Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Kingsman: It's okay to be poor as long as you're rich

Every once in a while, the blogqueen or I will send the other a rant that begins with the phrase "So because I don't make good decisions, I'm watching..." and ends when we lose the ability to express ourselves in terms other than 'WTF' or 'nope-nope-nope-nope-nope-NOPETOPUS'.  In this case, the work was Kingsman: The Secret Service, a spy flick from earlier this year that could not possibly try harder to be a throwback to the days of James Bond films with moon lasers and razor hats.  For verisimilitude, it is also a throwback to the days when rich straight white men murdered their way to heroism while denigrating every other demographic.

(Content note: misogyny, racism, threat of animal harm, torture, ableism.  Fun content: Hari Potter.)

Now, I watch plenty of middling-to-bad movies and don't bother inflicting my thoughts about them on you all, partly because I like you and I want good things for you.  But what fascinated me about Kingsman wasn't that it was a bad movie.  It's that it was a bad movie in complex and subtle ways that were both ever-present and completely unnecessary.  One or two passes over the script could have salvaged it from its many, many racist, sexist, and intriguingly classist aspects and produced a campy spy flick for the modern day.  Instead, we basically got Microaggression: The Action Movie.

The first time I tried to watch Kingsman, I turned it off during the opening scene, just after a series of explosions in some ancient building in "The Middle East" (they could not be bothered to pick a specific country) cause exploding wreckage to bounce up and form the opening credits.  I don't know, maybe this building was just some old granary, but it looks like it's about five thousand years old, so I cannot help wondering if it might not have some historical or spiritual significance.  Dunno.  Credits gag!  Our first-generation heroes, who all have codenames from Arthurian myth, keep one generically brown terrorist to interrogate (with the whole "I'm going to count down from ten", plus shooting him in both knees on "three" because torture works, dammit) before said terrorist produces a hidden grenade and the newbie dies saving his bros.  Noble Galahad delivers the bad news to newbie's wife and tiny son, and promises to have the kid's back if ever he needs help.  Fast-forward to said kid's young-adulthood, when he goes by the nickname Eggsy and has discarded his excellent grades, athletic prowess, and several months of marine training in favour of being a drunken delinquent who picks fights in bars.  Nothing we haven't seen before in an origin story.  Basically the 2009 Captain Kirk with a working-class London accent.

I won't recap the whole movie that specifically, because I value our friendship (how are you), but in short there is some kind of terrible conspiracy going on and agent Lancelot has been killed tracking it down, so they need a new Lancelot, and Galahad nominates Eggsy for the job.

Here's where the movie caught my attention: it tries to be socially aware, at least in regards to classism.  Eggsy starts out dismissive of Galahad, specifically stating that anyone he knows would have done just as well in life if they'd started out with the privileges that an aristocrat does.  Galahad is of course a Good Dude and agrees, but the tension of rich/poor remains throughout the film--Eggsy's rivals in training are the posh kids who ask whether he went to Oxford or Cambridge, the villains are all the uber-rich who think the world would be better off if we just killed all the poor people, and the weaknesses of charity-driven societal change are a key plot point.  On the surface, the closest thing this movie has to a message is that being a classy gentleman has nothing to do with economic class and everything to do with attitude, and most rich people are scum who can't be trusted because they're so arrogant.

That's the surface message, I mean.  The problem here is that Kingsman also says a lot of stuff that we're not supposed to take as its message, and those things tend to be at extreme odds with the above.  It can be as subtle as their suits: not long after Galahad has told Eggsy that he doesn't need to change his accent or be rich to be a gentleman, he says the absolute first thing he must have is "a bespoke suit, never off the peg".  From a Savile Row shop.  I'm not sure about varying exchange rates and all that, but I'm pretty sure that's going to cost roughly all of the money you have ever touched in your life, so right off the bat we've pretty well scuttled the idea that gentlemanliness isn't tied right up tight with sleeping on top of a big pile of money.  Or we have the very origin of the Kingsman spy agency:
Since 1849, Kingsman Tailors have clothed the world's most powerful individuals. In 1919, a great number of them had lost their heirs to World War I. That meant a lot of money going uninherited. And a lot of powerful men with the desire to preserve peace and protect life. Our founders realized that they could channel that wealth and influence for the greater good. And so began our adventure. An independent international intelligence agency operating at the highest level of discretion. Without the politics and bureaucracy that undermine the intelligence of government-run spy organisations.
So, while rich snobs are terrible, this heroic organisation was also founded by a bunch of old rich dudes who didn't like the idea of being accountable to anyone while they shot and poisoned their way to world peace.  And that's when we run into the much more pervasive theme of the movie, which is that unaccountable power is only bad when it's in the hands of the wrong sort of people.

Let's talk about some other demographics.  I can think of only three notably characters who aren't white: the terrorist in the first scene, the main villain (Richmond Valentine, played by Samuel L Jackson making a bad decision), and his personal assassin/assistant, who goes by the name Gazelle and has prosthetic feet that are also swords.  So, Arab terrorist, Black megalomaniac, and Algerian femme fatale who does lots of gymnastic fighting.  Let's talk about women: in addition to Gazelle, we have Eggsy's mother (routinely beaten by her new husband), Roxy (another Kingsman candidate about whom I have so much to say), and a two-scene Swedish princess who first refuses to cooperate with the villain and then literally rewards Eggsy with sex immediately after he saves the world.  Let's talk about LGBT+ characters haaaahahaha as if.  But before we really dig into the terrible treatment of the women, there is a fascinating contrast in heroic masculinity and villainous femininity that is once again at odds with the movie's stated position.

Our Heroes are, whether male or female, Manly.  They wear suits and drink hard liquor and routinely handle giant guns.  In one of his defining scenes, father-figure Galahad rescues Eggsy from some street punks by locking the doors to the pub and solo brawling them to unconsciousness, then brushing the whole brutal scene as needing to 'blow off steam'.  (He prefaces this with his favourite phrase, 'manners maketh man', to emphasise that he is classy and only doing this because they were rude.)  Conversely, the villain Valentine is a flawless example of feminisation and queer-coding: he faints at the sight of blood, speaks with a pronounced lisp, and shows no attraction to his overtly sexualised assistant.  (That one's a question for the ages: is the lack of attraction because he's queer-coded, or because she's an amputee and therefore not a legitimate sex object?  There are so many flavours of terrible to choose from!)  Our rafts of white men, even the unpleasant ones, do masculinity right, while the black villain is at any moment one wrist-flutter away from spontaneously generating a feather boa.  I'm pretty sure that is not a coincidence!  On a fractionally-less-obvious note, the motivation for his villainy is ostensibly his deep-seated concerns about climate change and sustainability--he's not in it for power or money, but because he's a berserk tree-hugger.  Also a deeply unmanly motivation.  Everyone knows trees are for girls.

Because Valentine can't bear to directly inflict violence, he's decided to outsource that job to literally everyone: his master plan to save Earth is to "cull" the human population with a global broadcast that drives aggression instincts through the roof and suppresses all inhibitions, thus sparking a worldwide brawl.  Only the chosen few who agree with his plan--aristocrats, rich people, heads of state including the entire British Royal Family and President Obama--will be given special implants that protect them from the signal.  And can also be used to blow them up if they try to warn anyone.  It's a howlingly obvious spoiler that their tech dude hacks into the system and explosively decapitates all of Valentine's minions during the climactic sequence, which coincidentally also results in the colourful and classically-accompanied deaths of basically all our world leaders, explicitly including the entire British Royal Family and President Obama.  (Since he has lines, I guess Obama could be counted as a fourth non-white character, although we never see his face and, as noted, he is present mostly to be murdered in a funny way.)

But back to Roxy, who is fascinating to me: she's not the love interest.  At all!  She is introduced in a super typical way, being nice to Eggsy during their testing while the posh boys are jerks, and they have some close moments when they nearly die during the more brutal tests.  In most action movies, this would guarantee makeouts in the last thirty seconds, but not here.  In fact, Roxy passes the final test to become Lancelot when Eggsy washes out.  Oh--but I have distracted myself again, because I need to note that as soon as the candidates were given puppies to raise during training, I just knew they were going with the old 'your final test of loyalty is to kill your dog on command', which I know is a story that was often told about Nazi soldiers but I cannot find a reliable source for.  Point is, Eggsy refuses to shoot his pug while Roxy pulls the trigger and discovers it's a blank so the dogs are never harmed.  When Eggsy is told this later, the movie acts as if he has been taught an important lesson, but I'm not sure what that was supposed to be.  It would be evil to kill the dogs, but it's 100% morally upright to only accept agents who are willing to kill a dog on command for no stated reason?  We can trust Kingsman because they would only order you to do something that appears monstrous when it's actually harmless?  This is what I'm talking about when I say the movie supports giving total and unaccountable power to the Right People.

Roxy again: after the agency gets gutted in the third-act twist, she is one of the only remaining reliable agents, so she must overcome her Flaw (her fear of heights, which makes her character multidimensional and not just a sexy prop, obvs) and use a low-Earth-orbit balloon-chair to fly to the edge of space to blow up one of Valentine's mind-control satellites.  She does so in spite of various setbacks, thus expending an appreciable fraction of the movie's special effects budget.  This means that she can't be fighting alongside Eggsy as he invades the enemy compound on foot, obviously.  Now, at first I thought--nay, hoped--this was going to be another case like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, where the girl literally saves the world on her own while the camera is focused on the boy having an action scene.  My hopes were dashed, of course.  She destroys the satellite and plummets back to the ground, with the mind-control network broken, but it turns out Valentine is able to just make a phone call and borrow a friend's satellite in roughly the same place thirty seconds later, making her entire voyage moot.  Eggsy instead has to save the day by defeating Gazelle in single combat and then killing Valentine with one of Gazelle's sword-feet.

This works, because (I am not exaggerating, I would not do that with a detail this magnificently stupid) Valentine's mind-control system only works while he personally holds down the button.  Yeah.  It's a doomsday device that turns off if the big bad lifts his hand off the biometric scanner.  It's not even, like, click once to begin murder-riots, double-click to stop riots.  This device ends the world with the same interface that we use to fill drinks at a soda fountain.

The very last scene, after Eggsy has had his Reward Buttsex (they are super-specific about this, btdubs) with the imprisoned princess, shows him returning home in his expensive suit to invite his mother to leave her abusive new husband and come live with him.  She is of course too timid and asks him to leave, and he begins to, until the husband says something impolite and Eggsy just replicates the previous 'manners maketh man' schtick.  Because he can forgive abusing his mom, but if you call him a chicken, he's got to beat you senseless.  Azathoth preserve me.

So, final tally: all surviving characters are white, almost everyone is male, everyone is straight, the two competent women are respectively evil (and killed) or the narrative goes out of its way to make them irrelevant, and you don't have to be rich to be a gentleman but you do have to wear suits that only rich people can afford.

Back in the middle of the movie, we get a truly fascinating moment.  Valentine is about to test his berserker ray on a church full of horrible bigots, and Galahad is inside investigating, brimming with disgust at their hatefulness.  He moves to leave and a woman tries to stop him, so he responds thusly:
I'm a Catholic whore, currently enjoying congress out of wedlock with my black Jewish boyfriend who works at a military abortion clinic. So, hail Satan, and have a lovely afternoon, madam.
We are absolutely meant to think that Galahad is a stupendous badass in this moment.  Sure, he's claiming to be gay (among other things), but he's doing so in order to stick it to those awful people who think there's something wrong with The Gays, or The Blacks, or The Jews, or pro-choice people, et cetera.  Because those kinds of bigots are wretched and we should absolutely look down on them because we're so much better than them.  I mean, yes, we're also making a movie in which people of any of those demographics are either nonexistent or evil, but... that's because they're not relevant to the story, man.  Gay rights are something that you reference in order to prove you're better than other people, not something that would actually drive you to give LGBT+ people some representation in a genre that traditionally devalues them, in a movie that is explicitly about how good privileged people need to open themselves up and respect and give opportunities to the underprivileged.  What kind of social justice trash is that?

I don't know what it would take to make Kingsman a good movie, but I do know that a handful of fairly minor changes would have made it a much better movie.  Eggsy should not be white.  (Personally, given the makeup of London, I'd suggest he should be Indian, like Harry Potter.)  Roxy should be fighting alongside Eggsy during the climactic sequences, not sidelined into some special effects sequences with zero narrative impact.  Galahad should actually have a black Jewish boyfriend.  When Eggsy returns to rescue his mother in the end, he gets his own style that doesn't purely mimic Galahad, but expresses his own preferences and background, especially if that means, for example, incorporating traditional Indian dress.  They can, if absolutely necessary, keep the gun-and-dog test of character, except the correct answer is 'refuse to shoot, because a Kingsman will not do something unnecessarily evil without a good reason' and the guns are loaded with blanks in case the candidate is a terrible person.  Valentine needs much more drastic work as a character, but his best moment is when he trolls a billionaire dinner guest by serving McDonald's, so definitely run with that aspect of his persona.  Valentine throws a twist into the movie's whole privileged/commoner dynamic by being a guy who started with nothing and made himself incredibly wealthy, which puts him in a spectacular position to comment on economic class from multiple perspectives, especially pretensions of superiority.  My god, you've got Sam Jackson playing your villain, give the man something of substance to work with.

There are no reasons for any of the above things.  There is no plot-related necessity for Eggsy to be white.  There's no reason to specifically make Roxy useless.  There's no reason for the dog test, or for Galahad to insist gentlemen wear expensive suits, or for Valentine to be so extensively feminised.  You can drop all of those elements without changing the plot of the movie in the slightest.  They are there only because the writers liked them.  (I was so unsurprised during the credits to discover it was based on a work by Mark Millar.)

When this movie was new, some folks said it was a male wish-fulfillment epic in a comparable place to Jupiter Ascending and its nonsensical female fantasies.  Apart from finding it personally offensive that anyone would suggest Kingsman represents my wishes, I am now compelled to watch Jupiter Ascending to determine whether it has anything like the same kind of bloodlustful hatred in its heart for the Wrong Sort of People.  (I would bet a bulletproof bespoke Savile Row suit that it does not.  I have mostly seen it called 'confusing', to which I can only say 'if you want confusion, try to figure out what Kingsman is saying about hereditary wealth'.  But Kingsman has a sequel in the works and Jupiter Ascending does not.)  So, expect that soon, and because I'm now wondering how difficult it would be to write a not-bigoted spy story for the modern day, please do make further suggestions in the comments on how to improve on the classic spy tropes and their terrible implications.

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