So many directors seem either trapped in the comics-to-movies pipeline or burnt out by it. Plenty of filmmakers have directed game-changing, career-making superhero pictures (Tim Burton, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon), only to step back after a less well-received sequel, while others who started small (Jon Watts, James Gunn) don’t seem able or interested enough to find their way back to more intimate projects. Something about The King’s Man director Matthew Vaughn, though, gives off the impression that he truly loves making comic book films, like a Zack Snyder unburdened by a heavy quasi-mythological vision.
The King’s Man marks Vaughn’s third foray into a comic book world (following Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class), but in particular, he appears to love his James Bond-ish half-spoofs based on the comics by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. How else to explain Vaugn directing a prequel to the first two Kingsman adventures, both of which he also directed? This is the type of project often fobbed off to an editor or visual effects supervisor, someone looking for a big-budget break in their burgeoning directorial career. Instead, Vaughn clocks in happily. If anyone is going to supervise the series’ shift into a surprisingly serious-minded Dad Movie, it’s going to be Vaughn himself.
That is, surprisingly, what The King’s Man is going for: a classier and more Dad-friendly World War I action movie, with frequent but not constant tastes of the old Kingsman ultraviolence. The brash-young-man-and-proper-older-badass dynamic that existed between Taron Egerton and Colin Firth in the earlier films has been flipped into a father-son story about Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), still reeling from the death of his wife, desperately hoping that his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) will avoid jumping into the action as geopolitical tensions escalate and Britain’s entry into World War I looms. The story is never fully passed along to the younger character; this really is Fiennes’ movie all the way, and probably more interesting for it.
Orlando is basically a proto-Kingsman, to the point where the eventual and prequel-required formulation of this independent “secret service” doesn’t have much impact. After all, Orlando is already consorting with Shola (Djimon Hounsou, mainstay of nearly all current film franchises) and Polly (Gemma Arterton), who moonlight as members of his large estate’s staff while working as industrious spies with Mission: Impossible-style specialities and weaknesses. In other words, they’re domestic workers in more ways than one.
That’s a cute idea that also speaks to the way The King’s Man desperately wants to mitigate its aristocratic tendencies while also indulging them. Conrad is told from a young age that “it’s important that people of privilege lead by example, and Orlando’s staff are super-capable heroes. But the movie still revels in his supposed equals happily calling him “your grace.” It’s an apologetically attractive look at colonialism that oddly has Fiennes recalling his character from 1998’s TV adaptation The Avengers (and agreeably weird curiosity, for what it’s worth). In the years since then, Fiennes has become an actor who seems incapable of delivering anything short of full commitment to his performances, a quality put to the test by this movie demanding he work with a straight face throughout.
This more serious business does offer a respite from the gleeful did-I-offend-you-bruv tone of the earlier movies; The King’s Man is Vaughn’s least smirky movie since X-Men: First Class, and barely recognizable as part of the Mark Millar Extended Universe. The remnants of the older movies are mostly the handful of elaborate and still extremely violent action sequences, and the film’s cartoon version of real history, which involves Tom Hollander triple-cast as King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas; the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; and Rasputin (Rhs Ifans), one of the bad guy’s co-conspirators and subject of a setpiece that involves attempting to feed him a poisoned cake. Naturally, things get a bit more physical.
The action sequences, including the skirmish with Rasputin, are still done up in classic Kingsman style: a springy virtual-looking camera zipping around the amped-up fights, making sure to take notice of any and all excessive gore. The big climax feels a bit less sensationalized and more mission-driven than Vaughn’s previous entries — again recalling his X-Men installment, however slightly — with fewer (though not zero) outlandish gadgets. Considering the first Kingsman had Sofia Boutella with knife-legs, Gemma Arterton’s sharpshooting feels almost restrained.
The film’s cartoony bits still stick out, because the journey to the line “time to kill Rasputin” (and the detour away from it; Rasputin ultimately isn’t the movie’s main event) is surprisingly lengthy, as Orlando and Conrad clash over what kind of sacrifices should be expected or volunteered by young men for their country. (This was hinted at in the earlier movies when the origin of the Kingsman organization is explained.) Is this the film series equipped to answer or even ask these questions? Is it worth all of the shifts and accommodations just to make a Kingsman prequel in a slightly different register? This is still a movie about a madman manipulating world events to vengefully pit Germany against England, where the bad guy’s face is concealed to lead up to a big reveal, despite having characterization that’s pretty much limited to “Scottish.”
Still, the tension between Vaughn’s designs on making a more old-fashioned, serious-minded war/spy picture and the usual cheeky battle royale makes The King’s Man more memorable than its predecessor Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a middling retread. Maybe Vaughn really does want to make a whole universe of movies out of a concept that previously seemed one-note. It’s not an especially noble or artistically successful pursuit, but if it keeps him out of trouble and lets the perpetually underserved Gemma Arterton fire off a few rounds, who are we to stop him?