The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Revisiting ‘The Avengers’ flop at 20

Written by: Valerie Kalfrin, CC2K Staff Writer

Sean Connery in a black teddy bear costume stands before a conference room of fuzzy-clad conspirators, a sure sign your movie has gone off the rails. Such is The Avengers of August 1998, a film that’s less dumb fun and the kind where you wish you had 89 minutes of your life back.

Twenty years ago, Marvel’s Avengers were mostly in comic books, not part of a multiplex cliffhanger the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. Before that, the only Avengers anyone might have known was the kicky British spy series of the 1960’s, which this film attempted to reinvent.

The Avengers was mix of suave sophistication, quirky espionage, and flirtatious banter. It notably paired secret agents John Steed (Patrick Macnee), a natty man with a bowler hat and umbrella, and the widowed Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), a confident, intelligent woman who does kung-fu in a catsuit. “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed,” Steed would say, an understated call to action. The show aired from 1961 to 1969, a time when other escapist cocktails like The Saint, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, and Mission: Impossible also populated the small screen.

After Tom Cruise and director Brian De Palma successfully turned Mission: Impossible into a 1996 summer blockbuster, other studios adapted other shows—with less than stellar success. (Cruise and the Mission: Impossible franchise are the only ones still going strong.)

The late-nineties Avengers film takes a page from 1997’s The Saint (starring Val Kilmer in the Roger Moore role), cherry-picking bits of the original. But despite its cast—joining Connery are Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Jim Broadbent, and Eddie Izzard—it flopped. Made for an estimated $60 million, it lost about $40 million, grossing only $25.2 million worldwide and a five percent “Rotten” rating on RottenTomatoes. It landed in a three-way Razzie Award tie with that year’s Godzilla and Psycho for Worst Remake or Sequel.

The film includes some elements from the series—a weather-obsessed villain, an MC Escher-like stairwell, characters chatting while pouring tea from a convertible’s dashboard—but there’s no zing. It’s like the script, credited to Sydney Newman (the TV show’s creator) and Don MacPherson (Absolute Beginners), tossed bits at the screen in hopes of recognition.

Director Jeremiah Checkik (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Benny & Joon, Diabolique) reportedly shot a 115-minute cut, but after poor test screenings the studio asked for reshoots and additional cuts. What’s left didn’t make sense twenty years ago and hasn’t aged any better. Even in 1998, these Avengers were about 30 years removed from the source material. Steed and Peel certainly are alive on VHS and DVD—but the film doesn’t know what era it wants to be in, or bother to introduce who these characters are and why we should care. Worst of all, it flips the dynamic between the main characters that made the TV series so popular.

Steed (Fiennes) dresses the part, avoiding a potted plant aimed at his head in the opening moments, then nicking one of its flowers for his lapel. But instead of being his partner, Peel (Thurman) is under suspicion. She’s a genius scientist, an expert swordswoman, and generally exceptional at everything. Her father wanted a boy, she explains, an unfortunate way to undercut a character who became a feminist icon.

Franz Lidz, writing in the New York Times, remembered his crush on the luminous TV version, “tall and cool and defiantly self-reliant,” even when zapped back to 16th-century England, locked in a stockade, and accused of being a heretic. (Her reply? “You should see me in 400 years.”) Thurman, Lidz reasoned, had an impossible task.

The film’s Peel and Steed team up after a defensive shield she designed for London, the Prospero Program Weather Shield (named for Shakespeare’s Tempest sorcerer), is sabotaged. There’s no indication how this shield works or what it protects against—certainly not Connery’s hammy acting. “One should never fear being wet,” his meteorologist Sir August de Wynter coos while hitting on Peel. De Wynter plays a pipe organ beneath a painting of Peel in a room crowded with snow globes, so we know he’s up to no good. Peel has a clone, but we don’t know who made it or why—or why De Wynter is smitten. A scene where he drugs the real Peel, lays her on a bed, and unties her scarf to kiss her before the doorbell interrupts is wildly uncomfortable, especially given today’s standards.

Unlike the TV show, where Peel came to Steed’s rescue, the film has him scramble to save her. Their chemistry is lukewarm at best, and their banter falls flat. “I thought I was seeing double,” Steed says after discovering Peel fighting her clone. “That makes two of us,” Peel replies.

The bear suit comes about 30 minutes in, supposedly a way for De Wynter and his cohorts to shield their identities. De Wynter wants part of England’s gross national product, or he’ll destroy London with weather (and himself, too, yes?). “Now is the winter of your discontent,” he says to the government. Ouch.

Macnee appears (sort of) as an invisible archivist who gives Steed a clue, one of his last roles before his death in 2015. Connery went on to star in Entrapment and Finding Forrester before another clunker, 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen effectively retired him from acting, save for some voice work.

Chechik has worked steadily directing TV series, including Leverage, Burn Notice, and Chuck. Thurman continued her diverse filmography, from indies such as The Life Before Her Eyes to blockbusters like the Kill Bill series. And Fiennes, a romantic hero in The English Patient before The Avengers, went on to The Constant Gardener, the Harry Potter series, and even MI6 as Bond’s boss in 2015’s Spectre.

With the right script and execution, the film could have been so much more. Fiennes, at least, looks back on it wryly, reportedly saying, “I think it’s a badge of honor to have a real flop on your resume.”