“I’m Paul Barlow, and this is my daughter Jo.”

“Malone.”

“You got a first name?”

“Yeah.”

The Avengers

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.)

And it’s a fuckin action adventure starring Ralph Fiennes, cashing in on SCHINDLER’S LIST, I guess. You don’t see that every day. I guess maybe you could count STRANGE DAYS.

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.”

Starring Uma Thurman and… Uma Thurman!? (record scratch)

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.

something something Infinity War

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 Monday, September 10th, 2018 at 8:11 am and is filed under Action, 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 Avengers”

  1. Recently I’ve been willing to give it another chance, but when we watched it back in the days, it was a rare occasion of my whole family (who all liked the TV show, with my mother being the superfan) being all together super pissed at a movie.

    Starting with the completely miscasting of Uma Thurman, who fails to nail the playful sexuality of Diana Rigg, and Ralph Fiennes, who looks more like Stan Laurel and seems to play it jokey in serious moments and too straight in tongue-in-cheek moments. I’m willing to forgive that the script doesn’t make much sense, considering the heavy post production tinkering, but when Steed and Peele kissed, we all realized that whoever was responsible, didn’t get the original show at all. (In the show, they never did anything on camera that went above playful banter and harmless innuendo.)

    And it’s not like the show is extremely complicated to adapt, but the movie keeps yelling at us “OH MY GOD, THAT IS SO FUCKING QUIRKY AND WEIRD AND STRANGE AND SO 1960S BRITISH AMPED UP TO 11 CAN YOU BELIEVE IT WE GOT TEDDYBEARS AND NANNY WITH MACHINE GUNS AND AN INVISIBLE MAN!”. And normally I like that under the right circumstances, but the circumstances are completely wrong. The original show was way more straight and low key in its quirkyness and fantasy/SciFi elements.

    Oh well, it’s been too long to get worked up about it. I’m surprised that they haven’t tried to remake the TV show, especially after the success of DOCTOR WHO and SHERLOCK.

  2. I also remember this being “not as bad as everyone is saying” when I saw it back then. I’ll admit that it is mixed and suffers from having all the interesting scenes shoved into the first half of the film, leaving the last half a struggle to get through. But I thought it had just enough style to be interesting.

    I am too young to have watched the show, but I understand that the leads kissing was basically equivalent to Judge Dredd taking his helmet off in the book of licensed film making sins. It doesn’t even make sense in the context of the film either, with makes it doubly wrong.

  3. I always liked this one too; it’s a mixed bag, but I suspect the looping stairwell sequence might be my favourite scene from the summer of 98. I’m no expert but from what I know the tone is actually a decent approximation of the original series, which is not a tone a lot of people had any time for in 98 or the years since, although fairs fair this wasn’t well received here in the UK either where the TV show had recently enjoyed a fairly significant cultural resurgence.

    Other point of note; in addition to the significant cuts, the f-bomb was supposedly added to bump the film up from a PG to a “cooler” PG-13.

  4. I always enjoyed this goofy movie. Fiennes and Thurman not having any chemistry really hold this one back but the movie surround them is so weird I think it just manages to edge past that major issue.

    This is also probably the first movie, along with DOUBLE TEAM and KNOCK OFF, where I learned about the whole ‘pretending not to know how movies/storytelling/tone work for a laugh’ thing. There are a whole bunch of ‘Wut were they thinkin’!? Sean Connery in a bear suit!!!???? How did they let THAT pass?’ ‘Robot hornets!?’ ‘A toner that clearly telegraphs we’re not supposed to take any of this seriously!?’ ‘Man these filmmakers really dropped the ball!!’

  5. Anyone else think if these ‘weird’ ‘quirky’ big budget flops were smaller indy ‘cult’ movies, the same people who are being smug about them would be championing them as misunderstood oddball gems?

  6. The fact they talked Sean Connery into wearing one of those teddy bear costumes still boggles my mind.

  7. Dissenting tastefulness

    September 10th, 2018 at 4:01 pm

    I thought this was as bad as everyone said back then and now. It’s a short movie that drags and worst of all makes no sense at all, you can tell it was cut to pieces without becoming a new whole. No chemistry in the cast, one of these movies where it seems nobody had a good time making it, least of all Connery. Stuff like the teddy bears would be nice in a music video, here it is just hollow, pointless style over substance fluff that only works to alienate even more from something almost entirely unrelateable.
    Like the invisible guy who gets visible in the end as the movie gets projected on him the whole film is a gimmick that makes no sense. Shit movie.

  8. I have never made it all the way through this one. It just irks me. I would compare it to VAN HELSING… It thinks it is being cute and winking at me with its self aware cleverness, but I just want to punch it in the face.

  9. I guess chopping out half an hour did help them break even because I don’t see them making $48 mil with reduced showtimes for a 2 hour movie.

    I also liked it 20 years ago but never rewatched it. I did pick up a DVD from a videostore going out of business so it’s there when I’m ready.

    While the phenomenon of movies people pretended weren’t absurd on purpose was already well established, this may Be the first one I remembered that had a whole anticipatory marketing campaign for it only to disappeaenunder the radar. I remember the character banners and very early trailers so it was a movie we were supposed to be excited for. Then it snuck in at the end of summer.

    Has anything else Fallen that Hard? Maybe Speed Racer which is a legit masterpiece.

  10. Yeah. I’m with everyone in the “not great but better than it gets credit for” camp. Also, one of Eddy Izzard’s henchmen is played by Shaun Ryder, lead singer of one of my favorite bands the Happy Mondays and one of the most ridiculously decadent pop stars of all time. The kind of guy you love hearing stories about but would likely want to punch in the face in real life.

  11. One the one hand, yeah, this is more watchable than ARMAGEDDON or GODZILLA 1998 or whatever. On the other hand, holy Christ. There’s one detail that sums up what went wrong here. In the movie, John Steed is a proud member of Boodle’s (a real London club, though I’m sure it’s nothing like what we’re shown here). In the TV show, Steed cheerfully says that he was blackballed from joining.

    The show was full of ridiculous eccentrics, but Steed and Peel were real people, and that kept it grounded. The film had no idea what to do with them. People still wore bowler hats in 1966. Anyone wearing one in 1998 is either a loon or a ghastly upper-class twit, and Fiennes’ character is a bit of both. Meanwhile, Thurman is stiff and awkward throughout. She’s always posing like there’s a fashion photographer just off screen, and she’s nervous about the shoot.

    You can find Don Macpherson’s script online. It’s not great, but at least it’s coherent. Emma Peel’s brother-in-law is obsessed with her. He builds an evil android in her likeness and murders his own brother during a test of the weather machine. He tries to gaslight Peel into thinking her husband is haunting her, hoping that he can manipulate her into his arms.

    Once Connery was cast in a minor part and they decided to make him the villain instead, all these plot points went right out the window. But they never fixed the script up. People still accuse Peel of hallucinations. I’m sure Chechik’s two-hour cut is a little better than what we got — it probably doesn’t have characters who seem to teleport from place to place — but this was never going to make much sense.

    A bit of trivia about Chechik: He was the director originally attached to SE7EN who had it rewritten with a happy ending, till Fincher came in and put the head back in the box.

    I’m not sure if the movie’s detractors ever focused on the teddy bears much. I guess I saw a bit of that from random posters on rec.arts.movies, but the critics I read generally liked the visual style, teddy bears included. The problem was everything else.

  12. I will always remember half of the audience (including all of my friends) walking out at the Teddy Bear scene.
    I couldn’t understand why – I loved it!

  13. BTW, the TV show and the movie are in Germany known as MIT SCHIRM, CHARME UND MELONE. (WITH UMBRELLA, CHARME AND BOWLER HAT. It really loses its melody in translation.)

  14. I’m with Vern on this one. It’s definitelty not *good* but I have a soft spot for its quirkiness. I have no defense but I also really enjoyed all of Connery’s terrible weather puns and jokes. “Now is the winter of your discontent!” It’s not as fun as it should be, they should remake it or at least bring Emma Peel into Infinity War Part II.

  15. My life’s ambition is to design a Buzzfeed quiz called “Which Avenger Are You???” festooned with pictures of Iron Man and the Hulk, and then at the end it tells you you’re Cathy Gale or Mike Gambit or whoever.

  16. This idea of people not recognizing that a movie was on purpose got me thinking of people who explain your own jokes to you. Like this summer when I was saying Skyscraper was Die Hard in a building, the amount of people who pointed out that Die Hard was already in a building. And they really seriously though they were making an observation, as if I didn’t know what Die Hard was about an accidentally said something redundant.

    Going all the way back to college, I once made the observation, “They don’t make ’80s movies like they used to.” And a screenwriting classmate said, “That’s because it’s the ’90s, Fred.” As if I wasn’t aware that it was no longer that decade and he was answering a sincere question about why those movies stopped.

    What is the root of this phenomenon? Is it just comprehension? Or maybe ego, people need so badly to feel superior that they ignore intentional irony or absurdity?

  17. CJ, I always thought MIT SCHIRM, CHARME UND MELONE had something to do with melons. Maybe a raunchy comedy like they used to air on Sat1 in the old days.

  18. Ha! Well, if they would use the plural of Melone (Melonen), it could be the title of the softporn parody. Which would’ve been shown on a Saturday night on Sat 1 back in the 90s. (Coincidentally the real, non-pornographic show actually ran on that station back in the 90s, which introduced me to it.)

  19. I saw this in a theater in Hanover, New Hampshire when I was 14. My only memory from the experience is that during the credits a group of people were talking and some guy shouted in the darkness “SHUT THE FUCK UP” and everyone laughed and I thought he was the coolest.

  20. Fred- It feels like they’re must have been “Individual-character-posters-level-of-hype” movies which flopped like this, but I’m coming up blank. Don’t think it ever got quite that treatment but it did seem that someone at MGM(?) thought John Mctiernan’s ROLLERBALL was going to be a big deal, even though his original cut was supposedly a very hard-R at a time when that was unfashionable and uncommercial. Only recently found out the wiretapping charge Mctirenan went down for was specifically around ROLLERBALL. Bleak.

  21. I feel like Jonah Hex might have had character posters. Wild Wild West a year after Avengers did but that also made money despite being hated. Come to think of it the South Park movie had character posters too. That was sort of just starting up, but fun that they did it for simple construction paper cutouts.

    Rollerball, by the time they did reshoots and bumped the release to february, I don’t think they had many hopes for it.

  22. The thing that stuck with me about ROLLERBALL is that I saw the poster a good year or so before it came out, which I know is fairly common with postponed releases in America, but I’m pretty sure it’s the only time I’ve experienced that here, at least for a big budget film. That and getting all those then popular acts to perform in the film (Pink, Slipknot etc) which was hyped by our DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS-producing friends on MTV.

  23. The Rollerball remake was a complete and utter embarrassment compared to the vastly superior original. I didn’t see anywhere near close to all of the remake but I saw more than enough.

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