The Spandex Retrospective: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

As a critic, I like to keep my eye out for positive qualities in films I am actively disliking. Trying to eke out upsides to drek keeps the mind active when it'd rather give up from all the abuse Hollywood punishes it with. More importantly however, if the final moments of the film roll around and you find absolutely nothing you've at least done your due diligence before storming the ticket booth with an arm torn from the theater chair and demanding both your money back and the film reel be burnt in the parking lot. I remember having tolerated 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' a bit more when I was younger, but revisiting it with applied attention to the actual film, I feel confident that this is the worst movie thus far in the “Retrospective”. Yes, even worse than 'Steel'.

I'm so sorry Mr. Moore.

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The most difficult part of reviewing 'League' is trying not to rely on comparing it to the graphic novel. It's a common mistake on the part of geeks to think that the success or failure of a film adaptation is in its faithfulness to the source material. The genre's best contributions tend to forge their own path ('The Dark Knight', 'X-Men') while some of the most precisely recreated are made questionably necessary by essentially being highly expensive motion comics ('300', 'Watchmen'). However, it is useful to use the source material as contrast, to see what choices were made in storytelling; what was excised and what was retained. It's a great guide to the film's decisions dramatically, but I'll try to keep it as just that, as this film makes its bed even without holding the source material up to the light.

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When 'League' begins, the premise is mostly the same. It is set in a literal World of Fiction, where the most recognizable names in turn of-the-century literature all exist as actual people, gathered together by the British government to counter a threat to the Victorian world. In this case the villain is the Fantom, a thinly veiled terrorist version of Gaston Leroux's opera-dwelling killer. Armed with machine guns and tanks, the Fantom has the technological superiority to the pre-World War I nations to act with impunity, his plan to stage attacks to look like they were carried out by foreign nations to provoke global war so he can sell weapons to both sides. (or, if you'd prefer, it's 'Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows' and 'Iron Man 3'). It's an overly familiar device made ridiculous by simple questions: why does someone with the power to do this need more money and why do these governments not notice that all of these attacks are carried out by the same unique technologies?

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Enter Allen Quatermain, hero of 'King Solomon's Mines', sans the comic's heroin addiction, played by the most bored Sean Connery you are likely to ever see. Connery and director Stephen Norrington had a famously antagonistic relationship on set, apparently only a few degrees away from going full Faye Dunaway and tossing a cup of hot urine in the director's face. Instead we got equally eye-stinging punishment from Connery as he gives all of no shits about his performance, listless and apathetic in such a way you can actually feel him flipping the whole production the bird.

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Quatermain is the old dog of war, dragged back into the fray because the plot requires him to. He's mourning the death of his son, apparently intended to lend him pathos and amazingly the only attempt to give any character in the film any sort of superficial depth. He's made leader of the expedition, but we never quite understand why. He is described as hating England, is vehemently sexist towards the one woman on the team, and is often verbally abusive to the others. In fact Quatermain wasn't the leader of the team in the book either, that role went to Mina Murray (Harker in the film). This change wouldn't feel so offensive however if it weren't for the other alterations to Mina's character.

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The graphic novel's confident and complex leader, a woman physically and emotionally scarred by evil who rises against the condescending and vicious sexism of the era to orchestrate the saving of the world, is gone. The new Mina is a vampire, having been transformed by Dracula into one of his own kind, allowing her to swoop about on a ridiculous looking cloud of computer-generated bats. More importantly however, she serves as the other form of vamp, whose dialogue must consist entirely of clumsy double entendres. “Don't be such an alarmist, Mr. Q. And my hips are none of your business.” Mina says, with all the indignation of a stripper teasing her client.

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She is also there to serve as the object of desire (or as this film sees it, desire object) of two of the team members; the sarcastic ponce Dorian Grey and the ridiculously included Agent Tom Sawyer. There's very little conflict for her attentions, more just the expectation that as the only woman on the team (and the only woman visible that's not an extra) she need only be queried to be available. Even her responses to Quatermain's stinging sexism seems to be flirtation, often making it seem like she'd rather jump the old hateful bastard's bones more than his tow-headed substitute son Sawyer.

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In the average film with this dynamic, the misogynistic war horse usually rebukes the idea of a woman accompanying the adventure, but then is shown the error of his ways and is forced to recognize her in some capability as an equal. Not so in 'Gentlemen'. Quatermain frequently demeans Mina's gender to her face, but we never reach the end of the cliché when Connory supposed to say “Looksh like your vud-gina didn't ruin everything after all”. For all we know, Quatermain got put in the ground thinking Mina could have put her vampire powers to better use in the kitchen. It's absolutely possible that Mina Harker is the worst most revolting portrayal of a woman in all of comic book film, and that's taking into mind Pamela Anderson in 'Barb Wire' and every woman in 'The Spirit'. The graphic novel's complex and liberated character only intensifies the injury. The Mina of the film is perfectly summarized by the film's poster, given a prominent position up front in order to display her very well lit cleavage. Gentlemen indeed.

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The film is a weird mess effects wise. Many of the designs are quite nice; the Nautilus holds up wonderfully visually and even if you hate the stupid car one must appreciate its aesthetics. However, good design can't hold up to bad ways of shooting it. I immediately liked the strange white washed Arabesque architecture of the Nautilus interior, but after only a few minutes it was reduced to a cheap looking set by boring dialogue scenes and lousy framing. The CGI is predictably bad, but messy choices in editing and shooting make moments of awfulness stand out dramatically.

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The choice was brave to make Mr. Hyde a traditional effect, and while the suit looks and moves goofily it was at the very least interesting to look at. Also interesting to look at was the Super Hyde in the conclusion, an effect so weird, gross, and poorly accomplished you couldn't help but stare fascinated, like a Sam Keith painting come to life only in the worst possible way.

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The film also has a strong case of the 'who-are-we-saving again's, a curse of the genre that only seems to get more pronounced as time goes by. Forget the stupidity of the Fantom's plan to 'knock down' Venice, or the even more alarmingly stupid plan to foil it by treating the ancient city like dominos. Ask yourself who is actually being saved? Building upon building is demolished as Sawyer expertly drives the invention he didn't know existed until a few moments ago through the crumbling city streets. A Carnival of faceless Venetians is taking place, but our heroes treat this as if every single citizen of the city has to be there in fancy dress. Was there literally nobody at home in all of Venice allowing for this carnage to be bloodless? And if it were, what purpose would the act serve as terrorism?

The League of Extradordinary Gentlemen (12)I digress however, as this scene, and every scene of the movie, simply expects the action and the insistence of the characters to fill a place of an actual sense of stakes. We don't really see any consequences of terror, we have to be told through exposition how dire the situation is. This makes the motivations of the characters even more confusing and suspect. Why does Nemo, the nationless Science Pirate, care about any of what's going on to contribute to this expedition? It's also never clear why we have to tolerate Quatermain's leadership since his lack of a sense of loyalty is practically central to the film itself. Characters move and act for no reason, Hyde pulls an “I'm always angry” and becomes instantly helpful without motivation. When the team stands proudly together on the bridge of the Nautilus, having montaged the sub back together, there's an unearned sense of group accomplishment. You still don't know why any of these characters share a room much less share a sense of satisfaction.

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The film's climax stumbles in with two revelations; that the Fantom was actually Professor James Moriarty (wait, so this really is 'Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows'?!) and by process of elimination the Invisible Man keeps his white greasepaint and sunglasses tucked safely in his anus when he's invisible. Quatermain dies but gets a teased resurrection for the sequel that blessedly never got a chance to happen. Shortly afterward, Sean Connery retired from filmmaking so we could be spared him applying the same enthusiasm in 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'. Alan Moore would go on to disown every succeeding adaptation of his works, a topic that became a staple of his rare convention appearances. Like 'The Adventures of Pluto Nash' the film scorched the earth, leaving only devastated careers in its wake. Sometimes it's just not necessary to eke a silver lining out of a film. Sometimes you can't.