There are a lot of superhero flicks out there. Some might say too many. I say not enough, however; there are plenty of superhero flicks that go either unnoticed or unloved. I plan on dedicating the month of January to re-watching and shedding some light on superhero flicks that have either been largely forgotten, scoffed at or ignored by the viewing public. You won't find stuff like The Avengers on this list. No Dark Knights or Hellboys. If there's a movie you'd like to to tackle, comment and let me know and I'll do my damndest to find it and add it to the series. The criteria for this is pretty loose, if the movie features a superhero, you're in. It doesn't have to be a DC or Marvel guy. Anyways, let's do this thing.
I'm a big Stephen Norrington guy. Big. Without him, we wouldn't have the modern golden age of superhero films. If there's no Blade, there's no Dark Knight, no X-Men, no Avengers. It just doesn't happen. By taking the character of Blade, the vampire hunter, and bringing him into the public consciousness in a great, dark and "hardcore" movie, Norrington set the stage for superhero films to conquer the world.
After Blade, Norrington would return to the world of superheroes with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on Alan Moore's comic about Victorian-era champions coming together to battle a common enemy. The comic is a brilliant piece of pulp, loaded with bits that only hardcore literature geeks would get while also being approachable-enough that it would make for fine novice reading. By tasking Allan Quatermain, Mina Harker, Captain Nemo and Hawley Griffin (the Invisible Man, changed to Skinner in the film) with saving the world, Moore and artist Kevin O'neill provided juicy counter-heroes to the spate of superhero teams that currently exist in comics.
It would seem natural that a film adaptation of Moore's work would happen, even with the troubled history of Watchmen's journey to the big screen, something that would happen six years after The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Critically, LxG didn't do well. It's easy to see why. The movie is a bit of a mess with mixed performances from the (in my opinion) exciting cast. Sean Connery's Quatermain is probably the least fascinating in the bunch, but he's pretty solid as the legendary hero who explored King Solomon's Mines.
Norrington doesn't set out to do what he did with Blade, instead, he focuses the narrative on the team itself, with minor squabbles and their personalities bristling against one-another. This is similar to the comic, as the League was rife with in-fighting and difficulty from its formation. You can't have that many legends on one team without there being some difficulty. I always envision the Justice League being an intense team to be on. I think Norrington's film does a good job of showcasing the very difficulties that arise in forming a super-squad.
Naseeruddin Shah's Captain Nemo is one of the highlights of the film. Best known for Monsoon Wedding, it was a big deal to have one of India's elite in this silly ensemble superhero film. Nemo, a dark character in the comics, is almost as dark here, fighting viciously with some form of martial arts. He also uses a sword and when asked to draw his gun, he intones "I walk a different path," before laying waste to La Fantoma's goons. He's just pure badassery.
There are notable differences from the comic that are almost unforgivable. Harker, in the comic, is the leader of the team, with Quatermain being the sharpshooter. In the film, Quatermain is the lead, with Nemo and the American addition of Special Agent Tom Sawyer as seconds-in-command. It's a problem, but for the uninitiated, the film is perfectly serviceable in terms of roster. There are previous incarnations of the League that include some genuinely exciting and fascinating characters like Hawkeye from Last of the Mohicans and Don Quixote were members at different points in the history of the team. It's just a fertile and exciting universe created by Moore that eventually started to fall apart with later entries in the saga.
Jason Flemyng as Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde is probably my favorite part of the flick, for movie-geek reasons I'll explain later. Flemyng is a dude that pops up in a lot of stuff and always makes it better. Just one of those great British character actors that could literally play any role at any time. I love the dude. His Hyde is an eloquent and brutish warrior who also desperately seeks the friendship and attention of his teammates. He cries out for Nemo during his battle with another potion-enhanced villain, something that you don't hear much of in modern superhero films. Everyone's a badass and can take care of anyone on their own. No one ever needs help. Well, realistically, we all need help from time to time and Hyde perfectly embodies that throughout the picture.
The film touches on the concepts that Moore and O'Neill established, especially in the case of Harker and Quatermain. The use of La Fantoma as the villain is awesome, too. Of course, there's a major twist that I won't go into, however; the villains in the film are just as boss-level as the heroes.
Before I fell head-over-heels for Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was my favorite comic of all-time. The first two volumes. I love the film, too. It works for what it is, a glossy, high-octane take on a slow-burn, globetrotting British epic. The film's decision to not go completely CG with Mr. Hyde should be applauded, too. It's all-too-easy to make use of janky CG effects (the death of Dorian Gray looks a bit janky to the sophisticated eye) in film, so keeping Hyde as a created creature is great.
All in all, I firmly believe that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a great little gem. Far too many folks crap all over it because it's a bit over-the-top, but there's so much to love. The absurdity of the narrative, the assembly of colorful characters, the shootouts and action sequences, the perfectly plausible Invisible Man, the last-act mayhem, it's all solid stuff that should be rewatched with a less critical eye. I feel like this is the perfect flick to make a comeback with the increasing popularity of Dr. Who, steampunk and Brit-snobs. The movie makes some genuinely clever British quips, almost as if Moore himself had popped them into the script.
Connery and Norrington apparently fought tooth and nail behind the scenes. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is apparently the reason Norrington has vanished from directing. It sucks, the guy's talented. In some ways, I view the overarching theme of the passage of time giving way to the new, both in terms of younger heroes (Sawyer) and technology (Nemo/La Fantoma) being a metaphor for old-school filmmaking against new. Juxtapose the concept of Hyde being a flesh-and-blood creation squaring off against a CG counterpart and you get the internal struggle inside Norrington. I know it's a stretch, but I think this film is Norrington saying that he views himself as part of the "old guard," in a sense taking on the Quatermain role himself. It's a stretch, I acknowledge that, but I think it's fair to say. Norrington certainly isn't saying anything, so, we have to speculate.
Side note: It's fun to put together your own League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I like to go with current literary heroes just to see what combinations I can come up with, even if they're not British. Invariably, I end up with Clarice Starling, Jack Reacher, Harry Potter and Chris Ransom, organized by Jack Ryan.