Hey, remember the other Avengers?

Posted by · 11:45 am · April 13th, 2012

This may not come as the biggest shock to you, but I’m not what you might call a comic book geek. I don’t say that with any sense of smugness or superiority — Lord knows I belong to any number of other uncool subclasses of geekery — but it’s a universe I never subscribed to as a boy, and with which I can therefore never completely connect.

Even if I’ve grown to appreciate the occasional artistry in the books (and, of course, the many films they have borne), I must confess I’ve still never read one cover to cover. This, as you might expect, leaves me largely clueless when it comes to separating the worlds of Marvel and DC characters. Where news of certain comic properties intersecting leaves many fans (it’s both reductive and discriminatory to say “fanboys”) foaming at the mouth, I merely shrug my shoulders. The sense of adaptation is lost on me entirely.

Which goes some way toward explaining why, when news of Joss Whedon filming “The Avengers” hit the internet a couple of years back to a positive Mexican wave of movie-blog excitement, I was one of the few left scratching my head and thinking, “Steed and Peel? They’re trying that again?”

Say “The Avengers” to me, and I think not of Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Captain America or Thor. I do think of superheroes after a fashion, but not ones that wear capes, wield hammers or turn green after losing their temper. Rather, the Avengers I’m thinking of wear Savile Row suits and Mary Quant miniskirts, though the leather catsuit worn by one of them would cross over to Marvelworld quite easily.

I’m talking, of course, about John Steed and Emma Peel, the chic English spies who popularized the Avengers title on British TV, in the very same decade that Stan Lee and company took it for their introductory 1963 comic. (The TV show claimed it first, debuting in 1961.) Like a gentler, camper James Bond — its one-episode espionage narratives taking a secondary role to its leads’ clothes and sexual chemistry — it was hugely successful candyfloss TV. Catch the odd rerun in odd hours on UK channels and it’s not hard to imagine its influence on everything from “Doctor Who” to “Alias”; cast members like Diana Rigg to Joanna Lumley (who filled the former’s shoes in the 1970s revival “The New Avengers”) still enjoy national treasure status in the UK.

Clearly, I’m not the only Brit whose mind goes to the bowler-hatted spy first when the name “The Avengers” comes up — the overlap is a big enough concern that Whedon’s film has been rather clumsily redubbed “Avengers Assemble” for its UK release, a title that I suspect will still leave some older onlookers confused. In the US, however, they’re clearly confident that precious few know or remember not only the British spy series, but the wretched Hollywood blockbuster they made of it back in the summer of 1998.

Some of you, depressing enough, may be too young to remember this, but “The Avengers” was one of the biggest mainstream catastrophes of that year in cinema: a truly astonishing mishandling of a project that had been begging to be made for decades, scuppered so comprehensively by errors in casting, writing and editing that word of its failure got out long before its release. (The bad buzz on “John Carter” was positively anticipatory compared to this puppy.)

I remember doggedly looking forward to “The Avengers,” despite any number of warning signs: after his hilarious botched remake of “Les Diaboliques,” Jeremiah Chechik wasn’t exactly the name one wanted to see attached to a project that required a light, self-aware touch. Ralph Fiennes may have had the right degree of stiff-backed poise and patrician charm to play John Steed, but the emphatically un-English Uma Thurman was nobody’s idea of an Emma Peel. And when the film was shifted from June to late August on the release calendar, one got the distinct impression that Warner Bros. wasn’t saving the best for last.

Sure enough, August came and “The Avengers,” ominously unscreened for critics, lived down to its promise. Following studio panic, the film had been cut from 115 minutes to 87 — a gesture of mercy to audiences, perhaps, but one that left a previously limp script incomprehensible, its saving-the-world climax seemingly pulled from thin air. Fiennes and Thurman’s oil-and-water chemistry was merely the insult to which the script’s misguided insistence on a romance between the two (something the TV series had always flirtatiously danced around) added thudding injury. Ugly, unfunny, culturally inauthentic — the film pleased precisely no one on either side of the Atlantic, and was rewarded with a bushel of Razzie nominations at the year’s end.

In the brief few minutes that I believed Joss Whedon was taking on the unenviable challenge of redeeming the British spies’ big-screen reputation, I was torn between bafflement that anyone would deem him the man for the job and odd gratitude that someone, at least, was giving it another go. I doubt anyone will ever dare try again — though a TV reboot in the UK is conceivable — though it’ll remain an opportunity lost to the wrong people. I’ve not seen Joss Whedon’s Marvel-flavored “The Avengers” yet, but here’s hoping he’s given the title some dignity.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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