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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

July 11, 2003

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN is a cool fucking premise: a sort of Victorian era Justice League made of literary characters with unique talents or abilities. In this world, the famous stories of English literature (plus Mark Twain) really happened, and the Queen puts together a super-team to try to stop an attack on Venice. So James Bond’s M (Richard Roxburgh, VAN HELSING, STEALTH) recruits the adventurer hunter Alan Quatermain (Sean Connery, FIRST KNIGHT), Dracula’s Mina Harker (Peta Wilson, SUPERMAN RETURNS), the Invisible Man (but actually not the same H.G. Wells one, for legal reasons)(Tony Curran, Priest from BLADE II), Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng, BRUISER), Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend, director of BATTLE IN SEATTLE) and Captain Nemo (veteran Bollywood star Naseeruddin Shah).

Sort of like MYSTERY MEN, this is based on a comic that’s a riff on the super hero team stories, but made when X-MEN was the only straight up movie version of that sort of thing. The comic, written by Alan Moore, is apparently very different, thicker in obscure literary allusions and lighter in summer movie type spectacle (sword fights, shoot outs, flying CGI machinery, explosions). The adaptation is credited to another comic book writer, James Robinson, who wrote alot of Superman. His previous screenwriting work was CYBER BANDITS, COMIC BOOK VILLAINS and a swing and a miss in the long line of writers trying to figure out how to do FREDDY VS. JASON.

The movie centers on Quatermain, who is retired to Africa, hanging out in a lodge (not an opium den as in Moore’s more depraved version), until an attack compels him to agree to the mission. When dorky American Secret Service agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West, DRACULA 2000) joins the team he immediately starts following Quatermain trying to be his surrogate son. Quatermain blatantly takes the bait and tries to bond by giving him unsolicited marksmanship tips.

Most of the other characters have what amounts to super powers. Dorian Gray is immortal, which allows him to heal instantly during sword fights. In the comic Mina is the leader, working only with her smarts. In this version Dracula bit her, so she can leap far and transform into a swarm of bats. I don’t have to tell you what the invisible man does, but there are jokes about him being naked when he’s invisible. Most of the time he has white paint on his face to make himself visible. I don’t get why he has stubble.

And Mr. Hyde functions as the Incredible Hulk of the team. Dr. Jekyll is legitimately scared of unleashing the “big ape,” and tries to avoid unleashing him. He hears his taunts and sees his face reflected in things. But they sort of learn to get along when Hyde starts to care about the team and the mission and know when his strength is needed. One thing that’s pretty remarkable about Hyde that I didn’t appreciate at all back in 2003 is that director Stephen Norrington (motherfucking BLADE) insisted on doing him without CG. So Flemyng wears a huge rubber chest and arms and is composited in so that he can dwarf the other team members. I wouldn’t say he looks better than the CG Hulks, but he looks different. Kind of reminds me of Hellboy, too.

But Nemo is by far the coolest character, and he has no powers. He’s a guy who knows how to swash a few buckles, and has great resources at hand, including a loyal army and his luxury submarine the Nautilus, aka “the sword of the sea.”

Original comic artist Kevin O’Neill did some uncredited designs for the movie, and they captured some of his style in Nemo’s ornate, India-inspired technology. Of course there’s the sub:

Which is stocked with many cool things, including this three dimensional wall map for planning sessions:

And these extravagant diving suits for underwater bomb searches:

He also invented the automobile early, and gave it a then-futuristic-design and accoutrements similar to those of Nautilus. I’m totally down with this absurdly beautiful vehicle…

…but I have to say it bothered me that in a world where no one has seen an automobile until now, Sawyer is able to hop in and instinctively know how to drive like a professional street racer, no questions asked. Also, that he would know this term:

…and even moreso, that Quatermain would know to refer to this brand new thing as “the car” and everybody would know what that was.

Now is as good of a time as any to mention that when I saw this in the theater 14 years ago I thought it was complete shit. The return of the director of BLADE was a holiday and I had hoped for more presents. That car business was an example I would’ve cited of the movie’s shittiness, and I haven’t changed on that one. But other things, like Quatermain calling the Phantom “operatic” and Nemo’s first mate saying “Call me Ishmael” weren’t nearly as egregious as in my memory. Maybe even kind of funny!

I also appreciated Connery’s presence more than I did last time. I can’t find the quote, but I remember reading that Connery “didn’t get” THE MATRIX when he was offered the part of Morpheus, and “didn’t get” LORD OF THE RINGS when he was offered Gandalf, so when he was offered this and didn’t get it he decided to take it. It’s easy to imagine him being awful in those other roles, but this I think he works well for. There’s kind of a meta quality going on with him playing the old but still macho way-past-his-prime legend. If the movie had not gone over terribly, it would be kind of cool that he retired after this (other than voices for a video game and a cartoon).

Listening to some of the commentary track of producer Don Murphy made me not want to be so easy on the movie this time. He has this smarmy condescension toward speculative “purists” who he says will not understand the movie, pre-emptively whining about how stupid he thinks they will be. I hadn’t thought about that guy in a long time, though I read about his antics in a book about NATURAL BORN KILLERS and remember both his abrasive internet presence and everyone celebrating him getting punched in the face by Quentin Tarantino. He seems to still be working, but you don’t hear about him being a raging asshole online, so I’d like to think he’s chilled out over the years. So maybe he would be calm and respectful if I asked him why Quatermain is spelled “Quartermain” on his son’s grave.

But the truth is, completely unexpectedly, I think I’ve turned around on THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. It would be nice if some of the characters were a little more likable, and had stronger connections to their literary origins – like, if they didn’t tell us that was Tom Sawyer would there be anything to tell us that’s who he was? And most of the arcs – reluctantly gelling as a team, Sawyer learning how to shoot better from one bullshit thing that Quatermain said to him, etc. – are so threadbare and routine that my accepting them might be too charitable.

But coming into it already knowing its flaws, and without the lofty expectations of a followup to BLADE, I’m able to appreciate it as a pretty fun execution of a cool gimmick, with some unique imagery and a vibe that still hasn’t really been captured very much in the many years since. I can picture that if it was more of an underdog movie, an indie or a foreign release that not many people know about, I would recommend it to people like I sometimes do WOLFHOUND or THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ADELE BLANC-SEC. Especially the latter, because I don’t know very movies that have EXTRAORDINARY in the title.

It’s exciting when they start working together. The guard at a snowy fortress suddenly sees his gun fly out of his hands and whack him over the head. Then the bats fly in. Then Mr. Hyde stomps in. He gets to fight a guy who drinks way too much of his own formula, a chintzier but arguably cooler version of The Hulk and The Abomination fighting in THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Check out this monster:

I’m sure many would classify this as “bad CGI,” but I like the stylized, almost stop-motion-model style of it; how plasticky he looks. (He’s not actually plastic, is he?) His design evokes both the O’Neill comic art and Norrington’s aesthetic of the exploding Blood God in BLADE. And I’m pretty sure there are some shots that are digital monster fighting Flemyng in rubber suit. That’s pretty cool. “What was it like acting against nothing while wearing a thousand pounds of makeup?”

I like this world, which now would be called steampunk, but I’d never heard that word back then. I love the Nemo technology – obsolete futuristic. The villain is building an army of cool-looking retro robots (or is that just armor?) and he has a particularly cool way of attacking the Nautilus. This phantom menace reveals himself by leaving a record onboard. When the team listens to it on their phonograph they hear his big speech explaining how he tricked them and what he’s up to, then reveals that the reason he did that is to allow an undetectable high-pitched sound to play in the background, to vibrate the crystal sensors attached to bombs planted all around the submarine. That’s a fucking cool evil scheme! I always thought of this as a dumb movie, but that’s not fair. There are some good ideas here within a specific style of outlandishness.

* * *

Although THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN was not really noticed enough to become infamous, it was in many ways a disaster. Much like WATERWORLD, a flood destroyed millions of dollars worth of sets and caused weeks of delays. And according to an Entertainment Weekly article at the time, Connery and Norrington hated each other and constantly fought. The star and some of the crew felt that Norrington worked way too slow and shot too much unnecessary footage. The article quotes an anonymous stagehand as saying, “I’ve never been on a set as tense as this. Everybody just wants to go home.”

Norrington, who had never worked on a movie of this size, felt pushed around by both Connery and the studio. The Dail Mail claimed that Connery took over post-production, “overseeing the editing process.” Fox pushed to have it ready to release in the summer so that MASTER AND COMMANDER could fill their Fall slot. They also made them add Tom Sawyer to the script so there would be an American character.

Or was that why? According to a lawsuit filed by producer Martin Poll (THE LION IN WINTER) and the great screenwriter Larry Cohen (A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT), the movie bore suspicious similarity to CAST OF CHARACTERS, an idea they’d pitched to Fox a decade earlier. Like Moore’s comic book it involved a team of literature-based Victorian super heroes. Some, like Alan Quatermain and Jekyll & Hyde, overlapped with Moore’s. Theirs also included Dorian Gray, the Phantom and Tom Sawyer, all added for the movie.

CAST OF CHARACTERS was to be directed by John Landis, by the way.

Moore, already very cynical about adaptations of his work, understandably took offense at the lawsuit’s claim that he only made the comic book as a smokescreen for the studio to steal Cohen’s idea. When Fox chose to settle, as if there was merit to the suit, Moore was so disgusted that he has refused to be credited on movies ever since. He couldn’t stop them from making CONSTANTINE, V FOR VENDETTA, WATCHMEN or BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, but he wouldn’t let them put his name on them or even give him money for them.

(Though I have great respect for Cohen, I think the accusations against Moore are clearly without merit, and it’s too bad that whole thing happened.)

Surprisingly, LXG (as they abbreviated it in advertising) was not merchandised at all. Maybe they remembered all the THE SHADOW action figures collecting dust. The only evidence of promos I can find on ebay are some pins, German lobby cards and a set of character cards that came in a leather pouch with the logo on it. It did have a novelization by Kevin J. Anderson, who also did the TITAN A.E. spin-off books.

At the box office it wasn’t a complete failure either. It made more than double its reported budget, so it must’ve at least broken even. It opened at number two though because of something almost nobody predicted: turns out this movie it’s opening against that’s based on a theme park ride (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL) is actually good. Other dominant summer of 2003 movies included FINDING NEMO, THE MATRIX RELOADED, BRUCE ALMIGHTY, TERMINATOR 3, X2: X-MEN UNITED and BAD BOYS II.

But this was not one of those movies that I was in the minority for hating. It was poorly reviewed, and I do not sense any improvement in its reputation since. To give you an idea of LXG’s place in comic book film history, it is available on a triple feature blu-ray with DAREDEVIL and ELEKTRA.

Tragically, Norrington has not directed another movie since. Legend has it that, much like Moore, the experience put him off ever working in Hollywood again. But he has attempted to return at times, developing the CLASH OF THE TITANS remake (before Louis Letterier did it) and also one of THE CROW (which still hasn’t happened but several directors have been attached since he left). If IMDb is to be trusted, he’s also done some creature sculpting for EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, FEAST and HARBINGER DOWN. Once an effects artist, always an effects artist.

Moore’s idea, meanwhile, survives, with the writer and O’Neill continuing to publish occasional new volumes and a spin-off about Nemo’s daughter. And producers have not given up on adapting it – a potential TV series was announced in 2013, and a new movie version in 2015. Producer John Davis (PREDATOR, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.) said in an interview that he was aiming for what people liked about the comics, including being “female-centric,” presumably meaning it would go back to having Mina as the leader and main character.

I kind of doubt it will happen. But I bet it could work.

P.S. New contest! I will send a signed copy of one of my books to the first professional athlete who retires and gives a tearful speech that casually uses the title of this movie. For example, “I want to thank the MLB. You made my dreams come true. You are truly a league of extraordinary gentlemen.”

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 16th, 2017 at 12:55 pm and is filed under Comic strips/Super heroes, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

23 Responses to “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”

  1. I’ve always liked this movie. But then again, the crazier a movie gets the more I like it.

  2. Crushinator Jones

    August 16th, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    The big practical Hyde is a stand-out and it shows that CGI isn’t always the way forward. I am very lukewarm on this film – like Vern says, it’s uneven – but I can appreciate what they are going for. P.S. the comic is very overrated IMO

  3. I’ve never had any issue with this movie. I loved the comics, but the movie was great fun. Norrington and Connery hated each other so much, they both stopped working altogether.

  4. I hated this one when I saw it and joined in it’s public lynching. Though I didn’t hate it because it was a crappy adaptation of the comic (like almost all of Moore’s work I only thought the comic was okay) I didn’t care for it because of how shitty it was. You went online and the thing about it was the usual, it was a shitty adaptation of the comic.

    Time went on, an Internet flash cartoon parodied it and gave friends and I the immortal line that we quote to this day: “The only way to stop shit from blowing up… IS TO BLOW MORE SHIT UP!” Honestly that flash cartoon made me appreciate the movie’s ridiculousness all the more. Like Vern, time went on and suddenly a lot of the awful shit that I took for granted in this one became unique as the movie landscape changed. I can’t say I’ve given it much thought over the years (other than the aforementioned quote) but I no longer hate it. It makes a good double-feature with the similar VAN HELSING. So y’know, it’s not one I feel I need to rewatch.

    Funny note: Out of all the 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA adaptations, this is the only one (that I know of) that has an actual Indian play Captain Nemo. I do not see that changing anytime soon.

  5. Fun – although uneven – and a shame it’s hated-borderline forgotten now.

    It’s pretty much nothing like the comics (both the initial volumes were pretty much unfilmable, anyway), but it took the premise and ran with it, and it has a lot of heart, too, which is unexpected.

    Norrington clearly loves his comic books and nearly made another Marvel film shortly before this: MASTER OF KUNG FU. I recall him being interviewed about it and it sounded pretty cool. Then Ang Lee took over and it’s been residing in development hell ever since.

    (By the way, isn’t there a cut scene where Sawyer talks about Huckleberry Finn, or did I dream that in a Wold-Newton-esque fueled fever dream?)

  6. Peta Wilson. I loved her in La Femme Nikita.

  7. Might be mis-remembering it but didn’t they say Finn was another agent who died in the line of duty thus giving Sawyer a tragic back-story? If true then I hope Agent Finn was only two days from retirement.

  8. The later League comics get really nuts, it could be a good TV show, but wasn’t PENNY DREADFUL kind of the same thing?

    Also, I happened upon a script of this before it came out, before I ever knew anyone in that world, and I thought it was so cool to have that – and then I read it.

  9. Never saw the movie. Read the comic. So I guess since this invisible man isn’t Griffin his movie fate is not as despicable as his comic book counterpart’s?

  10. I’ve always found this one to be enjoyably light fun, and sorry comic book guys, I liked the changes to the graphic novels. Take Wilson’s badass Mina- the book version of Mina if I remember correctly has no superpowers and basically just puts the team together, then people attempt to rape her, then the Invisible Man ends up raping her, and then Mr. Hyde finds out and rapes the Invisible Man as revenge kinda like Christopher Walken did in Wild Side. I like the movie version better, sorry.

    I guess I’m just a simpleton but I felt the books were so steeped in easter eggs and knowledge of the previous works that they were kind of impenetrable without any knowledge of them. Meanwhile, with a 2 hour movie you kinda don’t need to understand much other than what’s on the screen. I still have no idea what The Portrait of Dorian Grey is about (is it even a novel or is it a short story?) but I do know that Townsend is fun here and makes a great subvillain. I know that Mark Twain probably did not have it in mind that Tom Sawyer would grow up to be a sharpshooting FBI Agent or whatever the fuck, but I do know that Shane West is not bad and had decent chemistry with Connery. My standards are low, so shoot me.

    If they made a straight adaptation of League II (the book), that would cause a mind-bending rift in the continuum of Vern’s Flings series, as the plot manages to involve both notorious flops John Carter (of Mars) and The Island of Dr. Moreau. (along with bonafide summer hit War of the Worlds). Hopefully in 20 years we’ll have the technology to make a holographic/CGI adaptation that combines Connery, Wilson, Taylor Kitsch, Marlon Brando, Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise. I’d pay to see it.

  11. The one thing I remembered from this movie (before reading this, and having my memory jogged) was the line “You broke my heart once. This time, you missed.” I remember liking it. I still do.

  12. (Liking the line, not the movie.)

  13. I always liked this one, which I saw from the beginning as a throwback to those lighthearted high concept fantasy adventures from the 80s and early 90s, that even in 2003 “they didn’t do like they used to do anymore”. The comic is awful though and a great example of how certain comic book geeks will hype everything as long as it has enough sex and violence to fill the pages of an interesting concept, that sounds interesting, but doesn’t really have enough meat to build a good story around it.

    Here is an interesting thing: I actually remember that nerds in 2003 were super disappointed by the practical Mr Hyde! They didn’t want some actor in a rubber suit, they wanted something more exciting and otherwordly, like a humongous, non-human CGI creature! How times have changed.

  14. I still have never seen this, kinda weird to think Connery hasn’t been seen on the big screen in over a decade.

    But there’s a similar book series I love called Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, although that one is obviously more focused on Dracula it’s gets even crazier with the idea of a world where almost all fictional characters are real, with the later book, which is set closer to the present day, incorporating characters like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and Jeff Bridges The Dude, seriously.

    I’d love to see it turned into a movie.

  15. I f*cking hated this movie. Not only because I’m a huge fan of the source material, but it destroyed the careers of Sean Connery (DARBY O’GILL AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE) and Stephen Norrington (DEATH MACHINE). Thank goodness PENNY DREADFUL (TV series) got it at least spiritually right.

  16. Wow, Vern has turned into a real late-period-Roger-Ebert style softie. I thought this movie was terrible then and I think it’s terrible now. The jokes are unfunny, the plot is just a bunch of shit that happens, and they are constantly tipping their hand as to how stupid they think the audience is (extremely). LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN is probably my least favourite of Moore’s creations and I still think this movie does it a massive disservice.

  17. I like to request that Vern review Norrington’s DEATH MACHINE.

    What a strange and yet enjoyable film.

  18. The only Moore I’ve read is THE KILLING JOKE last year. I certainly wouldn’t say it was bad, but stripped of its (presumed on my part) late-80s context of “Wow, Comics/BATMAN are for grown-ups now, because blood etc,!” I don’t think it’s very special. The primary focus of criticism was on the new prologue, but I think a large part of the reason the animated film last year didn’t work is because the psychological conceit is, again outside of a “comics are for grown ups now” context, clunky as hell, and the kind of thing that simply doesn’t work on screen when so explicitly verbalised (although you could argue that the Nolan films aren’t much subtler). To be fair though, Moore himself apparently considers THE KILLING JOKE his weakest work, and feels that its message is too specific to Batman and the Joker as characters, which I broadly agree with, so I certainly shouldn’t judge him on that.

    As for this film, haven’t seen it in a decade and have pretty vague memories of it, but I know I enjoyed it. Only really watched it because it came in a Box Set of very random Connery movies, which also included RISING SUN, ZARDOZ and FAMILY BUSINESS (yes, that random).

  19. Warms my heart to know I’m not the only one who thinks the comic version isn’t all that good. neal2zod mentions what I’ve noticed for a while. Moore is quick to denounce and mention he’s disowned and regrets BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE because of it’s treatment of Batgirl. So what’s his excuse for the treatment of women in all of his other work?

  20. THE KILLING JOKE is the rare example of extended continuity retroactively redeeming a story. Taken as a standalone, the paralyzing of Barbara Gordon is the most cynical case of fridging you could imagine: a strong, competent female character reduced to a mewling victim just to provide motivation for a male character. But taken in context of the broader DCU, it’s the only event in the whole story with any larger meaning or consequence. The Batman/Joker confrontation is the same old solipsistic shit we’ve seen a million times before, just a couple of male egos vying for dominancd, but Babs’ shooting prompts her to become Oracle, a new kind of superhero who differentiates herself from the bat brand and becomes a strong leader of like-minded female heroes. She’s nobody’s victim. If anything, the Joker just made her stronger. I’m told the animated adaptation of TKJ doubles down on the troubling aspects of the story by making Barbara Batman’s lover (gross) and thus implying that Batman is motivated by the desecration of his sexual property and not just by the injury of his trusted colleague. Which is why I have no interest in that adaptation.

  21. I made my thoughts of that adaptation known last year in the BATMAN v SUPERMAN thread, you’re not a cartoon guy anyway and I can say that it was pretty disgusting. What you may not have been told is the that new Batgirl story in the beginning is almost nothing but her whining that Batman won’t fuck her (usually to her stereotypical sassy gay friend), then when he does (they somehow fought the urge to not add in a line of dialogue from her about how it was the most awesome sex ever), she then proves that her icky lady-parts are getting in the way of him being awesome. It also creates the fun of seeing her do superhero shit for like 45-minutes or something and then later she answers a door and gets shot. Those sexist gangsters in the first part were just trying too hard I guess.

    Anyways, I agree with your assessment of Oracle. Naturally they retconned that so she could be Batgirl again. One of many, many examples of why I no longer care about mainstream superhero titles.

  22. I am perfectly okay with creators tweaking continuity for their own ends, but turning the Bats/Babs relationship sexual is just a bridge too far. Not only is she his best friend’s daughter, she’s his son’s lover. I don’t know who is watching these cartoons except for DC fanatics so I just don’t get who they were hoping to please with that concept. It’s terrible in and of itself and in context.

  23. I always loved how Nemo announced ” I call it… an autoMO-bile”. My friends and I howled at that line for the remainder of the running time. And for a few weeks following.

    I’ve had zero desire to revisit this film, and yet here’s Vern’s review making me consider it. I do recall that Invisible Man being the best character, and the Hyde stuff was cool.

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