The Avengers

The Avengers. Warner Bros. 1998.

Before watching the movie:

What can be said about this big-budget adaptation of a beloved, long-lasting sci-fi/fantasy/action/adventure franchise? This movie that brought people’s childhood fantasies to the big screen in an ambitious project that had never been done before? The first time moviegoers assembled for The Avengers?

Of course, I mean the 1998 adaptation of the British ITV series from the 60s. What else could I be referring to?

After watching the movie:

John Steed is an agent of The Ministry. Which ministry? The Ministry. Dr. Emma Peel is told to report to Steed and go see Steed’s boss codenamed Mother, who informs them that the government’s Prospero weather control project has been sabotaged, and the security footage appears to show Mrs. Peel as the culprit. Mother allows Mrs. Peel to investigate and exonerate herself under Steed’s supervision. Their leads eventually send them to Wonderland Weather, a corporation that advertises delivery of weather patterns on demand, and Sir August De Wynter, an eccentric old scientist ally of The Ministry. A plot is afoot to hold the world’s weather for ransom, and also there’s definitely a murderous double of Mrs. Peel around.

This has some really bad pacing and tone issues. Not very much happens, and then nonsensical things start happening nonstop. Steed and Peel’s banter is extremely campy and laden with classic literature references, but every threat is deadly serious, even the swarm of robotic bees. People wearing rainbow teddy bear costumes get murdered in cold blood.

The movie is also trying and failing to update the sexuality of the source material. Steed and Peel’s working relationship is as chaste as a monk but is laden with flirty innuendos subtle enough to get past a 1960s ITV censor and leaned into enough that it’s clearly supposed to be noticed and chuckled at ribaldly. Peel is a hypercompetent Ph.D. holder with training in fencing and probably other martial arts, but when she’s inevitably overpowered and taken prisoner, the only thing that stops her creepy captor from casually taking advantage of her is getting interrupted by a doorbell.

I’ve seen a few episodes of the original series (or possibly The New Avengers) and while it’s fantastical, there’s a fairly clear sense of what the rules are. Usually the mystery is solved because of the limitations of the fantastical thing. In this movie, anything could happen, and it often seems like “because plot” is the only reason things do or don’t happen. Steed gets shot in the chest point-blank, but it’s okay because his Ministry-issued suit happens to be bulletproof. The villains have gone to the trouble of making a Peel lookalike because they want to frame her for… reasons. But it doesn’t really have much impact on the plot besides an inciting incident and one beat near the climax, at which time it’s dealt with in a campy, nonsensical way so it can be set aside and the plot can deal with the real bad guy.

The plot sounded campy, but I expected to like this movie. Superspy movies are always corny and bombastic on paper, but they usually know what they want to be and execute that. This seems like it’s not sure if it wants to be James Bond or Johnny English, and ends up being neither. It’s boring and silly and preposterous, and it doesn’t sell the silly and preposterous at all. This selection was supposed to be an April Fool’s joke, but the joke was on me.

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