The King’s Man, the latest entry in the Kingsman franchise, debuted to tepid reviews and barely managed to make back its $100 million budget. While other factors — including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic delaying its release and leading to a decrease in viewers for adult fare — may have shaped this reception, one thing is clear: the Kingsman franchise has steadily lost its luster. It’s a shame because the first film in the series, Kingsman: The Secret Service, showed the potential for a spy franchise that could have rivaled James Bond, Mission: Impossible, and Jason Bourne.
Based on the Icon Comics series The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, The Secret Service reveals that Kingsman is an independent spy agency founded in the aftermath of World War I, with a tailor shop as a front and agents who take their code names from Arthurian myth. Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) is pulled into Kingsman’s orbit thanks to Harry Hart/Agent Galahad (Colin Firth). Hart was saved as a young agent by Eggsy’s father. Hart inducts Eggsy into the Kingsman agency, as the young man learns to become a secret agent and stop Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) from launching a controlled worldwide genocide.
A Promising Start to the Kingsman Franchise
Kingsman: The Secret Service earned renown for paying homage to and subverting the tropes in spy films, as well as the dizzying action sequences. The film’s standout sequence has to be the scene where Hart fights a church full of white supremacists that have been driven into a killing rage due to Valentine’s technology. Vaughn, with the help of editors Eddie Hamilton and Jon Harris, manages to make the sequence feel like a seamless single take packed full to the brim with inventive kills. And the ensemble cast is stacked full of talent; Egerton and Firth have a wonderful rapport, it’s always fun to see Michael Caine and Mark Hamill in supporting roles, and the film served as a star-making turn for Sofia Boutella.
The Secret Service turned out to be a critical and commercial success, grossing over $400 million during its theatrical run. Naturally, 20th Century Fox greenlit a sequel in 2015, and two years later Kingsman: The Golden Circle premiered in theaters. It features a new enemy in the form of Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), who runs the titular “Golden Circle,” a worldwide drug cartel. When the Golden Circle decimates the Kingsman organization, Eggsy and Kingsman quartermaster Merlin (Mark Strong) travel to Kingsman’s American counterpart Statesman, teaming up with Statesman agent Tequila (Pedro Pascal) and learning that Hart survived being shot in the head by Valentine.
‘The Golden Circle’ Begins to Unravel the Kingsman
The issues with The Golden Circle begin with the return of Firth. While Firth is a great actor, his return at Hart undermines Eggsy’s character journey from the first film. The Secret Service was a coming-of-age story in addition to a spy caper, as Eggsy learned to be his own man while working with Kingsman and losing Hart was integral in that journey; bringing Hart back only served as a desperate attempt to recapture the chemistry that Firth and Egerton had in the first film. It’s similar to the Men in Black sequels, which kept attempting to recapture the rapport between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.
The Golden Circle also boasts an ensemble cast to rival The Secret Service, but doesn’t know how to properly utilize them. Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges essentially make glorified cameos as Statesman agent Whiskey and its chief Champagne, respectively; the same goes for Halle Berry as tech specialist Ginger Ale. The film also decides to kill off Eggsy’s friend Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who took up the mantle of Kingsman agent Galahad. It’s not a good look when your female characters are either sidelined or killed off, and I think Vaughn missed an opportunity to build upon Eggsy and Roxy’s friendship. That’s saying nothing of the utterly deranged appearance by Elton John. Yes, Elton John was in this movie.
The film also attempts to top its predecessor in terms of violence, though Vaughn’s signature style is reduced to shootouts and car chases. And the screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman decides to throw plot twist after plot twist at the audience. Poppy attempts to blackmail the President of the United States, but he’s willing to let millions of people die to end the war on drugs and put her out of business. When Poppy is killed after a literal taste of her own medicine, Tequila attacks Hart and Eggsy, revealing that he wants to see all drug users die due to his pregnant wife being killed by two drug-using thugs. However, this motivation is dulled by the fact that he also wants to profit from selling Statesman Whiskey as people will turn to alcohol after drugs are eliminated. Clearly he forgot that alcohol is a type of drug and can also lead to addiction.
An Origin Story That Falls Flat
Despite its issues and more mixed reviews, The Golden Circle was also a box office hit. This led to the development of The King’s Man, which serves as the origin story of the Kingsman franchise; Orlando Oxford (Ralph Finnes), together with his butler Shola (Djimon Honsou) and maid Polly (Gemma Arterton) attempt to stop a mysterious cabal from launching World War I. Meanwhile, Oxford struggles with raising his son Conrad (Harris Dickerson), who wants to join the war, flying in the face of the promise Oxford made to his dying wife.
The major issue with The King’s Man is its tonal confusion; one minute it’s a gritty war epic that attempts to show the gravity of World War I and also critique the use of violence to solve problems (which is…an interesting way to take the series due to its stylized action sequences); the next, it features Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) licking Oxford’s bullet wound and growling like a tiger while talking about his sexual conquests. The Secret Service was able to perfectly balance its more ludicrous elements with genuine heart. Somewhere along the way, Vaughn lost sight of that.
The secret cabal of historical figures, while a good concept, is utterly ridiculous in execution. Figures like Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Bruhl) and Rasputin make sense; others, like Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner) and Vladimir Lenin (August Diehl) are rather puzzling. The worst offender is revealed in the mid-credits sequence; Adolf Hitler (David Kross), who is inducted into the cabal. Once again: this movie ends with Adolf Hitler being inducted into a secret society that orchestrates major world events, an utterly insane story decision that has rather troubling implications. Vaughn has said he’d love to film a sequel to The King’s Man, but he should stop and look at what made The Secret Service work before returning to this world. After all, manners maketh man — or in this case, a good film.