On the surface, 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service might not look like a particularly political movie. Director Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the comic book by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons is an exuberant, cartoonishly violent spy romp that sends up both James Bond and superhero films, depicting a world in which a band of well-dressed, well-trained superspies fight dastardly villains on behalf of the common good.
Yet once you watch it, it’s difficult to see it as anything else. In both story and sensibility, it may be that no recent big-budget film leans more overtly to the right in its politics: This is a movie that gives explicit, approving nods to both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (a component from the Strategic Defense Initiative figures heavily into the denouement); that pits its heroes against a wealthy coastal tech mogul who is obsessed with global warming; and that unravels a plot between the world’s financial and intellectual elites to kill off most of the world’s population in order to save the planet from the threat of climate change. It is literally a movie about how environmentalism is a secret plot by liberal elites to kill off billions of ordinary people.
Just in case you didn’t fully grasp the movie’s outlook, it includes a scene in which the villain convinces President Obama — or, according to Vaughn, an actor on a White House set who is intended to be “reminiscent” of the former president — to go along with the plan. At the end, in a moment of triumph for the heroes, the pseudo-Obama’s head explodes, along with the heads of the rest of the world’s villainous, self-dealing elites.
Released in February 2015, as the most recent presidential race was still in the preliminary stages and most observers assumed that Donald Trump would never run, much less win the GOP nomination and the presidency, Kingsman: The Secret Service nonetheless channels something like the energy that eventually resulted in Trump’s upset victory. It wasn’t a warning, exactly, but in retrospect it’s hard not to see it as an early sign of the nascent populist fervor that helped power him to the presidency.
In many ways, the film — and to a lesser extent its new sequel, The Golden Circle — offer a political snapshot in pop culture form. Not of conservatism as a whole, but of a particular strain of right-of-center thinking that has been ascendant over the past few years, one that is vulgar, snarky, populist, and defined…