Mar
21
2016

The Kingsmen – A Blend of Humor and Nostalgia

**SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the movie The Kingsmen**

Meta-humor, also known as self-aware or self-referential humor, is one of the most difficult forms of comedy to do well. Be too gentle with the reference and the audience will miss the joke entirely. However, be too obvious and you end up breaking the fourth wall and taxing your audience’s suspension of disbelief. If done just right, such as in the movie the Kingsmen: The Secret Service, self-referential humor allows a story to pay homage to an older body of work while simultaneously forging a new path.

The meta-humor in the Kingsmen works so well because the writers took the time to justify the in-world existence of the films and TV series they were satirizing. At several points in the movie, Harry Hart (Colin Firth) and Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) start their exchange by directly acknowledging “those old spy films we loved so much.” In so doing, the writers and actors are able to more effectively manipulate the parallels and contrasts between the old movies and this new chapter.

Take as an example the first face-to-face meeting between Harry and Valentine.

I love this scene because it works on four major levels. On the surface, each character is subtly threatening the other by acknowledging their roles as spy and villain. Drama beat. Take one step deeper and you hit the ironic contrast of their stated childhood desires and their roles in story. Comedy beat. On yet another level there is a strong resonance of nostalgia. After all, who hasn’t day dreamed about being a super spy or an evil scientist? When Valentine ends the exchange by stating that it was a shame that they had to grow up, the gauntlet is cast and the two characters acknowledge that there must be conflict between them. Action beat. By combining the three beats and the nostalgic resonance, this complex scene beautifully acknowledges the genre’s heritage while also pushing the plot forward.

However, parallelism with old movies isn’t enough to make a good new volume. As the old entertainment industry wisdom states: audiences want more of the same, but different. The Kingsmen delivers this difference by subverting classic spy film tropes in interesting ways.

First, the writers remind us of the trope of the evil monologue and overly complex death scheme. They establish an expectation, but then immediately pay off the promise in an unexpected way. Even better, they add a twist of tongue-in-cheek comedy when they signal the subversion in the moments before it happens by saying, “Well this ain’t that kind of movie.”

Though most comedies can easily forgo the use of meta-humor, it’s a necessary skill for any satirist. After all, the best satirical humor makes fun of itself as much as the original body of work. By relying on both parallelisms and subversions of old tropes, the Kingsmen was able to simultaneously pay homage to spy classics as well as give the audience some delightful surprises. In so doing, Kingsmen was a refreshing take on a well trod genre.

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