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The spy movie is dying, despite efforts to reform it in recent years. In this episode we examine Argylle, the latest spy comedy film to hit a major streaming service. We analyse its politics and why it has proved a commercial failure, and reflect on where the spy film genre has gone in recent years.

Some of you may remember the Kingsman movie franchise, the brainchild of Mark Millar and Matthew Vaughn, which has spun off into books and video games too. As part of the same overall universe Apple and Universal Pictures recently released Argylle, also directed by Matthew Vaughn.

The film was made by Marv, Vaughn’s studio, and sold to Apple for $200 million. Universal and Apple split the $80 million marketing budget between them and it seems those marketing costs have to be covered (from the box office sales) before Universal gets paid any kind of distribution fee. Frankly, it’s a shit deal for Universal and it seems they only got on board in the hope of doing future business with Vaughn, and accepted they might lose money on this film.

And lose money they will – both Apple and Universal – because Argylle was released in late January and has taken a little over $92 million so far, dropping 63% from week one to week two. Conventionally, a film like this would be looking at around $500 million in sales just to break even, because you factor in $200 million in production costs (or acquisition costs if you just buy it from whoever made it) another $80-100 million in marketing, and then the exhibitors, the actual cinemas where the film is showing, take their 40% or more of the ticket price.

So why did they do this? Universal will lose money but are trying to make friends with Vaughn. $40 million in marketing costs for a film he’s sold to Apple, and taking on distribution costs to get it into 3,600 movie theatres, seems like an expensive way to make friends but such is Hollywood. Apple aren’t looking to make back that $200 million (plus more for marketing) via the box office, they’re hoping it drives more subscriptions to Apple TV+. A recent article by Deadline noted:

Apple Services, the division that includes Apple TV+, is up 11% to $23 billion in the latest quarter, with Apple TV+ subscriptions over a billion.

If your content division is making $23 billion a quarter and your company is worth $2.7 trillion then it’s far easier to absorb a string of $200 million box office flops, because you’re making money another way. That’s why they bought Argylle from Marv, as part of an overall content library to attract more customers in the streaming wars. They will have also looked at the popularity of the Kingsman films, and a cast for Argylle that includes Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Rockwell, Henry Cavill, Bryan Cranston, John Cena, Dua Lipa and Samuel L Jackson. It’s the inverse of doing a prestige picture, but to the same ends.

Let me elaborate.

A conventional movie studio doesn’t just make films in the hope of turning a profit, they also care about their reputations, the studio’s brand value and winning awards. The way the Academy works, they almost never nominate big budget, popular movies for the Best Picture Oscar. Looking back over the last ten winners, several of these films didn’t even top $100 million in sales, a few were in the $100-200 million range and one, Green Book (a film I’ve never seen) topped $300 million. Meanwhile, there are James Bond and Pirates of the Caribbean films released in that timeframe that costs over $300 million just to produce, but they don’t win Best Picture or Best Original Screenplay awards. The bottom line is that some films have won Best Picture while losing money.

For a nouveau riche streaming company, without a century of actually making films and building up a reputation with audiences for both high quality entertainment and prestige pictures, you have to try to buy those things. Even if Argylle itself loses money overall it still shows that Apple are capable of acquiring a film with big name actors and an in-demand director, it helps transfer some of that brand value onto Apple, and Apple TV+ in particular.

Apple are good at appealing to people who think they’re better than other people because they have an iPhone – the superiority of the product supposedly transfers onto the person purchasing it. And no doubt, Apple computers are better than most, but a lot of people buy superior technology then use it in the exact same way people use cheaper, perhaps off-brand versions of the same thing. By entering into the streaming wars in a big way, as Apple have done over the last few years, they have to shift the perception among customers of what they’re selling and to whom.

Hence, Argylle and films like it. They might lose money in the short-term, but those subscriptions keep racking up lots of money regardless of whether people are enjoying the movies and TV those subscriptions enable them to access. At the same time, they help establish Apple as a place you can get not just higher-end, expensively-produced TV but also popular, cheesy movies you can stick on to kill a couple of hours of your life. And by ‘kill’ I don’t mean that in a nasty way, simply that such films are disposable, you won’t be rewatching them in the years to come.

As for Matthew Vaughn – having established Kingsman as a popular franchise he’s trying to build it out into a cinematic universe, with Argylle the first film in a planned trilogy, and another trilogy involving other characters also in the works, then crossover films and blah blah blah. I don’t know if Vaughn or anyone in Hollywood realises that the third Kingsman film lost money, only taking about a quarter as much as either of the first two. And that the only people who really managed to make a cinematic universe work were Marvel, and now that’s falling apart, while DC abandoned any notion of a truly interconnected universe years ago.

Thus, the notion of trying to create an entire universe with fresh characters that people haven’t been introduced to before, have no prior connection with, with three different trilogies that then link together is not only an expensive hassle, it’s pointless and won’t prove commercially viable. So far he’s made four films in this universe – the three Kingsman movies and now Argylle, and while the first two took over $400 million each, the overall balance sheet for this universe is barely breaking even, if at all.

But because Hollywood has completely run out of ideas and here’s a guy who at least has an idea – if not a good one – I expect he’ll get to carry on with this experiment in not especially good film-making.

What is Argylle?

For anyone who hasn’t seen Kingsman, it’s about a secret service, very British, who operate separately from the government intelligence agencies. The first one shows a lad from a council estate, played by Taron Egerton, getting inducted into this secret world, going through training, doing his first missions. The second one sees him as a fully-fledged agent in the field doing… whatever.

What stands out about these movies is entirely stylistic. The action is extremely choreographed, often set to ridiculous music, often with brightly-coloured lights or smoke or some other visual component for the characters to move through. However, there’s little if any blood or gore, despite the ultra-violent nature of the action.

This is partly because the lack of people suffering (either in terms of their body or seeing them scream and whimper in pain) helps you get a lower age certificate, and hence make more money. Well, that’s the plan. But I also find the films take a psychopathic approach to violence that’s played off as parody but is actually more disturbing than the thing it is parodying.

You will have noticed in James Bond movies that goons get killed. Warehouse full of black-suited goons with machine guns? They just get shot and fall over the railings and die. Their lives don’t matter. I’m OK with that, more or less, but not when someone takes the same premise – the corridor or basement full of armed goons – and kills them in a balletic, hyper-stylised dance routine with guns and pyrotechnics, turn it into the Superbowl half-time show. Instead of merely being an unrealistic means of getting Bond from one side of the gantry to the other (he just runs firing a machine gun and hits everyone), it becomes a pageant of violence, a celebration of it.

Look at the anonymous men getting slaughtered to retro pop music as the disco lights flash. Look at their meaningless bodies and souls being ripped apart in slow motion, but without any blood. Watch as the life drains out of them while Cristina Aguilera bangs away on the soundtrack. I’m sure Vaughn would claim he’s playing on the absurdity of these scenes in movies-gone-by, but he isn’t – he’s trying to make violence cool for children.

I have noticed a trend in both video games and major movies over the last decade or so where large crowds get slaughtered. Part of this is a reaction to all the praise people gave to the Lord of the Rings battle sequences – their scale was what got highlighted and hyped up the most. Since then the anonymous CGI horde getting slaughtered in a massive-scale battle has become a recurring trope, and I have a problem with that.

I feel nothing watching dozens if not hundreds of CGI monster things getting slaughtered, so why is it in the film? Whether it’s those weird dog-like things at the end of The Avengers bursting through the force field around Wakanda or the almost identical things in Suicide Squad that Will Smith just shoots, over and over, until they’re all dead. It’s the ultimate in the faceless enemy image – a threat you feel nothing about, except that it’s a threat. From a storytelling point of view this is weak, it’s far better to have a proper enemy who meets a dramatic death, because people feel a lot more when Hans Gruber is dropped from the skyscraper in Die Hard than they do when faceless CGI animal alien thing #3812 gets shot by CGI cannon.

So I ask again, why are they in the film? It seems, as an excuse to have prolonged violence and show that killing lots of things, whatever they are, is somehow the answer to life’s problems. And then you get Matthew Vaughn doing essentially the same thing, but the things that die are people, and it’s done with the same overall tone as The X-Factor. Which, ironically enough, was also created by a psychopath who likes to exploit young people, manipulate them, turn them into something they’re not and then sell that to others.

But the point of this podcast is not solely to talk about cinematic violence and the consequences of it. We should discuss Argylle itself.

You might think with a title like ‘Argylle’ that this would be a movie about a guy called Argylle. You’d be wrong. Our main character, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, is a spy novelist who lives in a small but mysteriously modern house by a lake. Dunno if you’ve ever been to a lake but they don’t tend to have 21st century houses built next to them, because someone has already go there.

Accomodatory ambiguities aside, Elly has published four books in her ‘Argylle’ series and is finishing work on the fifth. We see her at a press conference come meet and greet for fans of her work, and someone asks where she gets her ideas, pointing to Ian Fleming, John Le Carre and Frederick Forsyth as all having ‘the same touch’ and all being true life spies. She brushes him off saying it’s just a lot of research.

However, on the train on the way home she meets a real life spy, played by Sam Rockwell, who tells her that her books are predictions, they’re coming true in the real world of espionage.

This is what attracted me to this film – the concept of a spy author whose books start coming true. It’s a little bit Basic Instinct, a little like some other higher-concept spy movies we’ve looked at. You’ll probably recall The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, where Nic Cage plays a version of himself working for the CIA, or For All Eyes Always, about the CIA creating its own reality TV show following an operative around as he assassinates people. I like a concept film, and despite knowing who was behind Argylle I felt it was worth the risk.

The film itself is something of a let-down. As a reviewer from CBC put it, ‘The movie’s meta-backstory is much more interesting than its actual story.’ In early marketing Vaughn and others said the movie was based on a series of novels, but no one could find these novels. Then the trailer revealed that the purported author of these books, Elly Conway, was the film’s protagonist. Some people started speculating about who the real author was, with some especially dippy obsessives concluding it was Taylor Swift, because for some reason people are fixated on her despite her obviously being a robot whose hair never gets longer or shorter and whose eyes have that Stepford Wife ‘the lights are on but the processor’s crashed’ emptiness to them.

I digress.

Shortly before the film premiered the true authors of the tie-in book revealed themselves and the book came out. But this book is the first book in the Argylle series, whereas the film tells the story of the fourth book, or possibly the fifth book. And then at the end of the movie there’s a mid-credits sequence set 20 years earlier than introduces the real Argylle and shows him being recruited as a spy, and apparently the future Argylle films will be about him and not about Elly.

Which begs the question: why the whole meta-ruse?

Brutally honestly, because without this whole meta-ruse there isn’t much to this movie. As Sam Rockwell explains, Elly is trying to finish her fifth book but can’t figure out the ending. The events in the book are mirroring real world events as Sam Rockwell is working for a dastardly intelligence agency but trying to take them down from the inside by obtaining and exposing a master file of all their employees and evil deeds. It’s basically the same list as in The Recruit and the first Mission: Impossible movie.

But no one knows where the list is, and it seems Elly’s imagination is key to finding it because when she finishes her novel that will explain the location of the MacGuffin. As it turns out, it isn’t her imagination at all, it’s her memory – she’s a Jason Bourne type, highly skilled but with no previous memory of her life as a spy. As she recovers her memory and her skills come back she and Sam Rockwell take down the evil intelligence agency, blah blah.

So you see, if it wasn’t for this elaborate ruse with whether the books really existed and who really wrote them and so on, you wouldn’t actually have a movie. You’d be left with a ‘person who isn’t a spy gets inducted into the secret world of spies’ story, which is getting pretty tired by now.

Reddit level Gender Politics and Misogyny in Argylle

The other thing I found interesting about this film is having a female protagonist, something we’ve seen far more of in the 21st century, and it hits on some beats we’ve felt before. Elly, Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, is a bit curvy and a bit frumpy, has one of those very long fringes that bookish college students have that go down over their eyebrows. This is somewhat similar to Melissa McCarthy’s character in Spy, making the chonkier ladies at home feel like they could be a spy, too.

Towards the end of the film there’s an annoyingly long action shoot-em-up sequence at the headquarters of evil spy agency, in which Elly does an annoyingly long bit where she’s skating around on knives jammed into the soles of her boots. Apparently in her past life, which she’s now remembering, she was very good at skating. This is another trope I’ve noticed in female-oriented spy films – the hidden talent. Again, it’s about appealing to women in the audience who feel their talents aren’t recognised or appreciated (a common feeling, to be sure) and then they suddenly show the whole world and they’re all shocked because they didn’t believe that woman was so incredibly fabulous and amazing (a common fantasy of the self-absorbed).

There’s also a third main character, Alfie the cat. Alfie spends most of the film being carried around in one of those cat backpacks with the plastic bubble so the cat can look out and see the world around it. He also gets dropped off a building, is nearly shot dead, and overcomes Bryan Cranston at a vital moment in the story. Inasmuch as this story has any vital moments, that is. Along with Captain Marvel, this is the second Samuel L Jackson film I’ve seen where the best performance is by a cat that is partly CGI.

Alfie is Elly’s cat – she lives in her super-modern lakeside home with him, and she insists on taking him with her everywhere she goes, even on the elaborate spy adventure she is drawn into. Initially, Sam Rockwell pretends he likes cats but it later turns out he is allergic, causing Elly to ask him how she can trust him given he lied about liking her cat?

This is what we might call Reddit-level gender politics, where people go to analyse every last thing someone said, didn’t say, did, didn’t do in order to establish whether they are a walking red flag who is surely planning to serial kill them any day now. The Reddit ‘Am I the Asshole?’ is absolutely full of people complaining that their new boyfriend/girlfriend or possibly husband/wife of several years is now suddenly trying to force them to get rid of their pet. The usual response from people is to get rid of the boyfriend/girfriend/husband/wife, and I agree.

My point being that this is designed to push very specific buttons among those women (by which I mostly mean white American feminists) who see a man lying about being allergic to cats as clear evidence that he’s… whatever. Whatever sick fantasy actually lies within these people that they then project onto others.

So you could see this as a feminist movie in a few places, and it’s certainly a movie aimed at women. But like so many of these sorts of films, it isn’t just nasty in encouraging hostile stereotypes of men, it’s also nasty in being condescending as all hell to women.

As I said, the film is called Argylle and is intended as a launch pad for a trilogy about Argylle, not about Elly. Even though she’s now recovered her memory and is back to kicking ass and skating around a concrete basement that’s filling up with crude oil, slashing and hacking goons left and right, her story is over. One film, that’s all she gets. And the whole ‘she’s a novelist and her novels predict the future or are they actually memories of her past as a spy’ premise, which is the only original or interesting thing about this movie, is also abandoned.

So not only is the whole meta-ruse a set-up for something much more conventional and boring, the foregrounding of Elly as the protagonist is actually in service of a typical white male British spy story like we got in the Kingsman films. Her entire character arc, from mildly frumpy spy novelist who engages in rich, elaborate fantasies that turn out to be suppressed memories from her time as an actual spy, to recovering her memory (Captain Marvel style) and becoming spy super-heroine is all just a set up for Henry Cavill’s character.

While the movie leads us to believe that this character – Argylle – is fictional, a figment of her imagination but also a connection to her true self, it turns out he’s real and that the remainder of the trilogy will be about him, not her. So, they fronted this with a female character in order to draw in female audiences and critics – and it sort of worked. The breakdown of ticket sales are 52% male to 48% female (they don’t seem to include other genders in these breakdowns, because Hollywood isn’t as liberal and progressive at they make out they are). It’s almost 50-50, which for a high-action spy film is unusual, though films like Spy and The Spy Who Dumped Me have established that there is a market for this kind of movie among women. Ditto, responses from samples of male audience members got a 73% positive score, whereas with women it was 78% positive. This is much, much higher, more positive than the responses of critics and professional reviewers, for both men and women, but nonetheless, women liked this movie more.

The culmination of the film sees Sam Rockwell and Bryce Dallas Howard infiltrating the headquarters of evil spy agency, and as I say the extended action sequence includes her skating around a concrete bunker where the floor is covered in crude oil. She does this while wearing a gold spangly dress, which mysteriously never gets soiled or dirty, and she’s also wearing gold spangly anti-pervert shorts underneath. Again, one might see this as feminist, but the only reason us, the perverts in the audience, get to the see the gold, spangly anti-pervert shorts is because this sequence includes no end of high-kicking upskirt shots.

Thus, while the film contains some distinctly misandrist (i.e. hateful of men) stereotypes, it’s also fairly misogynistic (i.e. hateful of women). We saw this in Operation Christmas Drop and USS Christmas – clearly films aimed at women, with strong romantic elements where the subject of these floozies’ insatiable lust is some 7 foot Aryan-looking Nazi recruitment poster dude. Both of those films contain women saying quite insulting and reductive things about men, to get all the single women at home with their cats to shout out ‘you go girlfriend’, but also patronise women to an extraordinary degree. As I keep saying, the gender war is being manufactured.

The upshot of all this is that Argylle is another of those films that has a superficially subversive gloss but ultimately is as old-fashioned, backward-looking and stuck in the mud as any generic spy film. The people who take down the evil spy agency are nonetheless spies who lie, cheat, steal, kill. Our heroes are barely distinct from our villains, except that we like them because it’s set up that way. And because our two leads, Sam Rockwell and Bryce Dallas Howard, put in strong performances.

It is perhaps unfair to compare such a movie to a true classic like Basic Instinct, but in that film we also have a female protagonist who is an author whose books start to come true – in that she starts murdering people in the same way as murders take place in her novels.

Whereas Basic Instinct has a second and third act that exploits this convoluted set-up without excessively twisting the plot every 10 minutes, Argylle descends into endless twists just to keep the story alive and try to disguise the fact that it is a fairly weak genre parody, a knock-off Austin Powers. All the cleverness dissipates and it has the same basic ending as the two Kingsman films that I’ve seen, and I assume the third one also. The premise is clever, but is turned on its head because it turns out she isn’t predicting anything, she’s remembering things she’d forgotten. Which reduces that clever premise to little more than a marketing hook – and one that worked on me because it made me watch the film.

I’m also left wondering what the industrial eagerness for this sort of film, despite its commercial floppiness, says about where the spy movie is right now. This sort of globetrotting, complexly-plotted story is far better suited to TV, and the best spy films of recent years have almost all been comedies. The better parts of The Courier (supported by the CIA) is the first half, which is more upbeat and happy, before it turns into a depressing prison movie. My Spy, with Dave Bautista (also supported by the CIA) is consistently funny, and the suburban spy comedies like Keeping Up with the Joneses aren’t half bad either. The only significant variation on this trend towards comedies are films like A Call to Spy (supported by the CIA) and The Catcher Was a Spy, and they were both OSS memorial films, historical dramas set in WW2.

We’ve also had The 355, Red Sparrow and Atomic Blonde, more lady-fronted spy stories and the Michael Bay movie 6 Underground, which was made with a lot of help from the military of the United Arab Emirates. I’ve not seen 6 Underground, but it’s about a bunch of zombie soldiers who’ve faked their own deaths so they can stage a coup against a fictional Central Asian dictator. It cost Netflix $150 million, and was so badly received that a planned sequel was cancelled.

The other exception to the reduction of spy films to feminist claptrap, comedies or historical dramas is Official Secrets, which tells the story of GCHQ whistleblower Katherine Gunn. It’s a very good drama, pretty accurate from what I know of the true story and it’s the best performance I’ve seen from Keira Knightley.

Thus, I think Argylle is a symbol, representative of this weird moment in the history of the spy movie. While some action franchises masquerading as spy films, notably the Fast and Furious franchise and Mission: Impossible, are still raking in serious money, for the most part spy films are commercially unsuccessful. Even the latest Mission: Impossible barely broke even, though that’s because it’s 12 hours long, was filmed on 9 continents including in space and Tom Cruise had to get his DNA altered in order to do one particular stunt.

I kid, but you know what those films are like.

Argylle sits at the centre of this trend – it is a commercial failure, it’s mostly an action film rather than a spy film, it’s got a female lead but that’s just exploitative and shallow and an attempt to market the film to ladies with Apple TV+, it’s ostensibly a comedy but the jokes run out pretty quick, and while it isn’t historical it’s setting up a franchise that’s partly set in the past, paying homage to the gentleman spies of old. And makes references to that British spy tradition with the question about Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth and John Le Carre.

And if all that wasn’t enough, it’s an attempt to expand the Kingsman franchise into a whole cinematic universe that no one asked for and it seems not many people want, at a time when every other cinematic universe is either disintegrating or has been abandoned.

Which leaves me with one final question: why the hell did this film get made? Why do spy films, but only three specific kinds of spy films, keep getting produced when it seems the market for them is neither large, nor loyal? Who or what is pushing these trends and trying to maintain this genre? The spy movie has been done to death, there are no original ideas beyond ‘James Bond is really sexist, so the answer is to have lots of female James Bonds who don’t get their own franchise’. And that’s hardly an original idea, since they’ve been doing that since Alias, which debuted in 2001.

The obvious suspect is the spy agencies themselves, and consultancies like SpyCraft entertainment, because who else is actively pushing the spy movie? Who else has so much at stake in the genre? And who else is demonstrably involved in several of these recent films that we know of, and likely some others besides? I am not saying the CIA wrote Argylle, partly because I think they would have done a better job, but in terms of the overall industrial dynamics and the persistence of this reformatted genre that is the modern spy film, I’m sure they have a major influence.