‘The King’s Man’ and ‘No Time to Die’ are weak on issues of cultural awareness

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There has perhaps been no better barometer of British establishment values in the twentieth century than the James Bond movies. Now one of the world’s longest-running film series since Dr No in 1962, Bond is a cultural institution that has captivated the imaginations of thousands, and has become synonymous not just with the spy genre, but a broader sense of what it means to be “British”. Even so, Bond is far from unfamiliar with change. Stylistically, the taciturn pacing of Sean Connery’s movies varies dramatically from the camp of Roger Moore’s portrayal of the character, or the more contemporary action-movie grit of Brosnan and Craig. Despite this stylistic flexibility, what has remained consistent throughout the franchise’s long history is its critique from feminist audiences. From the horrific way in which Goldfinger valorises Bond’s rape of a gay-identifying character, to more recently the criticism directed towards the coercive undertones of the character’s interactions with a former sex trafficking victim in Skyfall, misogyny has been a consistent issue for feminist audiences throughout the Bond movies.

Surprisingly, though, what has taken place in the past few years is a rapid reversal of the opinions of those that would previously have defended the Bond movies from feminist critiques. For example, Charlie Higson, author of the Young Bond book series has labelled Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the character as “woke“. Nigel Farage has expressed similar sentiments ahead of the release of No Time to Die, the latest Bond flick, stating that modern interpretations of the character were inferior because it “wasn’t the way Fleming (the author of the original Bond novels) wrote him!” 

racism is not a systemic issue but confined to one line from a minor character

But how “woke” really was No Time to Die? Many concerns about the politics of the film centre around the casting of Lashana Lynch, a woman of colour, as the spy to take over the codename “007” following James Bond’s retirement, which many saw as an attempt to replace the traditional white male Bond with a more politically correct alternative. However, the text of the film dispenses with this idea. Nomi, Lynch’s character, despite having a friendly rivalry with Bond, offers to return the title of 007; if the writers of No Time to Die are attempting to make a political statement about the irrelevance of white men through the inclusion of Nomi as a replacement 007, this is quashed by her deference to Bond. Even so, there is a moment in No Time to Die, which surprisingly hasn’t received much backlash from conservative audiences, where Nomi’s race becomes politicised. In a climactic fight, a stereotypically German scientist working on the film’s doomsday device reveals to Nomi that he built the weapon to “exterminate your entire race from the face of the Earth”. Following this, Nomi angrily dispatches him with a quip of “time to die”, echoing the film’s title. Predictably, in No Time to Die, racism is not a systemic issue but confined to one line from a minor character. Similarly incidental is the rushed mention of Ben Whishaw’s portrayal of Q’s sexuality, which the actor himself has found “unsatisfying“. Rather than make any wider thematic statement, the filmmakers of No Time to Die have, in my opinion in a very cynical way, sprinkled references to social justice struggles throughout their script to deflect criticism. The fact remains that Bond works for MI6, a covert, unaccountable, and arguably neo-colonialist arm of the state, and as long as Bond is glamorised by the movies that portray him, then MI6’s work continues to be valorised.

Unpacking the ideological confusion of No Time to Die reveals parallels with another recent British spy movie, Matthew Vaughn’s The King’s Man, a prequel to the popular Kingsman movies, themselves loving pastiches of the James Bond franchise. The King’s Man at least sets out to be a movie with a morally righteous message: the plot of the film focuses on the character’s attempts to end the conflict of WW1, and the protagonist, Ralph Fiennes’ Earl of Oxford, fights as an equal alongside African and female spies. However, in a way that I can’t imagine happening with a bigger franchise like James Bond, The Kings Man spectacularly butchers its political messaging. In a scriptwriting choice with no relevance at all to the films’ plot, the movie opens with a visit by the Earl of Oxford to deliver Red Cross supplies to a “concentration camp” set up by British forces during the Boer wars. While it is important to acknowledge that such camps existed, a fact which is frequently forgotten or misremembered in popular history, Fiennes’ character only seems mildly perturbed, and there is no depiction of resistance to colonial rule. In my opinion, the inclusion of the camp in the film felt tokenistic and unnecessary, a visceral depiction of colonial suffering only used to establish the moral righteousness of our white, aristocratic hero.

The film’s depiction of queer characters also undermines its purportedly egalitarian message

Even worse, in a flashback to the Earl of Oxford’s military life before converting to pacifism, the audience is subjected to a first-person action scene of the massacre of African soldiers by British troops. Although, like the concentration camps, this brutality is framed as undeniably wrong, it serves as another gratuitous display of colonial violence that serves no purpose other than to engage the audience while Oxford relates his conversion to moral righteousness. There is a space for depictions of such historical events on screen, but the way The Kings Man depicts these crimes is in an unbelievably callous way. 

The film’s depiction of queer characters also undermines its purportedly egalitarian message. For absurd reasons that this article will not delve into, our heroes undertake a mission to kill Rasputin, the famous mystic known for influencing Tsar Nicholas of Russia. Their plan to achieve this is framed comically: to seduce Rasputin, who they have heard is sexually attracted to men, and murder him. This sequence employs a number of viciously homophobic tropes, from Rasputin’s uncontrollable, animalistic sexuality, his attraction to The Earl of Oxford’s (canonically underage) son, his association with drugs and substance abuse, as well as his movement being compared to a characteristically feminine ballet dancer. Rasputin in the movie is an embodiment of a monstrous, abusive, and out-of-control sexuality.

In another insulting choice, which annoyed me particularly as an English student, Wilfred Owen, one of the defining British poetic voices of WW1, is erased from history. His famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” is instead framed as a letter written by Oxford’s son after being deployed. As baffling as it is that anyone involved in the production considered this a good way to honour the soldiers who lost their lives in WW1, it further underlines the film’s disregard for queer voices; most historians agree that Owen was what might be termed today as a gay or bisexual man. Despite its purported message of liberal egalitarianism, The King’s Man fails to convincingly advocate for a more just world. 

If, then, the British spy movie can be used as an indicator of cultural norms in film, No Time to Die and The Kings Man are “woke” in the sense that they depict an establishment reaction to rising awareness about the prevalence of racism, misogyny, and homophobia. However, the ways in which these films react to these societal forces is, to varying degrees, either weak or unhelpful. Although their attempts at displaying diversity, and even awareness of historical or societal issues, are numerous, they rarely feel sincere.