Kingsman: The Secret Service (Review)

Kingsman - The Secret ServiceKingsman is not a book (now a film) that could exist without James Bond. The entire book is built upon the mythos that Fleming popularised, of the suave secret agent who is incredibly charming and incredibly deadly.

Kingsman opens with that concept – a daring rescue pulled off by a character who is basically Bond. Bad guys are shot, there’s a car chase scene, even a Union Jack parachute. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

Kingsman isn’t a straight take on spy fiction – it’s more of a pastiche. It takes all of the tropes and archetypes from such books and films, in order to lampshade and subvert them. Suave superspies and villains are all present, but they don’t work in quite the same way; the spies are less invulnerable, (both physically and emotionally) and the villains are more pedestrian.

Jack London is one of the aforementioned secret agents. He’s effortlessly sophisticated, incredibly effective, perfectly dressed. And he has an embarrassing family, with a nephew who keeps on getting arrested for petty crimes.

Gary is a delinquent living on a council estate, frequently drunk and frequently arrested. It’s mostly fine though, because he has a rich uncle who keeps on making problems go away.

Fed up with constantly solving Gary’s problems, London gets his nephew a place on the training program for secret agents. Now Gary has to cope with the twin troubles of sophisticated society and espionage, while London can return to his primary focus – preventing criminal masterminds from placing the world in jeopardy.

There are really two books twining around each other here. One that is essentially a straight Bond story, that could stand on its own with the other aspects of the book removed. The other is one about spy stories – about the way they work, about how they connect to the real world, and so on. The first aspect makes the book entertaining, but it’s the second aspect that makes Kingsman really shine.

I like things that play with and subvert the reader’s expectations – that’s the first and most noticeable thing that Kingsman does well. Within the first few pages, a series of expectations and tropes are set up, and then the rug is pulled out from under the reader’s feet. Cultural expectations can be extremely powerful (look at how this video builds up a whole range of assumptions without being direct), and the way that Kingsman plays with them adds a lot of impact to certain scenes. You get more of a kick from the humour and violence this way.

Kingsman has both of those – humour and violence – in spades. With a couple of dramatic exceptions, the violence is the sanitised, weightless sort that you expect from Bond films – people are hurt, and people die, but it’s the “falling backwards in a cloud of smoke” kind of death, rather than ten minutes of agony holding intestines.

The characters are strongly-constructed, but heavily based on archetypes; it’s a deliberate and knowing choice by the writer, and so not a problem. Very few of the characters are as simple as their archetype demands – London has a softer side, the Bond girl is entirely aware of the genre’s conventions, and the villain is rather pathetic, on a personal level. The interactions between Gary and London are a particular strength – in the space of a short book, you can see the relationship develop from mutual contempt to fierce loyalty and pride.

The only thing I don’t really like about Kingsman is the portrayal of ordinary people. Gary comes from a council estate, and the people there are shown to have all of the faults and depravities that the most virulently classist person could possibly dream up. They’re ugly, they’re stupid, they’re criminal. Now, whether that’s a flaw in Kingsman depends rather a lot on why it’s there – there are several possible reasons that I can see.

Class is one of the main themes of the book, and by demonising the working class like this, the book makes the difference between upper and lower very clear, which serves the narrative. There has to be an obvious divide so that Gary can be effectively displaced, so he can be a fish out of water. Presenting the working class as almost subhuman allows there to be a stark difference in class, allows London to be seen as entirely separate and other.

Gary’s plot arc is one of escape – he leaves a terrible situation to get to a better one. That’s something that is also supported by making the denizens of the council estate seem so unrelentingly vile – it doesn’t seem like progression or an improvement if his initial situation is alright.

There’s also the factor that Kingsman is, in some ways, an homage to Ian Fleming. In the original Bond novels, class was not a massive factor: there was one class featured, and that was upper. While Bond might spend time in gypsy camps or in the criminal underbellies of foreign countries, he was British, and didn’t really acknowledge much of a British underclass. All society was his and M’s society, and that society was Blades. Every character who springs easily to mind was at least middle-class, at home playing baccarat or in evening dress.

So to an extent then, Kingsman is more honest; it doesn’t ignore an entire segment of society. It presents Britain as having a class system, and shows both sides of that coin. Both London and Gary come from somewhere, they aren’t just immortal archetypes with an 00- number. Britain isn’t presented as a genteel utopia, but as somewhere where crimes do happen, and there are still significant social problems.

Still, it bugs me slightly. All of the above aims could have been achieved without making the council estate seem quite so scummy, without every working class character except Gary lacking any redeeming qualities – the very first scene set on the estate shows racism, homophobia, children with drugs and domestic abuse.

I came across this interview with the writer, Mark Millar. In it, he talks about his motivation for giving Gary that background:

“I grew up on a housing estate, and the reason I really wanted to create Eggsy is because I was seeing so many demonised housing estate characters,” says Millar. “My experience growing up on a housing estate is that it wasn’t people who didn’t want to work, or who were vile or disgusting; it was people who had a piano in their front room, or were teachers, but who couldn’t afford to buy a place. It wasn’t the way you see housing estates portrayed in Channel 4 dramas, middle-class people writing about disgusting archetypes.”

Despite the best intentions, Millar has created exactly what he was aiming not to – the portrayal of the estate isn’t one that shows the people as hard-working but poor, but one that shows them as “vile or disgusting”. Gary escapes, which to an extent shows social mobility, but that escape only comes with the assistance of the upper classes, and everyone else is left behind, wallowing in squalor.

I’m not sure if it is intended satire that didn’t quite come off, or if it’s just an oversight on the part of the author. Still, it leaves something of a bad taste in my mouth from a book that I otherwise really liked.

Kingsman is an entertaining, well-constructed spy story. It’s also an exploration of the spy genre as a whole, and a book that drags you in really successfully. Despite the last five hundred words of complaining, I would recommend it – the treatment of class detracts from the book, but definitely doesn’t ruin it. I enjoyed Kingsman a lot.

Buy it here.

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