Having not grown up on the show, The Avengers film feels incredibly distant — a ghost of the past that had been sleeping peacefully until the memory of it was awoken, violently, only to suffer. Like a fever dream, I question my memories of that 1998 disaster and what actually happened, but moreso, I ask why it was allowed to exist. The truth is quite simple: mistakes were made.
Based on the popular ‘60s TV show of the same name, this was an attempt to update and recapture the magic of a charming spy thriller with a solid aesthetic, but it’s a throwback that completely missed. The plot sees Agent John Steed (Ralph Fiennes) and Dr. Emma Peel (Uma Thurman) pitted against Sir August de Wynter (Sean Connery) — a classic mad scientist who has used technology to control the weather and is attempting to hold the world hostage because he isn’t rich enough already. It’s a worse version of the story in The Tomorrow People’s “The Monsoon Man” episode. Watch that instead.
Some people do like this film, and I get that the music isn’t bad. The original John Steed (Patrick Macnee) makes a cameo, the visuals certainly aren’t the problem (barring a few odd cuts and in-camera effects), and there is a certain level of cheese some people might appreciate, but it struggles to work as a complete experience. Parts of the story don’t make sense or are dropped, the bad guys leave a map under a van for some reason, establishing shots of London don’t have people, and there are few extras overall, but most viewers only know this one for the boardroom meeting in different colored bear suits. It’s like the cheesiness is so well integrated that we miss the joke — if there was one to begin with.
The cast is excellent, so it’s amazing how bad the acting comes across. Fans of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter will recognize several faces, like Jim Broadbent as Mother and Fiona Shaw as Father, while Eddie Izzard, who thought her character was more intimidating being silent, asked for her lines to be removed only to have one dubbed in later. There were just odd choices here all around, like giving Connery’s character an almost sexual fetish for the weather and an unexplained obsession with Emma Peel to the point he has a painting of her in his house.
These are great actors doing the most basic level of their craft with none of the scenes giving them much to explore, show emotions about, or work with unless it’s to ham things up. The two main characters feel like they’re going through the motions on a normal day, tackling a villain of the week with no attachment or concern that they could fail. Wynter has so many opportunities to kill them and inside agents to help him, but mostly this villain just murders his own men. Worse, there’s a small spark between Steed and Peel that works (even though fans of the show didn’t like the blatant romance), but their banter was honestly painful at some spots, like nails on a rough surface, especially with the blunt trauma politeness and constant tea. Maybe this one is just too British for me to appreciate.
I can’t believe poor Uma Thurman did this a year after that tragic Poison Ivy portrayal. Fiennes has said he sees the movie as a “badge of honor,” having a tragedy like this on his resume. Connery is often said to have retired because of events surrounding The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but The Avengers couldn’t have helped things and is sometimes cited as affecting his decision. Perhaps worst of all is Jeremiah S. Chechik, the film’s director, who took a good bit of time off after this one and then only directed television for many years afterward. I don’t want to say this movie helped ruin careers, but with the evidence at hand, I’m going to.
The last chance Avengers had at a saving grace was good action — something the studio was pushing for — but it all feels incredibly forced. I did enjoy some parts, like the two fencing while discussing the case and the car chase scene would work if it wasn’t giant cheap-looking weaponized insects, but so many of these scenes feel pointless. Look at a scene like the final battle and Wynter’s death, it’s so close and yet so strange in execution.
Look, the studio loved the idea for this movie on paper, especially when it came to casting. Actors like Mel Gibson and Charles Dance were considered for the role of Steed, while Nicole Kidman and Sharon Stone came close to playing Peel. Several other names like Drew Barrymore, Elizabeth Hurley, and Elisabeth Shue were also thrown around, but the surprising one to me was that David Fincher briefly considered directing (Starlog 1993). Would this have been another Alien 3 for him?
Needless to say, the studio did not appreciate the rough cut of the movie when it came in. The original version was 115 minutes long (compared to the 89-minute theatrical release) and is said to have answered many of the questionable story points audiences had. Those missing pieces apparently filled in the gaps in Mrs. Peel’s background, showed that the Emma ‘clone’ was actually a robot, made it clear why she randomly says “How now brown cow” in the elevator, explained more about Wynter’s obsession with her (but also had a longer scene of him unzipping her top), and gave more connective tissue on why so much of the confusing plot points were happening. The novelization is said to be even better, as it used more elements from the original script. I’m not going to say that the extended movie would have been better, but I can’t imagine it’d be as dull. Sadly, it’s rumored that the studio doesn’t even have the original cut now, but some scenes are present in the early trailers.
After being mutilated in the editing room, The Avengers was shown to early screening audiences who hated it, causing the film to be moved back to a release date later in the summer. Another bad sign was that the studio gave a bullshit reason for not showing the movie early to critics, well before that was a common practice. The production had problems with the musical score as well, but many were more interested to know that Radiohead was attempting to record a song for the film. That never happened due to a bad recording session it seems. One final attempt at salvaging this sinking ship was to give it a PG-13 rating, in hopes to appear cool to a teenage demographic. One line with the word “fuck” was added in, said by Izzard’s character, but not believed to be performed by the actor. Needless to say, The Avengers did not do well at the box office.
If this film wasn’t a national tragedy on its own, it forced Marvel to name their 2012 epic Avengers Assemble in the UK.
The Avengers probably could have been good, instead of the British version of Wild Wild West (1999). It tried to have clever references to other movies — like the chess game matching up with Blade Runner (1982) — and the concept of someone selling weather in a time when climate change is so heavily discussed may be worth revisiting, but no matter how many cherries or nice hats I try to put on top of this thing, it genuinely sucked, and barely in a fun way. The Avengers weren’t ready for the ‘90s, or maybe we just didn’t deserve them.