Kingsman: The One-Percent Apocalypse
I went to watch Kingsman: The Secret Service the day after Valentine’s Day. My husband and I were eager to see a movie, any movie really, that didn’t involve talking animals. The choices were limited for those us who refuse to engage Fifty Shades of Grey, so we settled upon Kingsman because it was the only film that seemed unlikely to offend either of us. Kingsman appeared to be yet another dumb-yet-entertaining action flick. After all, there were secret agents and agencies, a nefarious villain and his deadly female sidekick, slick fight scenes, and cartoonish violence. The beginning of the film fulfilled those expectations with an unexpected sense of humor about the campiness of previous generations of spy films, especially those involving James Bond. The film centers on senior agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who’s attempting to make right a tragic ending to a mission from 17 years ago. He’s a smartly dressed and well-mannered gentleman, who also happens to be a honed fighter with all kinds of intriguing gadgets (bulletproof umbrella!). His working class protege, Eggsy (Taron Egerton), is mouthy, scrappy, and resourceful. Eggsy competes for a spot in Kingsman, the secret and independent agency of spies made up of rich, white British men. His competition are upper-class dudebros with the right schooling and accents, and two women with similar backgrounds but kinder dispositions.
As the movie shifted between Eggsy’s training and international intrigue around climate change, the motivations of the villain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) took a decidedly doomsday bent.
“There’s an apocalypse,” I whispered to my husband. “There always is,” he responded. My funny action flick had transformed into an end-is-near film.
The billionaire villain, who had been seeking a solution for global warming, decides instead to “cull” the human race. He gives away SIM cards for cell phones, which allow free calling, texting, and web surfing on his network. Unsurprisingly, the masses plug the SIM cards into their phones, and Valentine’s doomsday device emits a signal that turns them into rage monsters. Meanwhile, he offers the extremely wealthy, politicians, and celebrities an implant that protects them from the signal and its effects. There’s even a bunker tucked inside a snow-covered mountain for the 1% to stay safe and entertained while the world ends.
When Valentine’s plan was revealed, I first thought this was a reversal of apocalyptic visions, in which the oppressed and downtrodden emerge the victors in a world torn asunder. The 1% would remain safe while the rest of humanity violently killed one another with brute force. Forget the meek, the ruling classes would have their utopia with a world no longer under the threats of global warming and overpopulation. Valentine wanted the rich to inherit the earth.
To test the doomsday device, Valentine, who happens to be squeamish about the sight of blood, targets a small church in Kentucky. Unsurprisingly, this church, likely modeled on Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas, is filled with Christians who hate almost everyone who isn’t them. Harry Hart attends the church service, in which the red-faced pastor spits and sputters his way through a sermon. When Valentine emits the signal, everyone, including Hart, becomes angry and attacks one another. In a painful-to-watch fight scene, Hart kills churchgoers with guns, hymnals, an axe, broken flagpoles, knives, and anything else he can get his hands on. Corpses litter the church, and the hateful church dies with its members. A smaller apocalypse warns of the bigger end yet to come.
Yet, the apocalypse doesn’t occur like Valentine had planned, because of the Kingsman intervention, including Eggsy. All the one-percenters with the implants that were supposed to keep them safe, die, their heads exploding as fireworks. Even a facsimile of President Obama dies in the purge. (I wonder if they used the fireworks to get around the ratings board, my husband asks.) Headless corpses overwhelm Valentine’s bunker, and he laments that the Kingsman agents killed all of his friends. The death of millions of other human beings weighs on him not at all.
Yet, the movie weighed upon me. Frankly, I was bothered by Kingsman. I was unsure what to make of the graphic depictions (cartoonish or not) of violence. The rich agreed to wipe out the poor. Hart unwittingly murdered a church full of people. When the device emitted the signal, people attacked each other in the streets, on the beach, and in their homes. And finally, exploding heads were represented with pomp and circumstance.
The film played to apocalyptic fears about the destruction of the planet (global warming!), but what struck me was the tension that emerged along class lines. Kingsman proved not to be a reversal of end-times visions of the oppressed, but rather a vengeful fantasy about the annihilation of one-percenters and hateful religious people. While the rich might have backed a plan to cull humans, the have-nots win the day because a working-class hero saves the world.
We should all celebrate when the ruling classes and the haters are destroyed, right? The fireworks suggest so.
I can’t but feel uneasy about the glorification of violence against certain types of people who are marked as deserving of destruction. I fear the dehumanization that allows exploding heads to become good fun. I wonder about all the reviews that paint this film as “dapper laughs” or “a smart, high-energy movie.” I become nervous when the apocalyptic emerges as a way to rid us of certain humans, whomever they may be. When destruction becomes the only answer for fixing social ills, we should pay attention. When certain bodies become a problem only to be solved by violence, we should pause. Apocalyptic visions, especially in their pop-cultural forms, are a window into our social concerns. We should pay attention to Kingsman’s depiction of violence and revenge because it says much about class, religion, and dehumanization, perhaps without meaning to.
Kelly J. Baker writes about the apocalypse, zombies, mental illness, trauma, and higher education. She's the author of The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, Sexism Ed: Essays on Gender and Labor in Higher Education, and Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, forthcoming Fall 2020. She's also the editor of Women in Higher Education, The National Teaching and Learning Forum, and Disability Acts. You can find her hanging around on Twitter @kelly_j_baker, tweeting about coffee, parenting, writing, and other shenanigans.