Did the follow-up to ‘The Secret Service’ need more stars and less subtlety?
With its second installment, this weekend’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the nascent British super-spy franchise attempts to double down on the over-the-top appeal of the first movie — but in doing so, arguably loses sight of what made the original successful in the first place.
In theory, the “upgrades” visible in The Golden Circle make sense. Not only does the sequel ramp up the star power, with appearances from Channing Tatum, Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges in addition to a surprise appearance from Elton John playing himself, but it expands on the mythology of the fictional universe, introducing the American equivalent of the Kingsman, the Statesmen.
The problem is, 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service wasn’t a movie that sold itself on its star power — although both Michael Caine and Samuel L. Jackson show up in the first trailer, they’re both essentially cameo appearances, with more attention being paid to pushing the culture clash theme of the movie — nor something that succeeded because it offered a new mythology wholesale.
Indeed, if anything, The Secret Service worked because it played with existing mythologies from familiar sources, recycling them into something that was part tribute and part parody, all the while playing against type. It wasn’t only the James Bond riff, which was clearly most obvious; there were nods to multiple different sources — I still think there is more than one Thunderbirds reference in there — and even the casting is metatextual, with Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson playing against type for an additional frisson. Compare that to Channing Tatum or Jeff Bridges in The Golden Circle, both of whom are playing pretty much who you’d expect them to play.
The shift might be explained by the fact that The Golden Circle, unlike The Secret Service, is an entirely original story. Although the first movie deviated considerably from the original Secret Service comic book — the most obvious deviation being that Colin Firth’s character doesn’t exist in the comic, his place being taken by Eggsy’s uncle, Jack London — there is nonetheless a plot and tone for the movie to model itself upon.
The Golden Circle, however, was developed ahead of the release of a second comic book. — indeed, the second comic only launched this month — and it’s possible that the absence of a template allowed the new movie to drift away from some of the more subversive (and interesting) elements of the first. Instead, it’s more its own beast, for better or worse.
Perhaps this is why critics have been so lukewarm about the new movie: Because, freed of the restraints of adaptation and creating a new story whole cloth, The Golden Circle simply doesn’t play by same rules as the original.
The willingness, if not outright giddiness, of the first movie to buck audience expectations — The Secret Service retold spy fiction with the simple admission that people you care about will actually die, bringing the unexpected moment when Colin Firth’s Harry is murdered, which is lifted from the comic book death of Uncle Jack — is replaced by an eagerness to please that happily resurrects characters for the cheap thrill, undeterred by the way it might undercut the dramatic tension of the rest of the movie.
Should the second movie fail to impress its audience, moviemakers do have an out while apologizing for it, of course. A British spy franchise that loses touch with reality and subtlety as it goes on? Perhaps Kingsman hasn’t lost its metatextual edge, after all; instead, it might just be the case that The Golden Circle has shifted from the Sean Connery era of Bond to the Roger Moore era. Maybe Pierce Brosnan can be signed up for a third installment to clear everything up in a suitably unsubtle manner.