Unfavourably received, unfairly remembered, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen deserves better.
Following successes like Blade and X-Men and the improvements in CGI special effects, this crazy comic book adventure tried to inject some wild verve and stylish visuals to bring a beloved comic book to life.
By the time of its release, on set tensions had poisoned relations between Sean Connery and director Stephen Norrington. It would become Connery’s last major film before retirement, and Norrington would never helm another feature.
Lovers of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s classic graphic novel hated it and critics questioned the changes to characters and lack of characterisation.
The film looks great, the cast seem to be loving it, the production design is fantastic and the action is bonkers. It made perfectly good box office figures and, like X-Men, could have been a straightforward adventure that led to a stronger sequel.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or LXG as the marketing pushed hard to enter our vocabulary, is firmly set in an imagined version of Victorian London, using elements of literary steampunk genre.
IT IS 1899…
The British Secret Service needs to recruit a band of distinct individuals to stop an evil genius from starting a world war. As airships explode and secure banks are robbed by villains with never-before-seen technology, characters from literature are recruited to help. Haggard’s legendary adventurer Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery), Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) from Stoker’s Dracula, Dr Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) from Stevenson’s chiller, Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran) – the invisible man character loosely based on HG Well’s creation, Wilde’s Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), Verne’s Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah) and a young American agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West).
The story which spans continents, from Europe to Africa and Asia, clips along nicely with some great set pieces. It does a fine if brisk job of giving the characters room to breathe – not a bad thing when most of them would have been unknown to a contemporary audience.
GOOD AND BAD
The score by Trevor Jones is thrilling and bombastic where it needs to be. This was a great one-two after his recent soundtrack for graphic novel adaptation From Hell (also by Moore).
Tom Sawyer does still land awkwardly as an obvious Americanisation in a story mostly populated with Brits. Shane West is great and the idea that he is an American spy works – a sequel would surely have had him leading the team.
I always found Dorian Grey an unusual choice too, but as an enigmatic figure, he adds mystery and ambiguity.
There is a neat gag when Mina Harker checks her make up mirror after a fight, but in a world where vampires can’t see their reflection in mirrors, the joke lands poorly.
A bug bear of mine from older movies (i.e. since the early nineties) is when a comic book movie ends with two CGI monsters punching each other. This film has that too, but it is what it is, a fantastical ending to a fantasy story.
The film does seem a rushed, with some complaining that the frenzied editing is covering flaws. Some CGI is a little unfinished, which is a shame as the practical and CGI work is generally good. The behind the scenes documentary on the creation of Jekyll/Hyde is worth seeking out.
The film ends with shifting dirt heralding a hero’s return (see also Batman v Superman) but it wasn’t to be.
Norrington, who also directed the well received BLADE with Wesley Snipes five years earlier, keeps the film exciting. After some well-reported on-set disputes with him, Connery complained of the stress of trying to fix the film in the edit, although there are conflicting reports about the editing process.
Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill had little to do with the production. It would seem that while they expected the film to deviate from their creation, the avenues it took after many rewrites, studio changes and editing took it in a very different direction.
The League was released after the successful Spider-Man and Blade 2, but the same year Hulk and Daredevil stumbled. X-Men 2 triumphed the same year, so maybe a fledgling team up movie had little chance.
The following year Catwoman tanked, and Spider-Man 2 soared. Van Helsing, which brought the horror characters together sold well but was poorly received.
Comic book adaptations were in their infancy, and all remarkably different – surely there should have been room for the LXG? And if the problem was the production, not the material, then why not mine the original?
Fans of the book may rightly complain bitterly that the film was a missed opportunity, but a slavish recreation of the original may not be the correct approach either.
But why can’t this series be revisited NOW, either in movies or streaming TV?
TIME TO STREAM
On paper the concept is fabulous. At a time of national crisis a group of skilled heroes uncover the dirty conspiracies, mysteries and plots of the age. The roster of heroes could rotate too, allowing for multiple characters and situations.
This fantasy superhero stuff would play well since the rise of Marvel and it’s lighter, playful, family friendly approach to the genre. There were reports that Fox were thinking of a reboot around 2015 with Mina as the lead character, but that didn’t see daylight. When Disney bought Fox, many in development projects were quietly shelved. Disney+ has been criticised for a lack of new entertainment for grown ups – could this be a potential winner?
The darker origins of the source material (a DC imprint in the US) could fit in with some of DCs output, either in movies or on TV. Look how the recent series of Watchmen expanded on an older Alan Moore property with fantastic (and multiple Emmy-nominated) results.
NETFLIX are obviously investing in comic book ensemble pieces like The Umbrella Academy or Warrior Nun. Amazon has success with Carnival Row.
The demand for this type of content is currently high. And in a world in need of heroes of any sort, maybe these extraordinary ones would fit the bill.
LXG isn’t top tier Fox, Marvel or DC. But I think it stands head and shoulders above some of the big player’s more recent movies. It is infinitely more fun than similar films released around that time and deserves a second look.
And if you like what you see, or if you prefer the original books, then surely it’s time to #BringBackLXG?
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