No matter if he’s working stateside or east of the Atlantic where he was raised, Matthew Vaughn’s keenly British sensibilities rarely falter in delivering the best in mid-budget entertainment. Though his accessible talents seem to have primed him for handing the biggest of blockbuster ventures, the financial disappointment of his biggest (and best) film X-Men: First Class left him with his current command of the Kingsman franchise.
Despite middling returns in the US, the Kingsman films have done well thanks to overseas box office numbers, providing a stepping-stone to the Man of Steel sequel should everything unfold properly. Vaughn’s buoyant touch would be a refreshing tonic in contrast to the color-muted destruction of that 2013 Superman film, but whatever Vaughn’s next project – a third Kingsman would be rather welcome – that movie is bound to be enjoyable. Here’s the list of top Mathew Vaughn movies.
6. Stardust (2007)
Based on the Neil Gaiman novel from 1999, Stardust softened the darker edges of its source material into something closely resembling The Princess Bride. Fantasy-light to a tee, Stardust is a yarn worth wasting an evening on thanks to the good-humored tone and its fairly stacked cast. Charlie Cox and Claire Danes make for decent romantic leads as they act opposite an impressive supporting cast that includes Mark Strong, Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Peter O’Toole. Stardust is the least characteristic of Vaughn’s overall style and yet the B-movie whimsy is mildly infectious in its own way. At best Stardust established the beginning of a fruitful screenwriting partnership between Vaughn and Jane Goldman.
5. Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)
To say the Kingsman sequel is easily Vaughn’s weakest film is to do a disservice to what the director put forth in his ludicrous continuation of R-rated Bond-inspired mayhem. Critics largely panned The Golden Circle, and its flaws aren’t difficult to spot – Elton John’s cringe inducing extended cameo can’t be ignored. But in terms of expanding the comic book universe from which these movies are based, providing Eggsy’s character with greater depth and a formidable villain (the scenery-chewing Julianne Moore) and notching up the insanely dynamic action a few degrees, the second Kingsman builds upon everything Vaughn pulled off so well in the first film. It’s excesses in length and violence are only disagreeable if you were already irritated by the choices made in The Secret Service – otherwise it’s a sufficient sequel.
4. Kick-Ass (2010)
Part of the momentary trend of “What if superheroes were REAL” among the continuous cape-flick obsession of the 21st century, Kick-Ass appeared to break the mold back in 2010, paving the way for the likes of Deadpool. Super, released just months later, is the same kind of film with half the fuss. Kick-Ass was the first adaptation of the Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. comic book series and, despite its attributes, the movie is really only worth remembering for a young Chloë Grace Moretz in her best role and a classically unrestrained performance by Nicolas Cage. Aaron Johnson is a charisma void, and he nearly sucks the life out of this fringe film of the 21st century’s most lucrative genre. Kick-Ass is nonetheless mischievously charming and was Vaughn’s first real foray into winning over domestic audiences – the film is worth its salt just in the cult following it has accumulated.
3. Layer Cake (2004)
Vaughn got his own start in film by giving Guy Ritchie his big break – producing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch made both Brits quite a bit of money. That said the only criticism to point out about the otherwise skillfully created Layer Cake is that Vaughn hadn’t quite found his voice as an auteur yet, and his directorial debut feels like a stylistic imitation of Ritchie. But Daniel Craig’s extended audition tape for the role of James Bond also made for a rock solid first crack at filmmaking for Vaughn, establishing him as a man of sharpened control over his material even if this is the one script he had no hand in writing. Imposing visual flair where you least expect it, Vaughn turns a convoluted crime-noir plot into a blissfully black-comic thriller. Though the influences of Bond seep through the cracks of nearly every film of his, the minimalism of Layer Cake favors paranoia and menace over cheek and gadgetry.
2. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Kingsman was the perfect match for Vaughn’s slight sense of self-awareness and bravura sensibilities in pacing and fight sequences. For all of its flagrant attitudes and unswerving flippancy, the first Kingsman was able to embrace both parody and unabashed homage of James Bond in inspired, spectacular fashion. The profanity and gleeful violence are just the dressing for a substantial action film that established Vaughn as a director of relatively unmatched kinetic aptitude. With a modest but sizable budget to play around with, Vaughn wove all his interests into his best of two adaptations of Mark Millar’s work. This sendup of spy tropes makes it look easy to take a crack at the secret agent film and Vaughn’s ease in filmmaking is equally comfortable to watch.
1. X-Men: First Class (2011)
One of modern times’ few uncluttered superhero films, First Class is the unassuming precipice of the X-Men franchise and furthermore one of the most overlooked pieces of caped cinema this current decade has to offer. Vaughn flirted with the idea of helming the eventual Brett Ratner-directed X-Men sequel The Last Stand in 2006, of which Vaughn was ultimately very critical. After the disaster of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Vaughn was tapped to breathe new life into the property and wipe the floundering franchise’s slate clean – which the Bryan Singer-directed sequel Days of Future Past would quite literally do by the end of its time travel plot.
Vaughn helped write Days of Future Past and First Class, and his own preboot is better than equivalents of same era like Star Trek, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Batman Begins. As a 0-to-100-kickstart for a series begging to be modernized, First Class is in the same league as Casino Royale for delicate blockbuster diversion and surgical course correction, regardless of where the newly forged paths led. Just as a standalone origin story on Charles Xavier founding the School for Gifted Youngsters and his unique friendship with Erik Lehnsherr, this is the quintessential X-Men film. First Class expertly explores the material’s allegories, properly contrasts the ideologies of the clashing lead characters and adds some of the strangest X-Men into the cinematic superhero lexicon.
Most importantly for the film’s peculiar sense of style and humor, the 60s setting is a wonderful backdrop for the camp (some of the special effects are delightfully cheesy) and coolness of the X-Men universe. Vaughn is at his most restrained here, not giving in to all-consuming spectacle that has come to define the genre in the years since 2011. This is an exceptionally character-driven X-Men film – especially with Wolverine not hogging the spotlight – and yet moments like Magneto raising a submarine out of the water are awe-inspiring and, best of all, earned. James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto is also perfect casting and their talents lend an unprecedented gravitas to the X-Men series and superhero films in general. Vaughn’s leash was never longer and X-Men: First Class is the best example of the director’s striking panache.
Read More: All X-Men Movies, Ranked