michael Caine who has his own history in the spy genre). In addition, not unlike the Knights Code which totes Honour, Honesty, Valour and Loyalty, a Kingsman also follows a code (from the Kingsman official website):
- A gentleman never tells about conquests, private matters, or dealings. His business is nobody else’s.
- A gentleman doesn’t clash in public with enemies or exes, or worse, with out-of-fashion contrasts, colours or styles.
- A gentleman is always happy to serve, whether it’s opening the door, picking up the bill, or merely calling a cab the next morning. Ask him for help and he cannot refuse.
- A gentleman never reacts to rudeness. He pretends he doesn’t recognise it and moves on like it never happened, because it never should have.
- A gentleman is always on target with witty remarks, interesting facts, and conversation starters that bring the best out of everyone.
- A gentleman asks non-invasive questions to keep a conversation going and attention focused on others. He makes them feel like the most interesting person he’s ever met, whether that’s true or not.
Another phrase repeated throughout the film by Harry, and later Eggsy, is “Manners maketh man.” Clearly, for Kingsman, class is not a matter of privilege, but a matter of character. None of the above “rules” requires a social pedigree or great amount of wealth (well, aside, perhaps, from #2 which partly requires a gentleman to always be in fashion – but then, the film coincides with the release of a corresponding clothing line).
Knights are guardians, not autocrats, and in Bond’s tradition, so are spies. Not unlike Kingsman‘s invocation of King Arthur, writer and philosopher Umberto Eco describes Fleming’s Bond novels as presenting a world “made up of good and evil forces in conflict,” a perspective radically at odds with real-world espionage which is so often mired in ambiguity. Eco argues Fleming is neither an historian nor a realist (much to John le Carré’s chagrin): he’s a mythologist. Eco explains the Bond novels (and I would add the movies, even the most recent ones), share the same structure and logic as the fairy tale: “M is the King and Bond is the knight entrusted with a mission; Bond is the knight and the villain is the Dragon; the Lady and Villain stand for Beauty and the Beast; Bond restores the Lady to the fullness of spirit and to her senses – he is the Prince who rescues Sleeping Beauty.” Fleming himself makes several references to St. George and the Dragon throughout the novels, placing Bond in the role of the saint. What is important to acknowledge is the critical importance of myth in forming personal and national identity. Myths become projections of our idealized selves, and, often, beacons by which we navigate national traumas and instability.
There’s a rather clever joke in Kingsman about their tailored suits being literally bulletproof. This is a rather more serious joke than it may appear, because it has, metaphorically, always been true of Bond: his social role has always been to shield us from the ambiguities of real-world politics and the overwhelming weight of grief. Eco suggests that “the memory of his first homicide could have been the origin of the neurosis of James Bond, except that, within the ambit of Casino Royale, either the character or his author solves the problem by non-therapeutic means: Fleming excludes neurosis from the narrative possibilities.” Although Bond has killed countless people, witnessed the deaths and maiming of many lovers and friends, and been tortured himself on several occasions, rather than being crippled by PTSD, he floats from one mission to the next (mostly) untouched. As Eco points out, neurosis is absolutely forbidden in Fleming’s books, and so, in 2006’s Casino Royale, after being poisoned and revived at the last second, Bond casually bandages his broken heart in a clean shirt and his dinner jacket.
It is this bulletproof quality (whether literal or psychological) which Eco suggests “forms the basis for [Bond’s] success.” If Fleming’s villains are over-the-top and “unrealistic” (whatever that means), it is because, according to Eco, Fleming “seeks elementary oppositions; to personify primitive and universal forces.” If their world-destroying plots seem trite and impossible, it is only because Fleming is trying to capture the inexpressible horror of something WWII didn’t invent, but certainly brought to consciousness: crimes against all of humanity. And if the Bond novels and films are repetitive, it is because we don’t yet know how to navigate our own terror about the vulnerability of the world to the secret intentions of those around us, and the game is set to repeat until we are no longer afraid. The bulletproof Spy-Knight is not only an expression of our best self (even for Fleming, the producers of the James Bond films refer to Casino Royale as his “autobiography of dreams”), he is a figure who stands between our fragility and the world’s hidden cruelty.
One cannot miss the poetry of Bond standing in for St George, the patron saint of England, nor for the Kingsman as a valiant Knight of the Round Table. Kingsman may be a fun, satirical dismantling of Bond’s adventures, but it does so to unveil the spy as our modern knight, and exactly why we still need secret agents: If James Bond is immune to neuroses, fear, and trauma, it is because we are not. Kingsman succeeds because it understands this and plays along.