The King’s Man: how it made promises to the audience and… why it didn’t deliver

This week:

  • The King’s Man sets up a great action story
  • It then fails to deliver
  • I have my theories as to why
The King’s Man movie poster

Spoiler alert!

This article contains spoilers for the 2021 film The King’s Man.  I suggest you don’t read this until you have seen it (that is, if you plan on seeing it at all).

Please bear in mind that I only saw the film once, and I don’t have a perfect memory.  I have attempted to be accurate but I am willing to concede that I may mis-remember a few things (I hope I haven’t but it’s possible).  If that turns out to be the case, I will certainly correct this article and make it clear where the errors were.

What I mean by making promises

The promises you make at the start of a narrative are the things you are telling your audience you’re going to give them in your story.

Promises are important because you are signalling to them what to expect: what kind of ride they are in for.  If you construct a narrative that seems to be promising one thing, and then you deliver another, you’re going to have a lot of disappointed people.  It’s best to promise your audience you’re going to give them the things you actually are going to give them, so they can decide if they want to invest.  Making the right promises will help you get the right audience – people who actually want what you’re offering.

Promises can be things like:

  • Genre – if you start with a cute rom-com feel and then your story descends into a psychological horror, you’re going to get a lot of romance fans who didn’t like your story and a lot of horror fans who would have loved it but didn’t think to see your film or read your book because it didn’t look like their thing
  • Protagonist – the audience likes to have someone to root for.  We want to follow one person’s story from adversity to triumph.  We don’t want to watch a nature documentary about cute little seals surviving in the open ocean and then being eaten because the orcas were the heroes all along, surprise!
  • Theme – the challenges that the protagonist faces don’t have to be the same, but they should be thematically linked.  For instance, if the protagonist’s weakness is lack of confidence, then they will face a series of challenges throughout the story in which they learn to overcome that until they have developed their confidence.  They don’t need to face off against the same playground bully over and over again, but they can find several challenges where they don’t have the confidence to speak out or actor go for an opportunity they want

Who are the players in The King’s Man?

This is who they are at the start of the film.  Not who they turn out to be or what they turn out to be doing secretly behind the scenes.

Orlando Oxford (played by Ralph Fiennes), who is a wealthy Duke using his connections to work as an envoy for the Red Cross before retreating to his manor and living in splendid isolation

Emily Oxford, who is Orlando’s wife and isn’t in the film long enough to have a personality

Conrad Oxford (played by Harris Dickinson and Alexander Shaw as young Conrad), who is the boy who hero-worships his father and becomes a young man desperate to experience the world, taste independence and prove himself to his father

Polly (played by Gemma Arterton), who is the clever and plain-speaking nanny of the Oxford family

Shola (played by Djimon Hounsou), who is the strong and steadfast servant of the Oxford family

The Shepherd, who is the evil mastermind behind a load of world-wide disasters

The King’s Man cast

What promises do the opening sequences make?

There are three key sequences I want to talk about here:

  1. The opening sequence where 7-year-old Conrad sees his mother killed
  2. The first sight of grown-up Conrad training to fight with his manservant, Shola
  3. The introduction to the Shepherd and the numerous villains

I am going to try and keep my focus tightly on these parts of the film and not sprawl out into a general analysis.  This article is about the promises made to the audience at the start of a narrative.

The opening sequence where young Conrad sees his mother killed

  • There are no jokes, outlandish comic moments, bizarre character quirks or any of the other weirdness associated with the Kingsman series.  This opening sequence is serious in tone and promises the audience a different experience (maybe even a different genre) from the other two films in the franchise.  In that, it delivers.  So… yay?  Unless you wanted something like the first two films.
  • Conrad identifies his close family unit as characters from the Arthurian legends.  He claims he is Lancelot, his father is Arthur and his mother is Guinevere.  I am assuming that is because the only other options for female characters are villains, so he had to pick her.  Still, it’s a bit weird to think of Conrad/Lancelot and Orlando/Arthur fighting over his mother.  Although, since she causes a lot of the problems between them (by dying so inconveniently), maybe it’s more accurate than I first gave it credit for.  Young Conrad also claims Shola is Merlin, and apart from the fact that my brain started screaming “magical negro alert” at me, at least it showed that young Conrad viewed Shola as vital to the family’s success.  This Arthurian theme resurfaces later on but, since this is pretty much the opening piece of the whole film, I did expect the Arthurian theme to play a much bigger part.  It’s really only used as a codeword and then adopted by the Kingsmen as their codenames later on.
  • Emily Oxford, Conrad’s mother, tells him that it is important for them to do good in the world and not hide behind their wealth while the rest of the world suffers.  Then she is shot and, as she dies, she goes back on all these grand principles and makes her husband promise to protect Conrad.  Immediately, the audience expectation is that this will be the main emotional conflict of the story: the clash of principles.  Do privileged people have a moral duty to do some good or should they use their wealth to promote their own safety and comfort at the cost of others?  It sounds like a great start to a story, and it is.  It’s just a pity that this isn’t the story that followed.  As far as I can remember, this moral question was never really addressed.  Later on, Orlando gives a very serious speech about the corruption of his ancestors, without a shred of awareness that it gave him all the privilege he experiences day to day, and without a single hint of a desire to give back any of what he openly admits his family stole from others.  All in all, I wouldn’t say this promise of a moral quandary was delivered on.
  • Shola is the one who protects Conrad and is the fighter of the group.  This is… sort of delivered on.  He continues to be awesome and to protect the family, but he is overshadowed by Orlando, who develops some serious arse-kicking skills out of nowhere, despite the fact the film opens with him as a pacifist, dithering and being shot.  I would say that the expectations about who would turn out to be the fighter of the family are not made clear in this opening sequence.

The first sight of grown-up Conrad fighting Shola

  • The training fight between Conrad and Shola = amazing!  This was the point in the film where I settled in for an incredible spectacle of fights, stunts and special effects.  And… was disappointed.  While this fight is incredible, it’s one of very few fights that happen in the first half of the film.  And one of only two fights (I think) that Conrad is actually involved in.  By opening with this, the film promises that Conrad is the hero of the story, and that he has gone from a child who needs to be protected to someone capable (or becoming capable) of looking after himself.  The audience expects this to be Conrad’s story about going out into the world and learning to be independent.  The King’s Man is very much not that story.  Conrad remains tied to his father’s side for an hour of film time and, as soon as he is out of Orlando’s sight, makes the worst decision possible.
  • The fact that the two opening sequences of the film focus on young Conrad watching the goings-on of the grown-ups around him, and then older Conrad learning to fight, suggests he will be the hero of the story.  Yet the next hour of film is a constant back-and-forth between him and his father, to the point where the audience can’t be sure which one of them is the protagonist and I had no idea which one I was meant to be rooting for.
  • This is the second moment where Shola is spending time alone with Conrad, protecting and teaching him.  The whole opening of the film suggests that the relationship between young gentleman and his wise and faithful manservant will be the core relationship of the story.  Needless to say, this is not the case.
  • Orlando finally appears as a character by having a go at Conrad for wanting to go off adventuring.  This is where we get to see the change that came over Orlando due to his wife’s last wishes.  He went from confident philanthropist, taking his son with him around the world, to isolated gentleman, hiding his son away from the world.  At this point, I was invested.  This was a promise being made to the audience that the main emotional conflict was going to be between the father’s desire to protect his son versus the son’s need to prove himself and live independently.  This whole sequence smacks of setting up a very Finding Nemo-style tale of two people learning to see each other’s point of view.  Does the film deliver?  Well, it does play on this clash for a long time (what seems like a long, long, long time, without there being any emotional development whatsoever) and then suddenly the conflict is over.  Over, not resolved.  I can’t help but feel like the emotional conflict in whole first half of the film was a massive waste of time, if it wasn’t going to deliver any results.

The introduction of the Shepherd and other villains

  • The Shepherd is kept ostentatiously in shadow and silhouette during all of these scenes.  This very deliberate act of keeping the villain’s face concealed makes the promise that, when it is revealed who the Shepherd is, it’s going to be a BIG SURPRISE.  The audience are now eagerly anticipating a Plot Twist Extravaganza at the end.  Did the film deliver?  Well… not to me, it didn’t.  I had expected that character to reappear at some point, and so it didn’t amaze me.  I am also of the opinion that, if I can work it out, anyone can, since I am famously terrible at guessing plot twists.  Not helped by the fact that, when their face was revealed, both myself and the person I saw the film with didn’t recognise who it was.  If the major twist is dependent upon shock value, maybe make it really obvious because dragging out that reveal while they explain who they are and how they came to be the villain isn’t the gasp-in-surprise reaction you were aiming for.
  • There are about a dozen villains sat round that table.  Having them there suggests that they will become important.  And were they?  Well, not really.  Some of them sort of got involved and good for them; it’s the taking part that counts.  Really what having so many villains suggests is that this is a vast conspiracy, and that the film will be a sprawling epic.  Can a single film deliver on that promise?  Ummmm…
  • Rasputin spends simply ages arguing with the bloke next to him about what animal he gets on his ring.  For context, the Shepherd has provided all the evil minions with a signet ring, each with a different animal engraved on it.  Because so much time is spent talking about who has which animal (instead of discussing their evil villain schemes), this promises the audience that the animals will be significant.  Are the animals symbolic of their personalities?  Do the animals relate to their part in the evil plot?  Can the plucky heroes use the rings to decode the evil plot or work out anything at all to do with their investigation into this conspiracy?  The answer: no, no they can’t.  The animals are never mentioned again.  The Shepherd may as well have had a number printed on them.
  • The Shepherd has a thing about goats.  Ok, I have to admit that this promise of goat-based shenanigans was one of the promises that the narrative delivered on.  The goats had a minor part to play in the denouement and a significant part to play in discovering the secret location of the villain’s evil lair.  Yay for the goats!

Conclusion: what I think about the promises made in the opening of this film

There were some really great promises made in the opening parts of The King’s Man.

Unfortunately, most of these promises weren’t realised.

That’s not to say that the film didn’t have its moments, but constantly setting up a character or narrative arc and then doing something else instead doesn’t lead to a fulfilling experience.  The biggest promise that this film made in the opening section that it actually delivered was that it was going to have long sections of serious, non-action in recognisable historical places.

There were some elements in the story that were linked to the promises made at the start, but did not actually fulfill those promises.  More promise-adjacent than anything else, really.

If you want to identify what promises you are making in the opening of your story

  • Does it have the same tone as the rest of your story?  That can include POV, narrative voice, focus on the protagonists, events and themes.  If you couldn’t possibly put your opening section in the middle of your story because it wouldn’t fit the tone at all, then you’ve got yourself a problem.
  • Which character are you focusing on?  Whoever the audience is introduced to first, that is who they will latch onto.  If you’re building up to introducing your hero/protagonist, then make sure it’s clear that this character is a stand-in for the real deal.
  • Are the conflicts your protagonist is facing the same sort of conflicts they will face throughout the rest of the story?  Even if it’s not exactly the same, it should be thematically linked: whatever weakness they are trying to overcome, whatever goal they are pursuing, you are setting those up as the main focuses of the story.  The audience will expect that, by the end of the film, the protagonist will have overcome their weakness and achieved their goal.  Switching to something completely different will feel disjointed and emotionally unsatisfying.
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