August 14, 1998
THE AVENGERS was a widely hated bomb and at the time I thought it wasn’t so bad. I kind of liked it. As is my way. Now, with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight, and not hurt by having preceded it with LOST IN SPACE, GODZILLA and ARMAGEDDON, I stand firmly by it not being that bad and me kind of liking it.
I must note as a disclaimer that I still haven’t watched the at-that-time-twenty-some-year-old British TV show it’s based on. I’m sure there are plenty of legit reasons for Avengers fans and our English friends to hate it that I don’t know about. But I like that it’s a quirky would-be blockbuster with weird gimmicks and humor, and unlike the ugly-as-shit LOST IN SPACE and GODZILLA it has dated well visually – the ’60s-inspired designs look as good or better now than they did in ’98. Also helpful in the timelessness department: the end credits have a James-Bond-theme-worthy song called “Storm” by Grace Jones. (I was gonna say it was 100% ska free, but the soundtrack listing notes a song by Suggs, lead singer of Madness, so I may be forgetting something.)
Fiennes plays John Steed, a super spy and proper English gentleman who wears a three-piece suit and bowler hat and carries an umbrella for the entire movie, but when attacked can bust out some aikido type moves or jump up and grab onto a bar and spin around or something. He also has a tailor he goes to to get bullet proof suits. It’s KINGSMAN before they added the outrageous gore and sex.
His bosses at the Ministry, Mother (Jim Broadbent, SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE) and Father (Fiona Shaw, SUPER MARIO BROS.: THE MOVIE) give him a mission (over tea) pairing him with Emma Peel (Uma Thurman, PAYCHECK), who he calls Mrs. Peel even though he knows she’s a doctor. Together they investigate a bombing of a “weather shield” created by a group of scientists she was once a member of called the Prospero Project. They quickly discover that Sir August de Wynter (Sean Connery, FIRST KNIGHT) and his henchwoman, a clone of Dr. Peel (Uma Thurman, JOHNNY BE GOOD), are scheming to control the weather. He storms into parliament and tells them “You will buy your weather from me.”
Apologies for the meteorological pun, but it’s in the spirit of the thing. De Wynter makes a “winter of your discontent” gag, so I think I’m okay. You know – Project Prospero, Shakespeare, extreme snow, his last name – on second thought this is some pretty complex wordplay, better than his “how operatic” in THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, at least.
Anyway, he’s privatizing good weather. It’s a utility. He’s gonna throttle it if you don’t get a premium subscription.
Peel and Steed each have a scene where they wake up in the other’s apartment after being knocked out by enemies in the field. Peel’s incident is more repulsive, because De Wynter straight up Cosbies her. He drugs her and puts her on a bed (in a room with about a hundred lit candles – not a good sign) and is about to kiss her when another agent interrupts. Dr. Peel manages to get up out of bed, wobbly, like when she escapes the hospital in KILL BILL.
’98 was Thurman’s second consecutive summer in a greenhouse full of genetically modified flowers, but she comes off better in this one than in BATMAN & ROBIN, even if you hate her doing an English accent for her non-stop wry flirtation (I don’t). She seems more important than Steed, gets to do an investigation on her own while he’s stuck in a phone booth. She can fight as well as him but also dismantle the weather machine and identify all the dead scientists they keep finding. Not that it seems to matter. Steed tests her by having her meet him at a men’s club that women have never been inside. She just struts right in and finds him naked in the steam bath. And he doesn’t seem to care.
There was a teaser poster featuring Thurman that was popular among heterosexual males, according to anecdotal evidence. It’s so long before she wears the black outfit in the movie that I was wondering if this was actually the evil clone on the poster. But that’s okay, she looks cooler in the red outfit, which she wears on an all white and black set.
When they first show her in her apartment the few furnishings she has are intriguing. There’s a Warhol style portrait of a boxer – significance never explained, unless it has something to do with how well she can fight. She also has a fancy piano, which she later plays during a conversation, but then steps away because it turns out it’s a player piano. Conversations in this movie always seem to happen while having tea or wine, or playing chess or croquet, or dancing, or something like that.
To be honest maybe being around these two for much longer than a movie might be a problem. They’re always making little comments that they both seem convinced are the height of wit that as far as I can tell are not even things worth saying out loud. Like at the end when they’re in this bubble thing that emerges from underwater Steed says “The owl and the pussycat went to sea” and she says
I get it, there’s a children’s rhyme about water, and you’re in water. But I don’t think that’s strong enough to be worth saying out loud and then smiling proudly and giving each other knowing looks. I mean, would she be so pleased if he said “Row row row your boat” and she said “gently down the stream”? I guess maybe she would.
I still like ’em though. It’s sort of a running joke how calm and reserved they are about their adventures. The only time Steed really gets angry is when he has to use his hat to block some darts. Their associates are just as casual as they are. They include a tommy gun toting little old lady (Eileen Atkins, WOLF) and an actual invisible man (voice of original Steed Patrick Macnee [Thunder in Paradise]) who arguably is wasting his potential as an agent since he works in an office. Also Carmen Ejogo (SELMA, ALEX CROSS) plays an aide to Mother, but she’s more of a straightforward Moneypenny type character.
At first it seems like an odd fit for an attempted event movie, but I think it finds a good balance between giving some spectacle and not getting bigger than their assignment of stopping a weather machine. The most dated FX sequence involves a swarm of CG bee drones, but it still works because it’s all about the speed of the chase and the ingenuity of Steed tearing one open and using its machine gun against the others.
Both bad guys and good guys are stocked up on gimmicky devices, introduced casually without explanation. At one point when they’re walking on De Wynter’s property a peacock spreads its tail feathers and I thought it was gonna be a trained attack peacock like the guy has in GAME OF DEATH II, but it turns out the eye of the feather is a camera or something. He also has a hedge maze and a CUBE-like maze of identical rooms (maybe?).
I love the part where suddenly Peel and Steed are walking across water in inflatable hamster ball things. And they don’t have to use their hands or anything – they can strut in those things. Peel has an old convertible that dispenses tea from the dashboard, but I suppose that’s more for recreational purposes. He mostly uses the umbrella when he needs a weapon (including dueling against De Wynter’s cane.)
Vic Armstrong was the second unit director, so the fights are pretty solid old school style. There’s a fun opening sequence where Steed strolls through his tiny village and every babycart-pushing lady or nun that he passes tries to kill him. Although nun assassins would fit right into this world, it turns out to be a training exercise. I like how in this debriefing scene you can see the “nuns” taking a break.
There aren’t actually that many real villains, but De Wynter has some thugs led by Eddie Izzard (MYSTERY MEN). It’s an odd role for the comedian, not really trying to be funny except when he yells “FUCK!” before dying.
One thing I noticed – all the computer screens are fancy digital things, even on his pocket watch. I think it’s meant to be contemporary. In the opening Steed seems to feel he’s mostly redundant because they don’t have many enemies anymore, which I took to be a GOLDENEYE style “Do I have any purpose without the Cold War?” update to the material. So the technology suggests that either it takes place in a stylized mix of time periods, or it’s just about a group of characters who are really into 1960s fashion and cars. I prefer the latter.
Maybe my favorite moment in the movie is the one I don’t really understand – De Wynter, being an evil genius, is shown at home playing his pipe organ. And the camera pans up and there is a portrait of fellow keyed instrument owner Dr. Peel.
Who he has not yet met in the movie. My best guess is that he considers the clone his beloved daughter? Except if that’s the case the way he treats Mrs. Peel is even more gross than we knew. I don’t know. I don’t want to know.
Or maybe the best part is the scene that I think defines why I like the movie and other people don’t. It’s when De Wynter meets with a group of elites at his place. He knows who they are but they’re not allowed to know who each other are, so they’re designated different colors, like Mr. Pink and Mr. Orange were. Oh and also they hide their appearance under bulky teddy bear costumes.
I maintain that obviously a movie that has a nefarious meeting scene where everybody looks like teddy bears, and they’re nodding and gesturing and then some of them get killed, and one of them even does a stunt
is obviously a movie that doesn’t totally suck. But the world begs to differ, and at the time it was one of those things where a movie does something intentionally absurd and everybody acts like it’s some kind of humiliating accident – whoops, they unknowingly made something weird and funny. And we can’t let them get away with it, so we’ll punish ’em with smugness. What were they thinking, huh guys? How did this get made!?
I’m not gonna claim THE AVENGERS is an overlooked gem. But I do think it was treated with unfair harshness at the time, criticized for the quirks that made it stand out. Criticisms that it’s “barely a movie” are not entirely wrong, but are kind of missing the point. That it feels simple and light and a little bit off is what made it more fun to revisit than some of these other ’98 pictures.
It’s the rare summer blockbuster wannabe with one credited screenwriter – Don MacPherson, a writer of BBC shows who had a hot spec script in the ’90s that got him work writing never-made movies for Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone as well as script doctoring ENTRAPMENT and, I’m afraid, GODZILLA. His most recent IMDb credit is for that Sean Penn movie THE GUNMAN.
Director Jeremiah Chechik was a video director who made his feature debut with NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION, and was kind of known for BENNY & JOON. After remaking DIABOLIQUE and then this he went on a director vacation for several years before, like so many, he became a TV guy, doing episodes of Burn Notice, Chuck, etc. His only feature post ’98 is a 2013 romantic comedy called THE RIGHT KIND OF WRONG starring Ryan Kwanten.
Warner Brothers must’ve been on the anti-teddy bear team. They clearly didn’t have faith in the movie and kind of screwed it over, cutting almost half an hour from it after test screenings. A director’s cut has never been made available, but apparently the novelization is based on it. The changes were so drastic that they had to hire Joel McNeely to replace no-longer-available original composer Michael Kamen. Initially planned for a June release, they moved it to August, and didn’t screen it for critics, who would end up comparing it to BATMAN AND ROBIN, ISHTAR and HOWARD THE DUCK. Some (who had apparently not be assigned to review some of the aforementioned other ’98 movies) called it the worst movie of the summer. On Metacritic it has an “overwhelming dislike” rating (12 out of 100) and even the notoriously-easy-on-mainstream-films Cinemascore gave it a D. So of course it got nominated for a nine Razzies and won “Worst Remake or Sequel” (tied with GODZILLA and PSYCHO).
The budget was $60 million and it only made $48 million. I’m sure it didn’t help that the show was only a cult hit in the States, and not something most people had any knowledge of, but that’s not an excuse. I don’t really subscribe to the idea that people to be familiar with something already for it to catch on.
Around this time Connery would turn down playing Morpheus in THE MATRIX and Gandalf in LORD OF THE RINGS. Before retiring he only did PLAYING BY HEART, ENTRAPMENT, FINDING FORRESTER, LXG and the horrifying-looking computer animated movie SIR BILLI. Fiennes’ work in big mainstream movies would switch to villainy as Voldemort in the HARRY POTTER saga and Hades in CLASH OF THE TITANS and its sequel. And in just five years Thurman would become Beatrix Kiddo in KILL BILL, at which point any previous poor movie choices could no longer be held against her. But I don’t think she needs to be ashamed with this one anyway.
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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.