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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

October 28, 2015: 21st Century Villains: Richmond Valentine



[For this year’s installment of my annual Halloween series, I’ll focus on 21st century pop culture villains. Share your favorite villains, new or classic, in comments!]
On a supervillain who combines a unique American performance with a very familiar British plot.
Richmond Valentine, the principal villain in the recent action film Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015; adapted from the six-issue Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar comic book entitled simply The Secret Service), is an eccentric genius billionaire who also happens to have a secret plan for world domination and a secret weapon with which to execute said plan. If that sounds like the plot of roughly half of the James Bond films (and nearly all of the Roger Moore ones), that’s precisely the point: the comic book was about MI6 (the British spy agency for which James Bond works, otherwise known as Her Majesty’s Secret Service); and while the film creates its own titular secret spy organization instead, it also namechecks James Bond films quite specifically, with a particular focus on those with the more extreme plots and villains.
Yet if Richmond Valentine is in those ways intentionally familiar (and, it would seem, more suitable for a blog entitled BritishStudier), he’s also something very new, and that’s due entirely to the iconic American actor portraying him: Samuel L. Jackson. Despite his well-deserved reputation as a total badass, for this role Jackson makes a series of choices (and they were, apparently, his choices) that make the character into quite the opposite: besides the prominent lisp discussed in that hyperlinked article, Jackson also gives Valentine Coke-bottle glasses and a deathly fear of the sight of blood (his own or anyone else’s). While he’s right to note (also in that article) that most James Bond villains had their own peculiarities (Dr. No’s missing hands, to cite the foundational example), I would argue that Valentine’s are played far more fully for laughs than those were, putting them in an uneasy and even contradictory relationship with the character’s extreme, dangerous villainy.
To quote the English professor’s favorite question, “So what?” It’s true that the uneasy balance of comedy and violence is not new to this action film (most of those same Roger Moore Bond films strove for both effects), but in this case I would argue that it’s far from coincidental that the film’s much more serious gentleman spies are English, while the more comic and extreme villain is American. Concurrently, the film’s most famous action sequence features Colin Firth massacring a church full of American white supremacists, a scene that seems designed to produce both enjoyment (as these American extremists get what they deserve) and queasiness (as this refined English hero turns into a violent killer, thanks explicitly to Valentine’s secret super weapon). Which is to say, another uneasy and even contradictory balance, and one once again tied to the relationship between England and America, or more exactly stereotypical and extreme versions of both places. All of which makes Richmond Valentine and the film that features him very sociologically (if not aesthetically) interesting.
Next villain tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other villains you’d highlight?

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