How X-Men and Kingsman writer Jane Goldman conquered Hollywood

The British screenwriter went from presenting paranormal TV shows to penning Kick-Ass and Stardust

Jane Goldman

In 2003, Jane Goldman, a seasoned journalist and author specialising in video games, The X-Files and advice for teens, was invited to front her own joss stick-infused paranormal documentary programme. Jane Goldman Investigates ran for two series, with its presenter, all striking scarlet locks and floaty Goth wardrobe, open-mindedly covering ghosts, aliens and water-devining.

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In the edition about spell-casting, she announced, “This week, I’ll be discovering if I can change the world by a wave of my wand.” Under Wiccan supervision, she created a magic potion for comedian David Baddiel designed “to unlock his tennis potential”. He happens to be the singles partner of Goldman’s husband, Jonathan Ross, who conceded after the match that Baddiel managed “one good serve”.

Within three years of this stalled venture into TV presenting, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Goldman really had waved a wand and unlocked her own potential. Never mind a serve, we’re talking about a phenomenal rally that shows no signs of stopping. Her fortunes changed in 2007 when she co-wrote her first screenplay with producer/director Matthew Vaughn, the English fairy tale Stardust, replete with, yes, ghosts and witches.

After that, the pair adapted the cartoonishly violent caper Kick-Ass from the British graphic novel, winning awards from the Writers’ Guild and the UK Film Council, and igniting a Daily Mail-fanned controversy around its pre-teen superhero Hit-Girl and her violent villain-dicing ways and extensive use of strong language.

I found myself in an online spat with Mail critic Chris Tookey over his fears that the character might attract paedophiles, which I felt was reactionary. Goldman recently drew a line under the matter, telling The Guardian, “It says a lot of tragic things about our society that the only way [Hit-Girl] could be not sexualised was by being 11. But that’s the grim reality, folks.”

Kick-Ass’s success led to the dream gig of the X-Men franchise’s fifth instalment, First Class (Saturday C4), once Vaughn was signed as director. (Also hired for the third X-Men film, The Last Stand, he’d admirably pulled out rather than uproot his family to LA for a year.) She and Vaughn were playing with the big boys now, and a big budget: an X-Men film cost around $150 million compared to Kick-Ass’s $30 million.

Reworking the script signed off by two other writers, our duo took the brand in hand and created a compelling origins reboot using elements of the comic-book canon and taking it in new directions. “We wanted to avoid it being a crash bang, here’s-your-action-sequence summer movie,” Goldman stated.

Indeed, it was a shot in the arm and took $353 million at the box office. The Hollywood Reporter called it “audacious, confident and fuelled by youthful energy” (Goldman was 41, Vaughn 40, but it’s all relative).

Instead of resting on their laurels, Vaughn turned down the next X-Men movie and they ignited their own franchise based on another British comic, Kingsman, by Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar. First up, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a daft, adult spy caper that spoofs Bond and places what we used to call a “chav” in a reluctant agent role. It quadrupled its budget in ticket sales, and a sequel is out on Wednesday 20 September.

Meanwhile, Goldman has branched out on her own, adapting Hammer ghost story The Woman in Black and Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which, she says, appeals to her as “an outsider story”.

If she ever was an outsider, she’s firmly inside the citadel now. In 2015, UK film magazine Little White Lies named her as the seventh best female screenwriter working today. This was faint praise (even though she was two ahead of ET’s Melissa Matheson), but Goldman’s gradual storming of Hollywood – not just as a woman, but as a Brit based in the UK – goes against entrenched patriarchal orthodoxy in the fantasy, superhero and comic-book action arena.

These films, aimed at boys, are also usually produced by boys. Even the recent Wonder Woman, empoweringly directed by Patty Jenkins and co-produced by Deborah Snyder, was written by four blokes.

Goldman’s exponentially ascendant stock helps to cement this welcome shift. Her latest outing, Victorian mystery The Limehouse Golem (in cinemas now), is an adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s fictionalised truestory novel that cleverly teases out elements that interest her, including foregrounding the lead detective’s homosexuality.

Both a slave to and, I understand, a master of the vast online role-playing game World of Warcraft, Goldman seems to possess a command of the shifting elements that can only come from supreme concentration and an ordered mind. Unless, of course, she really is a witch.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service is on Sunday 9.00pm