I recently saw–no, make that had the misfortune of being sucker punched by–an initially promising film that squandered its competent storytelling with a superfluous, jarring and gratuitous jab at a thinly veiled parody of a hate group painted with such broad strokes as to crudely slander millions within is own audience.
The perpetrator of this hamfisted bait and switch is Kingsman: The Secret Service. Directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Jane Goldman, Kingsman is loosely based on the comic by Mark Millar. The trailer promised a tongue in cheek spy romp intent on parodying and updating classics of the genre like Bond, Flint, and the Avengers. Its provenance under the proven craftsmanship of Vaughn and Goldman, who previously teamed up on brilliant projects like Stardust and X-Men First Class, gave every reason to expect that Kingsman would at least be competent.
For the most part, the film is competent–a serviceable take on the Hero’s Journey, workmanlike performances all around, thrilling if cartoonish action–which makes its ultimate betrayal of the audience’s trust all the more tragic. It’s like being served one of the lobsters that Tyler Durden peed on while the urine is billed as clarified butter.
Perhaps you haven’t seen the film and the director/writers’ resumes make you skeptical of my objections. Or you may have even seen Kingsman and honestly found nothing objectionable about it. If so, I have three words for you: church massacre scene.
What follows may spoil certain plot points, but I’d have been grateful if someone had spoiled them for me prior to shelling out money for a ticket.
Main antagonist Richmond Valentine (whimsically played by Samuel L. Jackson), has decided that his efforts to combat global warming by funneling huge amounts of his tech fortune into green charities have been wasted. Numbers don’t lie, and the numbers say that no amount of activism or carbon regulation will reverse the deadly warming trend.
Insert odious cliche identifying mankind as a virus infecting the earth and global warming as a fever triggered to rid the host of the infection. But that’s another rant.
However dubious his reasoning, Valentine is consistently portrayed as a man confronting the terrible choice between standing by while knowing that humanity marches toward its inevitable end, or sacrificing most of the world’s populace to save a tiny remnant. He chooses the latter, but maintains a clear aversion to violence (while rationalizing his mass slaughter via a Naked Gun style hypno-device that compels people to murder each other).
So the main conflict is a race to stop a radical environmentalist from killing most of the world in his quest to save it. This detail is significant.
We watch as Valentine’s dastardly plot takes shape, while a young street punk trains to become the archetypal gentleman spy. We know that these two characters will be tested against each other before the end.
But near the middle of the film there’s a scene where a church’s entire congregation is brutally massacred during a Sunday service.
But it’s OK. The church is a hate group–because a couple of characters tell us so. Sure, the congregation is never shown protesting a veteran’s funeral, throwing eggs at a gay wedding, or even kicking a puppy, but the pastor uses the n-word in his sermon. That alone makes him fair game for impalement on a flagpole, right?
And besides, the sermon condemns acts like abortion and sodomy, which orthodox Christians (whom the straw hate group is in no way meant to represent) accept as fundamental human rights, or at least haven’t always regarded as inherently disordered–haven’t they?
Since the pastor’s guilt is self-evident, the audience is excused from feeling vicious glee at his barbaric execution. But what about the score or more of congregants? Fear not! We can safely assume that they shared all of the pastor’s bigoted sentiments since they happened to occupy the same room as him, and voiced hearty Amens to his awkwardly written, prefabricated claptrap. Therefore, it’s perfectly acceptable to cheer on these Modernity blasphemers’ consignment to the lions’ den.
So Valentine gets a successful field test of his mind-control device, a bunch of bigots who won’t be missed anyway are culled in the bargain, and we get the vicarious thrill of seeing them slaughtered. Everybody wins.
Especially the writers and the director, who have shared an unambiguous vision of the revenge fantasies that they nurse against their ideological enemies–or rather the crude stereotypes they imagine their enemies to be.
Think I’m exaggerating? Possibly. If I were, the film’s narrative would justify depicting a church massacre. Let’s see if the scene passes the internal plot consistency test.
Film is primarily a visual storytelling form, so in a competently made film everything you see on the screen was put there deliberately. Consequently, every scene in a movie needs a reason to exist, and that reason must serve the story in order to maintain the narrative.
So let’s see…we have a megalomaniac using a sonic hypno-ray to make a church full of bigots murder each other. Superficially, this scene serves the purpose of establishing the villain as a threat and hinting at the stakes if he succeeds. Seems reasonable.
Except the villain is clearly and repeatedly established as a radical environmentalist. Shouldn’t he be conducting his field test on a boardroom full of oil company executives (or Chinese bureaucrats)?
But the preacher is a racist, and Valentine is black. Those could be factors in the choice of test site, but to avoid feeling forced, that kind of superficial connection needs a scene establishing why Valentine chose these particular racists instead of, say, the KKK or a neo-Nazi group. Instead, it’s left unexplained. Sure, the congregation is depicted as execrable, but they’ll die with the rest of the unwashed masses anyway. Why single them out for special punishment?
Lacking a reason established in the story and integral to the plot, the unavoidable answer is that the film’s creators shoehorned in a detestable bunch of cardboard cutouts that typify Hollywood’s view of what Christians are really like–solely for the pleasure of butchering them on screen. The clumsy dialogue casting these straw Christians as bigots is just a fig leaf added to justify the bloodshed. What the authors of this ignorant, tone-deaf revenge fantasy failed to account for is that Christians are among the most persecuted groups on earth.
Under even glancing scrutiny, the environmental and racial justifications for slaughtering a church full of straw men ring false. The film’s creators meant to jab their fingers in the eyes of a broad segment of their audience, and they weren’t above sacrificing artistic integrity to do it. Consider that Colin Firth’s hiring was contingent upon him performing the church scene. So vital is the scene in Vaughn’s estimation that the whole film is practically a vehicle for it.
To Christian moviegoers and everyone of good will, take warning that Kingsman is an insult hurled at a persecuted demographic by bigots who project their own hatred onto their targets. This is what your self-styled betters in the entertainment industry think of you. Remember to thank Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman for teaching us this lesson. It’s one we shouldn’t soon forget.