Matthew Vaughn: Mastering (and Subverting) One Genre at a Time

We examine how each Matthew Vaughn film, like Kingsman: The Secret Service, is a subversion and celebration of its genre.

As a director who seems to have dropped out of more movies than he’s made, every time a new feature comes from the notoriously selective Brit, it turns out to be cause for celebration. Indeed, since watching this weekend’s piece of Valentine’s Day counterprogramming, Kingsman: The Secret Service twice with two very different groups myself, the amount of contagious laughter and palpable giddiness that greets every kinetic action sequence and twisted gag only remains a surprise because few moviegoers know what a Matthew Vaughn picture is supposed to be. For that matter, I sometimes wonder if Vaughn and his constant co-screenwriter Jane Goldman know either.

The reason for this continued underestimation is likely because Vaughn has never made the same film twice, much less stayed in the same genre. All of his pictures certainly have a certain shared genetic make-up of being fast-paced ensembles with an unknown lead, as well as a firmly planted tongue in cheek sense of perversity, byt they also lean towards different styles. The sense of humor and need to show off with elaborate action sequences remains the same, but every film feels like Vaughn (and Goldman) are submerging themselves in a new cinematic vocabulary with the singular goal of mocking it…before also trying to one-up it with a defiant love letter to their new chosen form.

Much like Vaughn’s seeming ability to peg relative unknowns right before they blow up into superstardom—he has cast Daniel Craig, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Chloe Grace Moretz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Henry Cavill, and Charlie Cox all before their mainstream breakouts—his five films to date make for a small yet impressive catalogue. There is an idiom about being a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. As of now, Vaughn seems determined to disprove that one admiring genre jeer at a time.

Layer Cake (The Gangster Movie)

Before sitting in the director’s chair, Vaughn was already playing a part in the modern British gangster film’s rebirth when he produced Guy Ritchie’s very stylish one-two punch Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch (he also produced Ritchie’s Swept Away, but the less said about that film the better). Each of these crime dramas became international hits due to their fast paced editing, impenetrable plots, and even more impenetrable accents (hell, Brad Pitt got in on the action with a broadly monstrous Irish brogue for Snatch).

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Following in Ritchie’s footsteps, Vaughn made his directorial debut with 2004’s Layer Cake, a gangster dramedy that actually pulled the trigger. Unlike the Ritchie efforts, Layer Cake was unafraid to depict its hero, the unnamed XXXX (Daniel Craig), as only cockney cool to a certain point. The aesthetic of London gangsters double crossing their way through the drug world was vintage Ritchie, but the level of twisty action excess, and a hero who more than bled when he got in over his head—he lost it—was the first articulation of Vaughn’s far more cheerfully aware style.

Layer Cake openly mocks its audience by the end for trying to stay ahead of its plot about a criminal underground that is less warring houses than it is hostile takeovers with highly placed imbeciles, proving there is incompetence in every evocation. As XXXX’s voiceover states, if you were so clever, you’d know his name. Moments later, it’s moot when it turns out he wasn’t quite that smart either.

Honestly, while Layer Cake is jolly entertainment, its closeness to the Ritchie aesthetic makes it more removed from my favorite of Vaughn’s efforts. But all of the aspects that would define his genre-bending disruptions were here while remaining shrewdly muted enough to maintain an excellent bit of cockney gunplay as well. Consider that it was this movie that first caught Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson’s attention well enough to consider casting Craig as James Bond, which is an irony unto itself when we get to Kingsman

Stardust (The Fantasy Movie)

By the time Stardust came about, fantasy had become a “legitimate” highbrow genre with the Best Picture Oscar to prove it. While pop culture was still some ways out from Game of Thrones’more “adult” high fantasy taking hold of the zeitgeist, the earnestness of the wonderful Lord of the Rings films and the serviceable Harry Potter movies had popularized swords and sorcery as a profitable, if somber, affair.

Stardust has none of that. Despite being adapted from Neil Gaiman’s beloved illustrated novel, the author’s attempt to make a “fairy tale for adults” became a springboard for Vaughn to make the only fantasy movie that has come close to capturing some of the self-aware magic that made The Princess Bride twinkle decades earlier.

[related article: The Princess Bride and its Perfect Vision of Cinematic Fantasy]

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Beginning with a far more playful narrative performance from Ian McKellen than he was ever allowed to exhibit as Gandalf, Stardust combines a whimsical sensibility with a finely tuned preference for gallows humor. Like Gaiman’s novel, there is plenty of death and malevolence from the wicked witches and villains of the piece, but in Vaughn’s first collaboration with screenwriter Jane Goldman, the director also evokes in the characters an unspoken knowledge about the artificiality of this pretense. In other words, everyone realizes that a bloody wall in pastoral Victorian England being a gateway to another realm is battier than a Bram Stoker novel. But when that “everyone” includes a celestial being made of literal stardust turned flesh (Claire Danes), you learn to just go with it.

Stardust plays fast and loose with genre conventions, never taking itself too seriously while also expecting the audience to keep up with its rapid-fire japes. Young Tristan (Charlie Cox) has a classic hero’s journey to go on, but despite being intentionally dressed in the Orlando Bloom mould, he is mentored by a different kind of pirate rogue—one with a penchant for cross-dressing and listening to Offenbach’s high-flying can-can music. As a combination of both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo archetypes—and with a dash of Liberace thrown in—Robert De Niro plays a flamboyantly preening pirate that still knows something about swordplay. Indeed, in a few days he teaches Tristan the ins-and-outs of fencing for some classic cinematic swashbuckling during the third act (against a possessed corpse).

In many ways, Stardust remains counterintuitive to what is considered “proper” fantasy amongst the genre enthusiasts that still take it as seriously as a medieval studies course at Oxford. But in spite of its box office disappointment, Stardust continues to build in its cult esteem. For a reason why it is so beloved, look no further than how it treats the severe topic of royal lineage: a cameoing Peter O’Toole as an old king urges his sons to slaughter each other for the throne. And conversely, with a nigh schizophrenic tonal shift, Stardust also sincerely embraces a “true love” narrative between a boy and a shooting star named Yvaine.

Perhaps more mischievous than Gaiman’s already eccentric book, Stardust is light-years apart from all the “me too” Rings and Potter knockoffs that clogged multiplexes over the last decade. But unlike those movies, this fanciful adventure with a sneaky off-center smirk is the one well worth remembering for children and adults alike.

Kick-Ass (The Superhero Movie)

It shouldn’t be so shocking that after dancing around superhero films for so many years, the most logical thing Vaughn could do was satirize them. That he also just so happened to make one of the best superhero movies ever, on a budget of $28 million no less, could simply be coincidence, but I doubt it.

Prior to directing Kick-Ass, Vaughn was at various stages attached to direct Fox’s X-Men: The Last Stand and Marvel Studios’ Thor. Neither project panned out with Vaughn dropping out early before he finally teamed with Mark Millar for this potentially grotesque and wholly mean-spirited concept.

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When Millar hatched the idea for his Kick-Ass comics with John Romita Jr., he posited that Alan Moore’s lofty critique of superheroes and rugged individualist American fantasies got it all wrong. If superheroes “existed,” they would be nerdy introverts like Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and their first time out the door in a costume would end with them getting stabbed or run over by less altruistic New Yorkers.

While the premise was comedy gold, the comics were drenched in nihilism and ultraviolent shock value. But seeing the potential in it, Vaughn bought the rights to Kick-Ass and worked on the screenplay with Goldman while Millar was still writing the comics. The result was Vaughn finishing his story first—and then being unable to sell it in Hollywood due to its aura of violence and foul language, much of it involving an 11-year-old girl.

What studio executives couldn’t see is a hyperkinetic pop culture collage that’s as much Looney Tunes in its Tarantino-esque violence as it is comic book nasty. It was also a vision that Vaughn believed in enough to independently finance. It may not have found the box office success he was hoping for (think: Superbad meets Kill Bill), but no one could call the finished film compromised.

Whereas Millar and Romita’s comic book browbeats readers with one downer revelation after another, Vaughn’s film pops with a rowdy pace that seems deceptively free-wheeling as it walks the narrowest of tightropes. Kick-Ass bounces with a buoyancy between raunchy teen comedy, a blood-and-guts kung fu flick, and a disarmingly heartfelt recreation of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man aesthetic. Getting closer to that Stan Lee/Steve Ditko escapism than Sony has in recent years, Kick-Ass somehow works as a straightforward origin story for a superhero that spends the first act getting punched in the face and the last one operating a jetpack with machine guns while Elvis Presley performs the most ham-fisted rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” ever recorded.

Kick-Ass also announced Vaughn as a serious action director, because all of the sequence involving the “real” superheroes of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz) land with a dizzying brutality. Granted, the concept of a crazy man training his daughter to be a child soldier/assassin is a disquieting one that earned the movie its initial executive critics (as well as Roger Ebert’s infamous chastisement). But Vaughn sidesteps the horrific implications that pull down the comic by treating it with the weight of a Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote short. Also in the process, he gave Cage, rocking a gonzo Adam West affectation, one of his only good roles in the last 15 years, and ironically created (with a startlingly movie star ready 11-year-old Moretz) one of the best movie superheroes ever put onscreen. For proof, find a better superhero action sequence than Hit-Girl’s strobe-lit Big Daddy rescue that doesn’t involve a small fortune of CGI effects.

The testament to that successful balancing act between vicious satire and a loving homage is Kick-Ass 2. It certainly emulated what Vaughn did, but a lesser director also borrowed more from Millar for a movie that felt crass and vulgar in comparison. Unfortunately for Kick-Ass’ sake, Vaughn was off chasing a different style entirely.

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X-Men: First Class (Superhero Movies…Again?)

At this point, one might suggest that my assertion of Vaughn not making the same movie twice seems a bit premature since he left the world of Kick-Ass for another superhero landscape in Fox’s mutant prequel, X-Men: First Class. However, I would contend that in most respects, Kick-Ass is the more straightforward and traditional superhero movie, even with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.

Yep, even with its PG-13 rating and $160 million budget, the far more mainstream X-Men: First Class still teleported off the beaten path. The case could be made that Bryan Singer’s original X-Menmovie set the stage for superhero movies becoming the defining genre of the early 21st century, and perhaps it did (along with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man). However, when 2011 rolled around, the X-Men franchise looked fairly haggard next to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Marvel Studios’ steady march toward the following year’s The Avengers. This gave Vaughn’s one and only directorial effort in the franchise a certain amount of leeway to make it unlike any of the X-films before or since.

While the 1960s period set-up was hatched by Bryan Singer and Sheldon Turner, when Vaughn and Goldman came aboard they ran with it in a completely different direction. And the finished result seems to be less a story about how Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s Xavier and Magneto came about and more of a rip-roaring, belated addition to the Bondmania craze of the 1960s.

While James Bond didn’t actually hit his peak as a cinematic character until 1964’s Goldfinger, the 1962 setting provides what Michael Fassbender has described as his unofficial “James Bond audition.” Fassbender plays Nazi hunting Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr as three quarters Sean Connery and one quarter supervillain. But whereas he had the spy era’s penchant for well-groomed ass-kicking, co-star James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier got the swinging ‘60s lothario vibe, coloring angelic Professor X’s origins with a silver spooned edge.

Together, they refocused what was an X-Men story into more of a buddy comedy during a very tense moment of “mutant civil rights.” This is still a superhero movie, but it features beats and a different energy that stands apart any other out there. Indeed, First Class still feels refreshingly retro and bizarre when compared with Marvel Studios’ constant sameness and even Bryan Singer’s much heralded X-Men return, X-Men: Days of Future Past. While we are also fans of that 1970s post-Vietnam superhero trip, Singer brought back the angst and black leather that Vaughn had jettisoned for Guy Hamilton bubbliness and unapologetically campy yellow and blue, comic book-accurate costumes. It’s a razor-sharp effort that’s still pretty savvy since it cast Jennifer Lawrence off her first Oscar nomination before most filmgoers even knew that Hunger Games existed.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (The Spy Movie)

Ironically, if one movie could be accused of somewhat revisiting similar material, I’d suggest that it was Kingsman more so than First Class. From a certain angle, this is the purer distillation of half the tone from the 2011 X-Men prequel, just as Kick-Ass is for superheroes. But unlike anything mutant-related, Kingsman: The Secret Service is less highly budgeted with its R-rating and thus allowed to be completely bonkers.

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Credit should also be given that after three films in a row loosely based on comics, Vaughn has yet to make something that feels like the studio mandated “comic book movie.” Indeed, returning to collaborator Mark Millar, Vaughn and Jane Goldman have adapted and reimagined Millar and Dave Gibbons’ The Secret Service into the best Bond movie Roger Moore never made. Quite honestly, it’s as if following The Spy Who Loved Me, Monty Python was given full creative control over the next installment to “lighten things up,” and then the action and violence was pushed to Edgar Wright levels of absurdity. Or: it is very British.

[related article: Kingsman review]

Pining for the bygone days of the “gentleman spy,” be it Bond, The Avengers, or Michael Caine’s own Harry Palmer films (Caine also appears in Kingsman), Vaughn and Goldman’s characters verbalize their mission statement. After superspy Harry Hart, Colin Firth at his most John Steed-ish, declares that he shall have a “tête-à-tête” with his new megalomaniacal foe (Samuel L. Jackson), he is soon sitting across from Richmond Valentine in his best dinner jacket. Jackson’s diabolical baddie asks Harry if he likes spy movies. Glancing over his shoulder at Valentine’s shapely henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), Harry notices her menacing sword-legs absent-mindedly posing in the air. Quite literally, her legs are made out of deadly blades (that she uses quite often). Firth doesn’t miss a beat when he smirks, “Nowadays, they’re all a little serious for my taste. But the old ones? Marvelous. Give me a farfetched theatrical plot any day.”

Kingsman delivers that along with Vaughn’s most ambitious three-ring circus to date. Continuing to court younger viewers with a YA story that introduces Taron Egerton to the world in a strong debut performance as Harry’s protégé, Vaughn and Goldman also find time for an anti-authority satire that is sure to push a few buttons in the U.S. Kingsman is an espionage throwback, a coming of age story, an implicit comment on class war in the UK, and that is just the tip of its off-the-wall gonzo disposition. It has so many balls juggling in the air that its exposition-heavy first act struggles a bit to keep them there. But afterwards for about two hours, it never falters in its ear-to-ear goofy entertainment, including a second act shootout that might already claim the “Best Action Scene of 2015” title.

Not two of these five films are quite the same experience, yet all of them are just wacky enough to be hilarious, and smart enough to never fall into the realm of parody. Vaughn pays homage to his favorite films while mocking them, and he tackles entirely different genres while simultaneously subverting them. As Harry Hart might say, that’s worth raising a glass of gin for.

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