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Friday, February 13, 2015

Matthew Vaughn and Kingsman in a Post Dark Knight World

In a recent issue of SFX magazine, director Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass, X-Men: First Class) ranted against action movies being "Nolan-ized". He stated:

"People want fun and escapism at the moment. Look at the success of Guardians of the Galaxy. I think Nolan kick-started a very dark, bleak style of superhero escapism, and I think people have had enough of it."

I think it's funny how we all tend to "blame" Christopher Nolan for the serious brand of superhero and action movies we seemed to have gotten in the 2000's thanks to the incredible commercial and critical success of The Dark KnightNolan takes all of his films and the world his characters inhabit very seriously. The funniest moment in all of his films is probably the scene in Inception where Joseph Gordon-Levitt steals a kiss from Ellen Page. It’s chuckle-worthy, but it shouldn’t be the most hilarious moment of a 9 film span. The word “gritty” gets thrown around so much that it seems to be a law that you must use it when describing a Nolan vehicle. But that’s Christopher Nolan for better or worse, and we all seem to take him for better.

However, The Dark Knight wasn’t the first gritty, serious action film of the 2000’s, it was just the best one. Matt Damon had made three Bourne movies and The Departed before The Dark Knight was released. Casino Royale, the “gritty” new-and-improved James Bond film was released in 2006 and of course Nolan had previously made Batman Begins. However, when we think back on that era of action films, the one we seemingly come back to time and time again is The Dark Knight. That’s because being first doesn’t always mean being the best when it comes to pop culture. In fact, it’s probably better you’re not first so that the mainstream is prepared for you when you come. Nirvana wasn’t the first grunge band in the history of rock-and-roll, but that’s because we don’t remember (or care about) The Meat Puppets or The Pixies.

I’m not making any sort of judgment call on this era of action films, but that’s just the reality of the situation. I think our culture was just ready for these humor-free, extremely serious, darker action films. Action films after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men culminated to Ang Lee’s Hulk and Ben Affleck's Daredevil. We started seeing a shift in the early 2000’s as these types of films starting getting darker and making more of a commentary of our time- especially as we started to shift towards science fiction action like Speilberg’s Minority Report and Will Smith’s I, Robot. We still had campy and over-the-top action films during this time that were still good like Jason Statham’s The Transporter and J.J. Abrams Mission: Impossible III, but they seem to get swept under the rug in place of these darker action films.

I do think that Matthew Vaughn is correct in that there's now a swing in the other direction. It's odd to think that a film as great at The Dark Knight could have any sort of backlash, but there has been one of sorts. Maybe not an intentional one, but thanks to Marvel films and their dominance on the superhero genre these days, I do think we're ready to see more levity in our action films. Or maybe we can only stand seriousness for a limited amount of time. All films need humor in it, if anything to cut the tension. It's why the first season of "Breaking Bad" is tough to get through because it's extremely tense with little to no humor. It wasn't until the introduction of Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman as the comic relief did the show step into another, high gear. We've had a taste of the tense and seriousness and now we're ready to laugh and have fun again.

And boy howdy does Kingsman: The Secret Service and Matthew Vaughn know how to have fun. It's bloody, it's violent, it's funny, it's simple, and it's just a damn good time at the theaters. Frankly, if you don't like Kingsman, then you just don't like movies. 

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a tale you've seen and heard 1,000 times before. Our hero (here played incredibly by newcomer Taron Egerton) is young, down on his luck, and is wasting his potential. Partially in thanks to the actions of his father, he's recruited to fulfill his destiny and become a hero. While in training, he's constantly being reminded he doesn't deserve to be there, but thanks to the help of his mentor as well as his own skill and ingenuity, he rises above all else to defeat the bad guy and save the world.

However, it's not the story that's important here, but the storyteller. Matthew Vaughn is not interested in story per se, he's interested in how that story is told. He wants people to have fun at the theater. He wants to make them laugh (and there are some legitimate laugh out loud moments), he wants the movie goers to smile, and he wants to have them stand up and cheer when the film is over (which happened at the show I went to).

There's many meta moments in the film that show you exactly where Matthew Vaughn is coming from. One in particular stands out. The star of the film Galahad (Colin Firth) is having dinner with the super-villain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) and they're having a discussion about spy and action films. Galahad says he's not very interested  in spy movies nowadays because they take themselves too seriously. Valentine brings up older action films like the James Bond franchise and how he grew up wanting to be a secret agent. Galahad states he always sympathized with the villain because that's what always elevated those types of films. It's little moments like this that Vaughn out into his film where you need to stand out nowadays if you want to make an excellent action movie.

Not only does Matthew Vaughn have the meta winks and nods down pat, but the action in the film is just outstanding. You can get a sense of it from the trailers, but it doesn't do it justice. The stylized type of violence in this film is one that literally has you on the edge of your seat, There is a training scene early on in the film that is just glorious and after it ended I whispered to my wife, "Holy shit, that was a great scene." You know how it ends because the plot needs to go forward, yet you're just enthralled with the experience anyways. That's what Kingsman: The Secret Service is- a predictable film that you know how it will end but you love the shit out of it anyways thanks to the breath-taking journey you went on.

When we remember action film of the 2010's, Kingsman: The Secret Service may not come immediately to mind, but it is one of the films that stands head and shoulders above the rest. It perfectly exemplifies the humor and adrenaline rush that action films were so sorely missing a decade ago.

As generic as this script is and as much as Matthew Vaughn might dislike the comparison, there are a lot of similarities between Kingsman and The Dark Knight- at least in terms of genre bending. Obviously The Dark Knight completely changed the game, but Kingsman did many things that I didn't think you could do in a Bond style action flick. Maybe it's because of how generic the story is that it allowed Vaughn to take some of the turns that this film takes.

Yet very obviously, The Dark Knight and Kingsman: The Secret Service could not be any less alike, The Dark Knight is a film that treats its world like a masked vigilante were alive and kicking today. it's devoid of humor and it's an action film with actually very little action. Kingsman is purposefully, cartoony, meta, funny, and knows very well that it is a movie and what kind of movie it wants to be. However, the films do have one major thing in common: they're both films I loved immensely and couldn't stop raving about once the ending credits rolled.



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