What’s Love Got to Do With It? : What “Kingsman: The Secret Service” Did Right and “Jupiter Ascending” Did Wrong

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NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Kingsman: The Secret Service and Jupiter Ascending.

So, this blog is clearly less of a legitimate hobby and more of an occasional (very occasional) outlet for nerdy ideas. New Year’s Resolution: change that. I’ll shoot for…I don’t know, once a month. 12 by the end of the year, since I’m technically two months behind. We’ll see how that goes, since my attention span is, let’s say, not significant. Anyway…

I’ve seen two movies in theaters in the past month – Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Jupiter Ascending. Although the films are two different genres, spy flick and science fiction respectively, they share a certain amount in common. Both are directed by notable genre “name” directors – Kingsman by Matthew Vaughan, Jupiter Ascending by Andy and Lana Wachowski. Both contain unexpected and eclectic casts of award-winning actors. Both seem to have a similar 20-something nerd crowd for a target audience. Both have some genuinely stellar, if VASTLY dissimilar, costume and concept design. Even though neither the spy flick nor space opera genres are the type I usually seek out, I found myself pretty well entertained by both films. Not flicks I’d put in my top ten, but hardly wastes of my hard-earned cinema dollars.

However, as genre films go (and I’m defining it pretty loosely as films with fantastic elements – Kingsman might be a spy flick in the modern day with a distinct lack of alien races, but let’s be honest, it’s got its own brand of fantasy going on), the two departed in a significant way: Jupiter Ascending contained a romantic subplot, and Kingsman did not.

Now, I should note my feelings on romantic plots in general. I’m sick of them, frankly, and I’ve never been a huge fan. However, they don’t always bother me, and I’ve boiled it down to two criteria that fit my personal (personal being an operative word; this is solely Princess Prettypants’ opinion) feelings on how romantic subplots should occur. 1) It should contribute significantly to the plot; the plot would not be the same without it and would be unable to move forward. 2) It should contribute to the development of one or both characters involved.

Watching Kingsman: The Secret Service, there were a great many things I enjoyed. The performances by both the old hands and young newbies were well done. Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Firth in particular were both able to display their often underused handle on comic timing. Director Matthew Vaughan displayed the deft balance of action, humor, danger, and dashes of pathos I’ve come to expect and appreciate from him since seeing Stardust. The story, though suitably over the top, had enough real-world ties to make it terrifying to conceive. It all worked, and nothing I saw while watching jarred me out of that world. Except, and this is probably just a problem I had since I have such a hang-up about it, from the introduction of Roxy, the only real female candidate to become a Kingsman, I was waiting for a romance to develop between the title character, Eggsy, and Roxy.

The thing was, it never came. Here were two fit young British kids, a boy and girl, tossed together into the same realm, and there wasn’t even a hint of sexual tension. It pleased me very much, and it was a novelty. And you know what? The story didn’t miss it. There was no gaping void between the characters where a romance ought to have been. If it had been there, it wouldn’t have added a darn thing. It wasn’t important to the story or to the characters’ development insofar as the story dictated, and so, it wasn’t there. It would have been superfluous if it had been, and like Mark Twain told us all about writing, if it’s superfluous, it shouldn’t be there.

Conversely, Jupiter Ascending does have a romantic subplot between Mila Kunis’ and Channing Tatum’s characters, Jupiter and Caine. The story, which is a convoluted but conceptually interesting tale of alien abduction, reincarnation, the origin of humankind, and the responsibilities of oligarchy (if you read it rather generously, granted), does not need the love story to move forward. The romance is treated, at best, like an inexplicable MacGuffin to get Caine to rescue Jupiter, because the fate of an entire planet is apparently not enough motivation. It comes out of nowhere, so suddenly and ridiculously that Jupiter’s initial unrequited confession of love for Caine earned outright giggling from the audience. It was that absurd. In a movie full of alien royalty, excessively convenient methods of teleportation, a weirdly hammy and whispery Eddie Redmayne, and flying shoes that are a sort of combination of hoverboards and roller blades, the romance was the least believable element in it.

But most importantly, it did nothing for the story. Jupiter and Caine could have been friends and cohorts, and the story could have been written to have exactly the same arcs in plot and character development. Kingsman had no love story, and the story did not want for one. Jupiter Ascending had a romantic subplot, and the story not only didn’t need one, but it actually suffered for it.

This is not an unheard of problem in genre film. Sure, it’s all too common in any film, but think of non-genre films that contain romantic elements. Chances are that the plot directly revolves around those elements. Science fiction and fantasy tend to have stories that don’t revolve around romantic elements, but those elements are added in anyway, and it doesn’t always work. There’s this impression that the most important of all human interaction is in romantic love, but is Aragorn’s interaction with Arwen any less important to his character than his interaction with Frodo? Science fiction and fantasy don’t always need romance to work, and it doesn’t need romance shoehorned in in order to have valuable character interaction and growth. There are plenty of beautiful science fiction and fantasy romances out there. A movie like Stardust needs romance to work. Without the love story, other valuable parts of the plot fall away. But did The Dark Knight Rises need Bruce and Selina to fall in love in order for the bulk of the story to work? What did it really contribute? If one were to look at that script and, as Mark Twain said, “eschew surplusage”, would that element have been expendable? If love is expendable, then it isn’t being done right.

I’m not saying love should be kept out of the more speculative genres altogether. Far from it; when it works, it works. The problem comes in situations like Jupiter Ascending, when it is clearly unnecessary. The beauty of science fiction and fantasy is that it is self-contained, and it’s creative, and it can do much more and on a greater scale than realistic fiction. If the plot doesn’t need it, don’t put it there. If the characters don’t need it, don’t put it there. If it’s an expendable element, an afterthought, or a useless MacGuffin, don’t put it there. In some ways, it’s an insult to the genre, implying that there isn’t enough inherent in science fiction and fantasy to stand on its own without a love story as a crutch.

Kingsman: The Secret Service was a fabulous, fun film that was tightly written, every facet necessary to story, universe, and character. Jupiter Ascending demeaned the remarkable universe it created by allowing elements into it that did not serve it. It was like a decent cut of meat that had one piece of hard, chewy, unappetizing rind running through the middle that nobody asked for and nobody wanted, and it soured a lot of the really fine elements it did have.

That said, I’d love to have a pair of the hoverboard roller blades. They looked badass.

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