The Avengers is one of those movies that really should have been great. Combining an excellent cast with a geek-friendly pedigree and some inspired weirdness should have birthed an instant cult classic. Yet the movie is forgotten almost as soon as you’re done with it, with only isolated images remaining. I should point out that I’m talking about the 1998 would-be blockbuster starring Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean “I passed on Lord of the Rings” Connery.
Tagline: Extraordinary crimes against the people and the state must be avenged.
More Accurate Tagline: Mmm… quite.
Guilty Party: This mess reeks of studio meddling. The Avengers television show, from what I’ve been able to understand, was never going to spawn an American blockbuster. It’s too weird, and that specific brand of tweedy British weird, for mass appeal. Had it been turned into a middle-to-low budget thriller with endearingly clunky special effects, it could have become the kind of thing that airs on IFC to rapturous trash-art connoisseurs like me. Instead, the studio saw something truly offbeat and trimmed it into oblivion, producing a finished product that doesn’t make a lick of sense. Producer Jerry Weintraub, this is your fault.
Synopsis: This synopsis is going to feel weird, disjointed, and incomplete. It has to be accurate to the film.
The British are in trouble! They don’t want to be a bother, but Dr./Mrs. Emma Peel (Uma Thurman), former chief of the Prospero Program (which has something to do with weather, I think) has apparently sabotaged the selfsame program. Sabotaged it how? Who knows? The Ministry, a counter-espionage organization, have her on video and everything. So instead of, I don’t know, arresting her, they decide the most reasonable course of action is to send her off alone with their top man John Steed (Ralph Fiennes) to find out what the problem is. The investigation starts with Sir August de Wynter (Sean Connery), some crazy recluse guy who has an unexplained picture of Uma Thurman on his pipe organ.
While Mrs. Peel has a murky conversation with de Wynter, Steed is ambushed and shot by Mrs. Peel. He wakes up later in Mrs. Peel’s house, and accepts her alibi, despite, you know, SEEING her shoot him. We clearly have an evil twin situation brewing here, but neither Uma has a goatee. Anyway, Mrs. Peel stole one of de Wynter’s snowglobes (because he collects snowglobes since he’s delightfully eccentric) that has a Wonderland Weather logo. So based on evidence Encyclopedia Brown would dismiss as circumstantial, they wander into a company that apparently sells custom weather, and all you have to do to get an unescorted tour is drop de Wynter’s name.
Meanwhile, upstairs, de Wynter is having a meeting with his entire evil organization while dressed in teddy bear suits. Seriously. This is something that happens. De Wynter kills a couple of his underlings who are having cold feet about the plan. Steed and Peel, now upstairs — I don’t know either — split up, Steed to stop a red teddy bear who waves to him, and Peel to the roof to… I’m not really sure. They both end up in fights, Steed with Eddie Izzard for some reason, and Peel with her evil twin who is also in a teddy bear suit. Still no goatee.
This is right about where the movie completely falls apart into a series of sketches about the dangers of CGI in the British countryside. It turns out Father, one of the two heads of the Ministry, is in cahoots with de Wynter (explained during a croquet scene). They capture Emma Peel and try to drive her crazy, and it turns out the twin is a clone, which they explain with a picture of a two-headed calf for some reason. There’s also a chase with some robot bugs where the heroes are saved by an old British lady and her tommy gun.
Tired of all this, de Wynter goes to a big room filled with world leaders, which is totally a thing in movies like this, and informs them that they will buy weather from him, or he’ll basically pull a Day After Tomorrow. Steed and Peel, remembering what a piece of shit that flick was, spring into action. They first take out Father and Clone Peel, which succeeds chiefly due to Emma Peel’s never-before-revealed immunity to falling.
Steed and Peel head over to de Wynter’s evil lair. Peel has a tightrope fight against Eddie Izzard and predictably wins, because she’s played by Uma Thurman and he’s played by Eddie Izzard. Steed has a duel with de Wynter and wins due to some timely assistance from lightning.
Life-Changing Subtext: The apocalypse isn’t anything to get worked up about. Tea?
Defining Quote: “Would you be so kind as to hit the ground if it’s not too much trouble?” — Alice, while brandishing a Thompson. This kind of dialogue is a tightrope. It’s either delightful or completely unsufferable. Sadly, the film falls on the latter end of the scale. A lot.
Standout Performance: Eileen Atkins as Alice. Apparently, producers wanted Diana Rigg, who played both Mrs. Peel in the show and a considerable role in bringing a generation of Brits through puberty. She didn’t give a reason for turning it down, although it’s not tough to guess (for what it’s worth, TV’s John Steed, Patrick Macnee, has a cameo as an invisible man). Anyway, Eileen Atkins is the one person who manages to deliver the stilted dialogue without asking for — nay, demanding — a smack in the jowls.
What’s Wrong: If your characters aren’t worried, then neither am I. It’s a simple truism in writing that shitty writers often forget in the effort to make their characters brave. If everyone reacts to danger like it’s a minor inconvenience, then the audience isn’t going to be invested in the plot. And the characters in The Avengers never had a single, solitary fuck to give. This apocalypse is just a horrid bother they’ll thwart in time for tea. Or in time for me to beat the teeth from their heads.
Also, it’s a good idea to have your hero do something. Mrs. Peel is better than Steed at literally everything. Chess, fencing, double-entendres, killing bad guys, detective work, saving herself, wearing a catsuit, marriage, karate, tea… Steed could be lifted from the movie entirely, and nothing would change. That’s a problem.
Flash of Competence: I enjoyed the fight choreography in Steed’s action scenes. As a master of what appeared to be a highly repressed form of canne de combat, he fights exactly like you’d think an uptight British guy would in that it’s slightly less embarrassing than gymkata.
And I did like the teddy bear costumes.
Best Scenes: Any scene in which Steed fights is pretty solid. Since it came out a year before The Matrix we don’t have to deal with any wire work, and the beatdowns are all pretty economical. This does not include the scene in which Steed and Peel engage in what can only be called sexual fencing. This is painfully terrible and makes me want to hit myself with a hammer until I forget it in a blessed red fog.
Part of the film’s commitment to being blase and British is tea. These motherfuckers never waste a chance to drink their motherfucking tea. Now, I’m the last person who should be judging anyone for excessive tea consumption (although I drink mine with ice like a civilized desert dweller), but these folks take it to an extreme. I started pretending “tea” was code for absinthe and the movie took place exclusively in their addled nightmares. It ended up making a lot more sense.
Transcendent Moment: I glossed over it a bit in the synopsis, but Father and Clone Peel kidnap Emma and attempt to get her out of snowbound London in a hot air balloon. You know, because when the world is wracked with super-storms, the safest conveyance is the one at the mercy of winds and which travels amongst lightning bolts.
Anyway, Emma sabotages the balloon and jumps out while a hundred feet up. She’s totally fine. Meanwhile, Clone Peel and Father crash into a building and explode in fire. A balloon crash? No one could see that coming!
Up until now, Clone Peel has been chiefly identifiable due to the fact that she wears the iconic black catsuit. And this catsuit was just burned up in a tragic balloon crash. Yet in the next shot, Emma Peel is in the catsuit. I like to imagine that this is because, in a rage, she fished Clone Peel out of a snowbank, skinned her like a deer, and wore her pelt. Nothing else makes sense.
And now that I’ve reviewed it, I can comfortably wipe The Avengers from my memory banks.