On The Avengers

Long before the MCU Avengers came into existence, I saw this film remake of the 1960s TV series, featuring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman (Batman and Robin, Gattaca). It is considered one of the worst films ever made, not that I would argue with this, as according to MTV‘s article, “Eric’s Bad Movies: The Avengers (1998)“:

At no point in The Avengers does any avenging occur. This is remarkable on its own, and yet it is surpassed by another curious fact: The movie does not contain a single interesting moment. You could choose any segment at random, any 10-second stretch of film, and I can guarantee that whatever is depicted on that film will not be interesting. There is a good chance it will involve people dressed in brightly colored bear costumes, though, so there’s that.

People being dressed in brightly colored bear costumes, which really does happen at one point inThe Avengers, is the kind of thing that would be interesting if it occurred in a movie that was capable of being interesting. Alas, The Avengers lacks the basic biological components necessary to produce interesting material. Putting brightly colored bear costumes in it to liven things up is like putting a party hat on a dead guy.

The film was part of the trend, common especially in the 1990s, where old TV shows were converted into terrible movies. Apparently, that’s what people were clamoring for — new, unsatisfying entertainment based on old, stale ideas. I don’t recall clamoring for any such thing, but someone must have been. Was it you? Look long and hard at your own soul and answer truthfully.

If you’ve never seen the 1960s British TV series The Avengers, I’ll summarize it for you — but keep in mind, I’ve never seen it either. I’m just assuming the movie is a faithful reproduction of it. So apparently the TV show was about two irritating government agents who speak entirely in flirtatious repartee yet somehow manage not to have any chemistry together. They spend their days halfheartedly pursuing mad villains who have only a mild interest in killing them and who mostly just let them escape. One of the agents always wears a bowler hat and carries an umbrella. He is vaguely handsome, in the bland way that the men in the photos that come with picture frames are handsome. The other agent, the lady agent, is “sexy” — but again, only in an unremarkable, Sears catalog sort of way.

Did people really watch this in the 1960s? I guess they were British people, not regular people, but still.

In the movie, the secret agents, John Steed and Emma Peel, are played by Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman. (If you can’t quite picture who Ralph Fiennes is, think of Liam Neeson.) Their government boss, played by Jim Broadbent, is called Mother even though he is a man, and Mother’s supervisor is called Father even though she is a woman!!!! Already you can see how zany and madcap this adventure will be! Also, “Mother” is in a wheelchair, although I don’t think that’s supposed to be funny. Not Mac and Me funny, anyway.

The bad guy is Sir August De Wynter, played by Sean Connery, the “I’ll do any film as long as there’s Scotch on the craft services table” phase of his career now in full bloom. Knowing that this movie is imbecilic, you might guess that a character named Sir August De Wynter is greatly interested in the weather. And you would be right! He has figured out a way to control the Earth’s weather — the explanation involves saying the words “ions” and “protons” a lot — and he intends to use this power to blackmail various countries’ governments. Note that he is doing this in 1998, predating Al Gore’s use of the same plan by several years.

At one point De Wynter holds a board meeting in which everyone is dressed in brightly colored bear costumes. This is so that none of the members of his diabolical organization will know who the other members are. I guess nobody speaks at these meetings, or takes their bear heads off in the elevator on the way back to the parking garage. Carpooling to work would be out of the question. Anyway, De Wynter downsizes the staff by shooting a poison dart at one of the bear suits, instantly killing its occupant even though the dart is only a couple inches long and hardly penetrates the costume’s fur, let alone the flesh of the person inside. Here is an employee so dedicated to his work, so at one with his bear costume, that he actually feels its pain.

It’s up to Steed and Peel to stop De Wynter, and they do it without really ever breaking a sweat. This leaves them plenty of times to have maddeningly cute conversations like this:

PEEL: I suppose Mother warned you about women like me.
STEED: Until now I didn’t know there WERE women like you.
PEEL: I’m the sort that doesn’t take no for an answer.
STEED: I think that would depend entirely on the question.
ERIC D. SNIDER:(shoots self in head)
FLOOR:(sound of ERIC D. SNIDER’s body hitting it)
911 OPERATOR: 911, what is your emergency?
NEIGHBOR: I just heard some annoying banter coming from my neighbor’s apartment, followed by a gunshot.
911 OPERATOR: Did the banter sound like it was being spoken by former Oscar nominees working joylessly for paychecks?
NEIGHBOR: Yes, quite.
911 OPERATOR: Looks like we’ve got another Avengers-related incident. (sadly) When will they learn? (more sadly, and a bit reflective) When will they ever learn?

Steed and Peel also get chased by a squadron of robot bumblebees; get rescued by an old lady named Alice who shows up randomly to save them; suffer an attack by Eddie Izzard as De Wynter’s goon; and arrive at De Wynter’s estate traveling in giant plastic bubbles, with no explanation about where the bubbles came from or why they are a preferred method of transportation. Also, though the internet slang term “WTF?” didn’t exist yet, it is surely what went through many viewers’ minds when they watched the scene where Steed talks to a fellow agent who happens to be invisible.

But wait! I’m afraid what I have just described might make the movie sound interesting. I apologize for this. The film’s director, Jeremiah S. Chechik (Christmas Vacation), initially brought Warner Brothers a 150-minute cut of the movie. The early test screenings of it were disastrous, in the sense that the film was so bad it actually caused earthquakes. So Warner Brothers chopped it down to a svelte 87 minutes, figuring that when people hate your movie, the best thing to do is to make it so there’s less movie for them to hate. This cutting, which must have been done indiscriminately, deleting scenes at random, accounts for the numerous continuity errors and non sequiturs like the invisible guy and the giant bubbles showing up out of nowhere.

I’d be curious to watch the 150-minute version — not because I suspect it would be any better, but because it would be interesting to see the story told in a way that’s actually intelligible. In its current form, it’s as if the film were made by aliens who knew that movies should contain “excitement” and “sexiness” and “coherent stories,” and this is their best guess at approximating those things. The result is like looking at a drawing made by a 5-year-old: You get what they were going for, but man, that kid sure is stupid.

But as bad as the film may be, that is what made it somewhat entertaining: I couldn’t possibly take it too serious with the silly Britishness combined with an incoherent story.

According to The New York Daily News review:

NOW THAT I’ve seen the new movie version of “The Avengers,” which Warner Bros. declined to screen for critics in advance, I understand why they hid it in the first place. What I don’t understand is why they released it in the second place. This “Avengers” film is so horrendously, painfully and thoroughly awful, it gives other cinematic clunkers like “Ishtar” and “Howard the Duck” a good name. Even worse, and what I can’t believe as a life-long fan of the original ’60s British series, is how anyone could conspire to make a movie version without either knowing or caring what made the original TV show so special.

Compared with the small-screen “Avengers,” the movie gets so much so wrong, including: The chemistry between secret agents John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel. On TV, Diana Rigg was so feisty yet flirty, and Patrick Macnee so reserved yet playful, that their characters of Emma and Steed had chemistry to spare, even though they maintained a professional distance. In the movie, starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, their characters kiss, yet throw off fewer sparks than an underwater match.

The theme song. On the show, it was a crucial ingredient, and the constant bouncy British music during the action sequences was another trademark. In the movie, the main theme never is played in full, and the rest of the music is as unimaginative as the plot.

The villains. On the TV series, the fun came from watching Steed and Mrs. Peel narrow down the suspects and face their eccentric adversaries. In the movie, the masterstroke of casting Sean Connery as the bad guy is wasted by giving him so little to do and say when one of the avengers is around. Instead, scriptwriter Don Macpherson and director Jeremiah Chechik fill the bulk of “The Avengers” with idiotic action sequences, encouraging adversaries to trade blows instead of quips.

The clone. Connery’s mad scientist generates an evil clone of Mrs. Peel, but doesn’t let her speak, never uses her to replace the real Mrs. Peel and never takes advantage of her sexually. In the TV series, when a mad scientist replaced both Steed and Mrs. Peel with look-alikes, the fun came from seeing our heroes carry on in ways definitely unbecoming their normal selves (Emma, for example, chewed gum, danced the frug and kissed Steed amorously.)

The special effects. Where did those stupid flying robot bugs come from in the movie? And why the high-tech, slugfest climax? The TV show’s special effects were modest the key was in the dialogue, not the action, and in the imagination, not the budget. And having Macnee show up as an invisible cameo, heard but not quite seen, is yet another insult. In short, the movie is a big disappointment. Visually, there are a few touches that would have been right at home on the old series: the life-sized pastel teddy-bear disguises, the in-transit tea break, the optical-illusion room without an exit.

Any episode of the classic series, though, contains much more wit than that. Collected episodes of the Macnee-Rigg TV “Avengers” episodes from 1967-68 have just been rereleased, and watching them is a delight. The TV series was, and remains, Emma Peel-ing. In contrast, the movie is Emma-palling.

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4 thoughts on “On The Avengers

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