The King’s Man, succinctly put, is a disaster. Dreadful even, to concisely expand on this film’s abject failure to present anything worthwhile. The death knell of a franchise that once committed itself to reinventing its genre, now so exhausted and disillusioned that it forgot what it set out to be, and has instead fallen into every tired trope and eye-rolling cliché in the book. A film of empty platitudes and rote recontextualization of history, meaninglessly attempting to have it both ways as it positions itself within a franchise of stylish and vibrant spy antics, while also inserting itself into a historically themed minefield and failing to take its own context seriously. It is, by all accounts, a failure, though perhaps that’s crediting it too much with making a good faith attempt in the first place.
The film seems to be of the mind that if it darts back and forth between mindsets and ideologies rapidly enough, any potential stance one could claim it has would be ostensibly rendered null. The end result lives more within the realm of smug centrism, refusing to actually make a firm statement in any real direction towards the horrors of war or the glorification of its blood-soaked victors. Furthermore, its attempts to discuss the lineage of British imperialism its protagonists follow in the footsteps of is consistently laughable, opening the film with a lazily constructed sequence wherein the performatively good-hearted Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) wags his finger at Herbert Kitchener’s (Charles Dance) concentration camps. As the Duke attempts to deliver supplies to the suffering prisoners and Kitchener attempts to explains the benefits of the camps, the Duke’s wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) explains to her young son Conrad that they, as privileged people, must do their part to help others and not waste their position of power. Her lecture is soon cut short by an ambush, and caught in the crossfire, she pleads with her final breath that her husband protect their son from war. Yet, despite his supposed humility, as we cut to twelve years later, the Duke and Conrad (now a fully grown Harris Dickinson) are greeted at their lavish estate by bowing staff before we’re introduced to Polly (Gemma Arterton) as the Duke reprimands her for not properly respecting his position above her by bowing.
If the former descriptions sounds contrived and contradictory, thickly coated in trope-laden dialogue and packed with meaningless jargon positing as profound, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. The film never truly manages to recover from its shockingly rough start, despite its many attempts to become a completely obfuscated and garbled mess. The film’s main contention seems to be that the world is influenced from the shadows by powerful men with dubious, misguided, or entirely nebulous and hollow motivations, ostensibly to present some notion that all sides are the same, to some degree. This stance would remain entirely senseless even if it were not irrevocably positioned within a British narrative wherein the heroes ardently fight to support the Crown and its interests. This culminates in the creation of a, posited as necessary, intelligence agency above jurisdiction or regulation, whose mission statement is to be “refined but brutal, civilized but merciless.”
By placing itself directly in the middle of one of history’s most horrific and widespread conflicts, The King’s Man starts itself in a precarious position, likely destined to plummet unceremoniously into failure. It’s only worsened by its further desire to not merely exist in the periphery but to directly implicate its heroes as the sole saviors of the free world. The antagonists, on the other hand, are motivated by a singular grand machination that will plunge the world into chaos solely to line their pockets — which, while not an entirely unbelievable motivation, would perhaps be more credible were there any cogent explanation as to how this shadow organization housed in a barn atop a snowy plateau would garner any profit from their actions. This chaotic middle ground consistently makes this not just an unnecessary prequel, but a maddening one, unable to escape its own overwrought conception and just continue its lineage as a juvenile, albeit stylish and crowd-pleasing action comedy.
If it now takes such shockingly little time to develop from a vibrant, stylized new take on a genre into a drab, mindless expansion of a franchise that loses all personality at the hands of adding chapters to a book of lore nobody wants to read, maybe it’s time to take a break from franchises altogether. From prequels. From exclusively lore driven universes that constantly turn to wink and nod at the camera as they drop conspicuous references to things you know from the last movie, before returning to lazily choreographed action filmed with a mildly energetic affectation. Unfortunately, I get the feeling we’ll be returning to the tailor’s shop before long, and this doesn’t allow for much faith in future installments.