On the list of the most improbable prequels, The King’s Man does rank pretty highly: instead of following up on the story of the spy agency introduced in the first two instalments, this movie focuses on the foundation of said spy agency during WWI.

The 2021 film, still directed by Matthew Vaughn, was released right after the pandemic, which might explain why it bombed at the box-office – though this could also be down to its totally strange setting, darker tone and lack of proper marketing.

The King’s Man seemingly confused audiences and critics alike. They didn’t know what to make of the film, which was meant to be more serious than its predecessors, but still had some tongue-in-cheek moments. The third Kingsman movie is the one no one expected, but is it the one we needed? Today is the day to retro-review it!

An ultimate take on WWI History

The King’s Man introduces new protagonists, played by an all-star cast – as is usual for the franchise. Among them are Duke of Oxford Orlando (Ralph Fiennes), his daredevil son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) and their trusted staff made of Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou). As WWI rages throughout Europe, Conrad is trying to persuade his father to take part in the conflict, but the Duke, a hardened pacifist, is reluctant to intervene. Yet the father and son are forced out of their comfortable life by The Sheperd (Matthew Goode), a criminal mastermind who wants to pit European powers against each other for his own benefit. 

Well, the least one can say is that this pitch is quite a change from the colourful plots of the first two instalments. The era here is much somber, and the tone is appropriately darker than in the previous films. If The Golden Circle delved into self-parody, The King’s Man takes the opposite approach and is definitely the most serious of the franchise’s instalments. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that the film is entirely devoid of humour. Its historical setting allows Matthew Vaughn to make another type of jokes: this time, he is having fun with historical figures, so you’ll be able to meet Lord Kitchener, King George V and even Archduke Franz Ferdinand! The movie has a very “personal” take on 20th century History – and a dancing, wizard-like version of Rasputin (Rhys Ifans, who is having a damn great time).

The film does a great job at fleshing out its characters and spends quite a lot of time exploring their relationships, especially the dynamic between Conrad and Orlando – as the latter desperately tries to protect his son. This is definitely an improvement from the previous movie, which was too focused on goofs to actually develop interesting character arcs. It seems like Matthew Vaughn did a 180 this time around, and attempted to offer a more grounded, edgier take on the Kingsman universe. A pretty dark twist halfway through the film hammers in the message, and gives some tragic roots to the spy agency. The idea of a mentor desperately trying to prevent a young character from entering the world of espionage is also a nice subversion of the first film’s dynamic, though it might be lost on those who haven’t seen (or can’t remember) the first Kingsman.

A hard balance to find

The King’s Man does have a major problem: the film doesn’t know what it wants to say, and goes from trying to discuss grief and how lower socio-economic classes are ignored by the rich, to having a version of Mata Hari fighting with a “strangling scarf” (which I very much wish was historically accurate!). Vaughn learnt his lesson from the last film’s over-the-top antics, but still struggles to find the right tone for his story. The movie tries to have something to say about pacifism and the horrors of war, but somehow ends up combining this message with the crazy fight scenes that are typical of Kingsman. The timing of its release was also puzzling, and it certainly didn’t help that the film came out between The Golden Circle and the final part of Eggsy’s adventures (which will apparently be called Blue Blood, but little info has been released so far). This gives the impression that The King’s Man doesn’t know where to stand – literally.  

The tonal inconsistencies and strange release date did put a lot of viewers off, but they won’t ruin the movie if you are willing to just lay back to enjoy the ride. In fact, The King’s Man’s insistence on keeping some of the previous instalments’ craziness while delving into historical drama makes it a very unique spy flick. Honestly, I can recommend this cinematic UFO: it is a one-of-a-kind action film, more serious than most, but still featuring nods to earlier films and larger-than-life characters. The King’s Man was not a necessary prequel, but it is a very decent one for such an ultimate saga!