In 2009, Zack Snyder asked us “Who Watches The Watchmen?”. In 2015 and again 2017, Matthew Vaughn adapted another comic property to the big screen - and tried to make us forget we ever asked.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle hits cinemas today and essentially, if you’ve seen the first first in the series, you’ll know what to expect: astonishingly stylised action scenes, cartoonish Bond gadgets, and a somewhat unpleasant laddish aftertaste.
For the uninitiated, the film is based around a self-described “independent intelligence agency” - and we follow its agents as they try to avert disaster. In the case of The Golden Circle, this means taking down an eccentric drug lord whose 50s Americana-inspired lair sits in the middle of the Cambodian jungle. It’s an exhilarating watch, and as long as you don’t think too hard about the plot, it is one hell of a crazy ride for the 2 hours 20 minute runtime.
What I find most curious about Kingsman though is the fictional organisation itself. Here we have an enormously powerful and well resourced organisation, capable of projecting itself across the world - but how is it governed? How can it be held to account? And how do we know that it is doing more good than bad?
Accountability Maketh Legitimate Organisations
So the Kingsman organisation is, effectively, a spy organisation - perhaps mostly analogous to something like the CIA or MI5 - but there is a crucial difference: the real life organisations have political oversight. The objectives of the CIA are set by the President. He or she is the person who tells the CIA that their job is to, say, destroy ISIS terrorist cells. Similarly, the President and the American government is designed to (in theory at least) hold the CIA to account: the President can haul in the CIA director and give them a telling off, if the CIA does something bad. Congress can hold hearings, and demand the CIA to explain its actions.
To take things one step further back - the governments which oversee the CIA and MI5 are democratically elected. Ultimately, if voters are unhappy with the actions of these agencies, there is recourse at the ballot box, where voters can choose to elect people who will demand these agencies behave differently. This is called living in a democratic society.
Kingsman, by contrast appears to be answerable to no one. Its management decides what the organisation is going to do - and there’s no formal process through which these decisions can be challenged. If Harry Hart decides that the real enemy is environmentalists, and directs the full power of the Kingsman organisation towards stopping Greenpeace, then there’s no way to stop him.
With the absence of formal governance, it doesn’t just mean that any organisation, whether Kingsman or otherwise, will suddenly start behaving arbitrarily. The institution will also contain within it certain constraints, in the form of ideology and institutional memory.
In other words, imagine if the Labour Party didn’t have a leadership that sets policy. If you were to then ask the membership to come up with policies from scratch, you’d probably still end up with something pretty close to what already exists - because the reason people join the Labour Party is because they like Labour policies.
If you gathered a bunch of military generals together and asked them how to solve a problem - like Islamist terrorism - they’d probably start talking about how many bombers to send or which cities are the most strategically important to occupy, rather than discuss the need to trade more with the Middle East, or to fund pro-democracy campaigners. Again, this is because the generals think of problems in a particular way, by virtue of their position.
The same will be true for Kingsman. So what do they believe? The most the film and its sequel give us is that it was founded by some “very powerful men” after the First World War - the goal of the organisation being to prevent another war.
This is a pretty vague goal. How do you define “peace”? And by what means should “peace” be achieved? How do we know the Kingsman founders didn’t want to achieve peace through diplomatic means rather than explosive?
Ultimately perhaps this ambiguity is best expressed through every sixth former’s favourite smart-sounding maxim: one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.
And this is a problem for Kingsman. How can we trust that they will be doing the right thing, and picking the right targets? How can we be confident that they will deploy their hugely advanced technology on to the right people?
If this problem sounds familiar, it is because it is actually tackled head on in another recent blockbuster movie. Captain America: Civil War is premised entirely on this point. In that film, the world’s governments are worried that the Avengers are acting just like Kingsman, and are going after whichever targets they please, with no oversight.
In the case of The Golden Circle, it almost unwittingly addresses this with Julianne Moore’s Poppy, the villainous drug kingpin. Though she is undoubtedly evil, she does at one point in the film raise a valid critique of the “drug war” and make a strong argument in favour of legalisation. Now, I’m not defending the actions of her character in the film - but imagine if political leaders had decided that legalising drugs and legitimating her business was what the political leaders decided to do. What if the Kingsmen disagreed, and deployed their considerable resources to stop her at the behest of the democratically elected leaders?
Simply put, without any sort of accountability - either to a greater political authority or an ideology… how can we be sure that Eggsy, Harry and the crew are the good guys? Who watches the Watchmen?
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is in cinemas now. And we promise that it is mostly fun explosions and and jokes rather than political theory.