Isnt It About Time You Gave The Avengers Another Chance?

Fooled you. We mean the 1998 Avengers movie.

Case for the Prosecution: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this week I present you with The Avengers .

Jury (in unison): Whaaaaat??

Prosecution: No, not Joss Whedon’s Avengers (anyway, where do you all live? America? It’s called Avengers Assemble here!), but Jeremiah S Chechik’s horrific 1998 remake of the Brit classic The Avengers .

Jury (in unison): Phew!

Defence: Okay, give us what ya got.

Prosecution: Oh, I’ll give you a lorry-load, don’t worry. What’s there to defend? This is a movie that is convincingly regarded as one of the grand turkeys of all time. This is way beyond being a bad film. This is a calamitous jet crash of a disaster of a movie. Even showing The Avengers theatrically may well be violating the Geneva Convention on human rights.

Defence: Oh, listen to you. Always going with received wisdom. We all know its abused history. It was shown to an audience made up of Spanish-speaking Mexicans in Phoenix, Arizona, who all complained that the movie was too English; it was butchered by Warner Bros, against the wishes of its own director; twenty minutes were gutted out; and what remains is a good film carved from the bones of a probably great one.

Prosecution: Are you having a laugh? You could chop 20 minutes or an hour out of Raging Bull or The Terminator or The Empire Strikes Back and you’ve still got a brilliant movie. There’s no way that an extra 20 minutes of footage could rescue this fart of a film.

Defence: It’s not perfect, we grant you. But it ain’t the nuclear disaster that’s often suggested.

Prosecution: Let’s start with the leads and the shockingly miscast Ralph Fiennes as Steed and Uma Thurman as Mrs Peel. The movie’s poor luck started the moment Warner cast that spark-free duo. The movie would be eight per cent better had Chechik kept his planned leading lady, Nicole Kidman, but even her presence wouldn’t have saved this movie.

Defence: Kidman would have been fantastic, but then so is Uma Thurman. Name me another actress from that era that shares Diana Rigg’s haughty, cerebral sexiness.

Prosecution: She’s a charisma black hole as Emma, with zero chemistry between her and her leading man. And what about Ralph Fiennes? They might as well have cast bottled air as Steed, he’s so dead as a performer.

Defence: Hold on, this is Ralph Fiennes you’re talking about. Voldemort! Who else could look so at ease in a Savile Row-tailored three-piece suit? Fiennes bleeds breeding and class and a specific kind of English delicacy, and they’re attributes that are pretty rare these days. No one else in 1998 was more perfectly suited to Steed’s bowler and umbrella.

Prosecution: He was an abomination. Macnee had a twinkle in his eye, a suggestion of upper class naughtiness, a hint of aristocratic kinkiness, none of which translates into the Don Macpherson-scripted Steed. In fact, Macpherson seems to fatally misunderstand what The Avengers was all about. He seems to think it’s crude one-liners and jokes about macaroons. The 1960s Avengers was a lust letter to Englishness, in all its flavours and peculiarities, but the 1990s Avengers seems to conflate the nation state down to tea and cakes and the odd double-decker bus.

Defence: It’s not quite your mum and dad’s Avengers , but could you say a similiar thing about JJ Abrams’ buzzed up Star Trek hardly being a faithful copy of its calmer TV parent. This was an Avengers reinvented for the 1990s and the big screen. It has the spirit of the original show, with heavy dollops of James Bond and Powell and Pressburger. We love the depopulated London that Chechik paints, and its pop art-infused production design. Say what you like about the script and acting, but there’s not a dropped stitch in the film’s look. It’s an amazingly photographed movie.

Prosecution: Okay, what about some of the action set pieces, such as the chase with the mechanical bees? If Brian Clemens had had a grave to turn in, he’d be having a very restless death.

Defence: Where else can you find a bats-mad idea as that than in The Avengers ? A chase through the English countryside with giant mechanical bees ! If the makers of the series had had the resources, you bet your bum they’d have done something like this. And that brilliantly inventive scene where Mrs Peel gets trapped in a stairway that folds back on itself like an MC Escher dreamscape… That’s pure Avengers !

Prosecution: Except all those moments involve Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thur… Sorry, nearly nodded off there. Even thinking about them makes me want to take 40.

Defence: Anyway, we haven’t even got to Sean Connery yet. His presence knits The Avengers to the 1960s more than anything else in the movie, and he’s marvellous in this movie, bringing a real lightness of touch to the zippily named Sir August De Wynter.

Prosecution: Lightness of touch? Is that your way of saying “not threatening at all”?

Defence: Oh, shush. And what of the rest of the cast? Jim Broadbent as Mother, Fiona Allen as Father, Patrick Macnee as the invisible man and Eddie Izzard and Shaun flippin’ Ryder as henchmen! Oh, and Keeley Hawes in an early screen appearance! It just gets better.

Prosecution: Now she’d have made a good Emma Peel.

Defence: We’re not going to argue with you there.

Prosecution: And what about its laughably garbled plot? The savage cuts make a mockery of any sense of continuity. It’s so nonsensical It’s almost cubist cinema.

Defence: You say that, but The Avengers always served up surreal and absurdist ideas, often glued together by the thinnest of plots. If the 1998 version sometimes seems like a hatful of mad and bad ideas, casually thrown together, then live with it – that’s The Avengers !

Prosecution: Come off it. It was a box office bomb in 1998. Pretty much everyone involved in it has disowned it now. And its biggest influence on popular culture is that it forced Marvel to change the name of their Avengers movie in the UK, so as to not be affected by its bad stench. So, who’s up for going to see the real Avengers movie with me? I’ll pay for Nachos!

Defence: Okay, we’re in. Now, Robert Downey Jr as Steed. I can see that…

Steve O’Brien

We covered The Avengers (1998) in our last Couch Potato feature – order the back issue here (opens in new tab) .

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