Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

And what, pray tell, did this vast conspiracy of yours accomplish?

Having the Marvel app to help with my Silver Age reread makes it inevitable I’ll dip into other stuff. For instance, after one blog said fans are re-evaluating Jack Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur as better than its reputation, I tried it (no, it isn’t better). After reading about a new Thunderbolts book springing out of Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty (by Jackson Lanzing, Collin Kelly and Carmin Carnero) I took a look at the Cap book too.

This is one of the rare occasions I’ve engaged in what’s sometimes called hate-reading, picking up a book knowing you’ll probably loathe it. The announcement I read said that the newest incarnation of the Thunderbolts would be a black ops team lead by the Winter Soldier to take down the Big Bads without worrying about all the silly rules and laws that tie the hands of guys like Steve Rogers. In short, comics 50,000th remake of Suicide Squad because superheroes not playing by the rules shows you are one edgy, grittily realistic writer (actually no you aren’t).

The article mentioned that this sprang out of Sentinel of Liberty which dealt with the Ultimate Conspiracy, the Outer Circle, that has been manipulating the world since WW I. That sounded like a really bad hook — doesn’t Marvel already have enough of those? — so I picked up the book to see if I was right.

I was. The limited series includes two issues of superheroes trapped in a surreal, pretentious mindscape by the bad guys (a cliche I’m waaaay tired of) and the oh-so-clever insight that the US Army, giving its people free medical care and other benefits (Steve didn’t pay anything for his super-soldier treatment, did he?), is a socialist institution. No, those are what we call employee benefits; if that makes the army socialist, so are most large employers. On top of which, the fight against the Outer Circle just recedes into the background when the book gets involved in the Cold War crossover event with a completely different villain (all of which is explained by Bucky pulling some insanely complicated Xanatos Gambit)

But what really bugged me is how unconvincing the conspiracy is, a problem the Outer Circle shares with the elite covert ops group in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)Based on a Mark Millar comic (I haven’t read it so nothing here applies to the book), Kingsman has Harry (Colin Firth) recruit Eggsy (Taron Egerton) into the Kingsmen, a non-governmental organization formed after the bloodshed of WW I. Governments and their spy networks hadn’t been able to avert the bloody war; members of the British upper crust who’d lost their kin in the war created the Kingsmen to succeed where officials failed. Now they’re up against Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) who has a R’as al Ghul-like plan to avert global warming with mass murder, aided by Sofia Boutella as a paraplegic with swords for legs.

I didn’t particularly care for the movie. Egerton’s a stiff actor, the only POC characters of note are both villains and I’m sick of movies and comics using environmentalists as villains (part of a long tradition of addressing serious issues but ducking them by making the advocates bad guys). What this has in common with Sentinel of Liberty, however, is that the secret organization is completely unconvincing.

Since the Kingsmen were formed to prevent catastrophes like the Great War we’ve had, let’s see, the Holocaust, WW II, Stalin’s gulag, thousands of cases of lynching in the United States, the killing fields of Cambodia … so how exactly have the Kingsmen protected us? Other than the battle against Valentine I have no idea — and that clash of titans ends with Michael Caine and the other leaders selling out to the villain. We do see Harry interrogating a terrorist but nothing different from what any British soldier might do.

It wouldn’t take much to satisfy me: evil conspiracies in fiction routinely prove their bonafides by taking credit for Lee Harvey Oswald. Have Harry explain that the Kingsmen successfully steered Germany’s nuclear research down the wrong path or that they stopped the India-Pakistan conflict from going nuclear. Instead we get nothing. Given the leadership turn out to be rats, the movie might be implying the Kingsmen were never useful or heroic — but Harry’s clearly a good guy so I don’t think so. Even if that was the point, examples would have helped (“We supported Fidel Castro’s revolution because we thought he’d be a liberalizing force once in power.”).

The same is true of the Outer Circle. Formed after WW I, the various members (Money, Power, Love, Revolution and Machine) have been manipulating humanity as part of their “century game” ever since, but we never learn how. To make this conspiracy credible I need some examples: “The Machine had JFK killed because he would never have invested enough in NASA to land a man on the moon.” or “Revolution arranged the collapse of the Soviet Union but Money invested all the power  in the hands of corrupt oligarchs” Instead, as with Kingsman, nothing.

We also learn the Winter Soldier has been one of their agents, their Starpoints, from the beginning. If the Outer Circle needed Captain America to do something or not do something, Bucky made sure to steer him in the right direction. But we learn nothing about what direction that was. Even a simple “After the Red Skull brainwashed the other Invaders, the Love directed me to organize the Liberty Legion.” would have helped.

No matter how shadowy a conspiracy is supposed to be, it needs a little substance to be believable. Neither the Kingsmen nor the Outer Circle have enough.

#SFWApro. Covers by Carnero (t) and Jack Kirby


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I liked Kingsman; better than the Craig-era (and Brosnan era, if I’m honest) Bond films in capturing the fun of 60s Spy-Fi. That said, the plot is mostly just there to justify having a bunch of John Steed wannabes kicking ass, though without Emma Peels. Like the Bond villains of old, their plot is ridiculous, so just have fun with it. It gets even goofier in the sequel; but, when you get to see Elton John tortured by being forced to repeat a 1970s concert, again and again, then see him (or stunt double), bust out a flying kick, complete with platform shoes, you just go with it.

    The film had little to do with the comics. Mathew Vaughn and Mark Millar conceived the idea, over drinks, of what was missing from the modern Bond films and Millar took the stuff they ticked off and wrote his comic, while Vaughn turned it into a screenplay and film.

    It’s more a satire of capitalist barons like Richard Branson and others, who talk a good game, but mostly care about expanding their financial empires and use that for some public cache and government funding, while creating more disposable crap and living to excess, while the rest of the world struggles and starves. It also exposes the upper crust spy world (which is a class system, as the security services have been dominated by those with economic and sociological power) as a bunch of fascists that would sell out their own mother, if they thought they would gain from it; while working class Eggsy is the real hero, proving that it isn’t pedigree, but determination and hard work.

    I also thought Egerton was brilliant in Rocket Man.

  2. FWIW, I enjoyed far more the third Kingsman film, the prequel set in WWI. It seemed to reign in Millar’s worst excesses, eg learning all the wrong lessons from post Moore British Invasion revisionism like piling on ‘kewl’ ultraviolence, cynicism and profanity.
    I haven’t read the comics either: it has Gibbons art, so there’s that. Skimmed thru a Kick Ass or two. See above.
    I don’t begrudge Millar his success, it’s good to see a fellow Brit do well: he clearly has an eye for what can be “IP’d” into other media.
    You could argue Millar, Ennis & co (you can extend this to other media and the likes of Tarantino) just need a strong editor to snip stuff and say “no” at times. Does this partly explain why as they get older, Tarantino’s and Scorsese’s films get longer? The “no” person is no longer there? Nevertheless, I liked ‘…Flower Moon’ overall.

    1. Scorsese is what I used to call a “dog whistle” before the political use of that phrase became so common — his films are pitched at a frequency I just don’t get. Millar, Ennis and Ellis too; their work doesn’t do much for me.
      The ability to make films that run under two hours sometimes feels like a dying art.

      1. You learn something every day, Fraser! I had to look up ‘dog whistle’, as used in a political sense.
        On running times, it’s almost as if the director is thinking: “Well it’s cost them an arm and a leg, whether it’s paying for tickets ‘n’ popcorn or (over here) paying for a licence fee PLUS a streaming service fee/Sky TV subscription, so we might as give ’em their money’s worth.” Cue CGI/FX bore fest.
        I can understand it in the case of Oppenheimer where the subject matter and theme warranted 3hrs and they comparatively whizzed by. Less is frequently more….

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