This was one of my favourite films growing up. I know, I know – I’ve read countless articles detailing all the ways in which the 2003 adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (hereafter LXG, for brevity’s sake) messed up Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal source material. The film was apparently such a nightmare to make, it ended the careers of its director Stephen Norrington and star Sean Connery in one fell swoop. Re-watching it now, 14 years after the fact, the flaws stand out as clear as day. But I can’t help loving this strange, beleaguered blip in the comic book movie landscape, and here’s why…
I was raised on the stories of Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and other such nineteenth century Gothic novels, and loved the idea – even back then – of a Gothic mashup ensemble piece. It’s the same reason I loved, and still hold a candle for, Stephen Sommers’ 2004 Dracula re-imagining Van Helsing (which includes my personal favourite Hugh Jackman performance).
But unlike me, the rest of the world seemed to hate the LXG film (and Van Helsing to boot). [Side Note: what is it with directors named Stephen making supposedly ‘sub-par’ Gothic reboots?] At the time I found such hatred irrational; re-watching both films over a decade later made me realise the myriad reasons why both films are almost universally despised, although I still have a place in my heart for them both. I’ll revisit Van Helsing in a follow-up post, but for now I’ll be diving 20,000 leagues into the unusual oddity that is the LXG.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time?
The first thing that came to mind in wondering exactly why the LXG didn’t capture the hearts and minds of its audience is that it simply came out at the wrong time. LXG was released in 2003, five years after Blade single-handedly revitalised the comic book movie genre. LXG not only owed a debt to Blade for reinvigorating graphic novel adaptations to screen, but also to Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which made ensemble team-up films cool again. Coincidentally, Blade was brought to the screen by LXG director Stephen Norrington, starting a career that was to be cut short by the financial and critical failure of the LXG.
The movie market at this time was saturated with ensemble fantasy fare like the Harry Potter series and the aforementioned Lord of the Rings trilogy (both from 2001 onwards). LXG’s nearest Gothic neighbours on screen included Dracula 2000 (in which Gerard Butler’s titular terror finds himself stalking the streets of 21st century New Orleans), the underwhelming Lestat sequel Queen of the Damned in 2002 (co-starring Aaliyah and LXG cast member Stuart Townsend), and Kate Beckinsale’s Death-Dealing adventures as Selene in 2003’s Underworld. In other words, people weren’t crazy about Gothic stories and characters at this time, unless their vampires wore PVC and listened to grunge music.
In an era of hobbits, wizards and superheroes, it was time for a new type of hero to rise: enter LXG, a proto-Avengers mashup of Gothic all-stars brought together to stop a supervillain from taking over the world. Not a ground-breaking narrative by any means, but not too different to the quests of Middle Earth or Hogwarts, so not a deal breaker. Changing the original almost beyond all recognition probably was, though.
So that’s it, huh? We’re some kind of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?
Having now read the first and second volumes of the LXG graphic novel series, I can appreciate how the many changes to the source material made Alan Moore so angry. The general thrust of the plot is the same, as above, but though some characters survived the translation from page to screen, many were tacked on for marketing purposes, and those that did make it to the script were rather different to their paper counterparts.
For a start Alan Quatermain leads the team in the film, a job that was securely in the hands of Mina in the original. Cinema is still struggling to trust a blockbuster to a female lead – though things seem to be turning around with the likes of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel due in the next two years – and female-led ensembles are also rare (see the 2016 Ghostbusters remake, and the upcoming Ocean’s 11 reboot). At the time of LXG, female-led superhero films were probably at an all-time high in terms of numbers: Elektra, Catwoman and their 90s predecessor Tank Girl are the only ones I can think of, and none of these were received very well. But the fact that Mina was the head of the LXG in the graphic novels makes her demotion in the movie seem that more insidious. Peta Wilson wasn’t a box office draw like Sean Connery (though his presence didn’t prevent the move from flopping), but she was a successful action star in her own right in projects like Le Femme Nikita, and she does extremely well as not to falter under the many stereotypes and clichés heaped onto her character. Her role in the film reminded me of Jean Grey’s in the X-Men franchise – she has a certain status in the team, but is mainly (ab)used as the object of every man’s unrequited affection. Her divorce from Jonathan Harker is erased in the film, as is her romance with Quatermain (something I appreciated, because although the graphic novel eventually won me over to them as a couple, I was grateful not to have to witness yet another age-gap affair between a young woman and a much older man, even if the woman in question is an ageless vampire). The bite-marks on her neck, a Phantom of the Opera style disfigurement in the original, are dainty pin-pricks in the film, a change made no doubt to make her less ‘tragic heroine’ and more ‘eye candy’ to the audience (though this is more to do with her Smurfette status as the league’s only female member, and Mina thankfully subjected to any egregious ogling as was the case in Star Trek into Darkness or literally any Michael Bay film).
Captain Nemo is perhaps the most faithful adaptation of his graphic novel counterpart. Naseeruddin Shah adds complexity, ambiguity and quality to a film which, frankly, didn’t deserve him – he was basically the getaway driver in both mediums of the story, and though the computer generated Nautilus doesn’t stand up today, his performance does (I also liked his bromance with Hyde, an element not in the original). Speaking of which, Jason Flemyng gives a really brilliant dual performance as Jekyll and Hyde, giving the former a twitchy, sweaty kind of anxiety and the latter a gruff, bestial way about him that was rather endearing (though distinctly watered down from his far more violent graphic novel self). It makes perfect sense that Jekyll is kind of a creeper in this one, watching Dorian and Mina making out and leaving before the real juicy part begins; it was refreshing to have Hyde lecturing Jekyll for his voyeurism, and not the the way around (in fact, Hyde respects Mina, and her privacy, far more than Jekyll does) – he does this by appearing in reflective surfaces, an innovative way of showing their interaction. Early on in the film, Jekyll vows to the team that Hyde will never use him again, to which Dorian responds, with typically privileged arrogance, ‘then what good are you?’ It rang true to me of the Frankenstein dynamic, where the creator becomes displaced in his life and legacy by his own creation. Their native journey was the most rewarding, and the film gave time to build a kinship between Jekyll and Hyde by making them work together to save the world, swapping back and forth depending on whether know-how or fisticuffs was the best strategy – this grudging, hard-fought acceptance that develops between the dual personalities is something I’ve never encountered in a retelling of their story before. If anything, Hyde becomes the more heroic of the two, and they are able to work together without enmity. And Tony Curran does very well as the more comedic and far less predatory version of the Invisible Man, adding oodles of charm that would have been a largely throwaway role in anyone else’s hands.
And now for the totty, because every mainstream film’s gotta have it. In this case, we have hotties from either side of the Atlantic (and, notably, characters who aren’t from the source material): representing the UK, we have Dorian Gray, played with delectable haughtiness by Stuart Townsend (in the best role of his career); and representing the U.S. of A. is a character who isn’t from a Gothic novel (but who cares about artistic integrity, we gotta get bums on seats across the pond) Tom Sawyer, portrayed with adorable awkwardness by Shane West. It was actually confirmed by the filmmakers that the latter was added solely to appeal to the American box office (that worked a treat, didn’t it?), but despite their cynical intentions I have a soft spot for Tom Sawyer, if only because he’s the underdog in the fight for Mina’s affections against his much more eloquent, confident and – crucially – immortal rival: Dorian. Their love triangle is far more post-X-Men than post-Dracula: Dorian/ Mina/ Tom feel more akin to Logan/ Jean/ Scott than Dracula/ Mina/ Jonathan. Dorian’s seduction and later betrayal of Mina to join the dark side are very in keeping with his Wildean counterpart, and Mina at least gets the chance to destroy her second (immortal) emotional abuser in a row in rather epic fashion by showing Dorian his portrait. Tom Sawyer has a half-hearted story arc involving Quatermain as his quasi-father figure, but I would have loved to have seen the film start with their original idea of Tom feeling guilty not being able to save his BFF Huckleberry Finn, who, during a top secret mission from the American government, is killed by the Big Bad – it would have given him more motivation than simply being sent to join the team by the government and/or trailing after Mina the whole time.
As for the villain of the piece, turn your eyes away now if you don’t want to be spoiled for the end of a film from fourteen years ago. Richard Roxburgh was cornering the market in genre-movie baddies in the early 2000s (see Van Helsing and M:I:II for further evidence). But though he gives a gloriously OTT performance here, he is short-changed by simply being too many villains at the same time. He starts off the film as M, a secret service bigwig in the same vein of Bond’s superior whose name he invokes, and who recruits the league. In the film he is later revealed to be the Fantom, the villain of the piece, and a kind of steampunk terrorist Phantom of the Opera. And then it’s revealed that M isn’t only the Fantom, but he’s also James Moriarty! Gasp! It’s like shoving all the villains from Spiderman 3 into a single character, and it just doesn’t work. Moriarty as M was the secret villain of the graphic novel, and that would have been enough, but the villain is as overstuffed and misjudged as the film itself. Also, I found it highly amusing that no-one seemed shocked that M was the baddie all along – except for Nemo, who is the only one of the lot to attempt to look surprised. Dorian’s eventual betrayal was similarly weak; instead of stabbing one of them and running, or taking one captive, he walks back to the Nautilus alone, encounters Ishmael (Nemo’s first mate) and basically says ‘You thought it was the other guy. You were wrong. It was me all along’, and shoots him. It was however a nice touch to have the League suspect Rodney Skinner as the traitor, given that he is a ‘gentleman thief’ by his own omission (although none of the other League members have saintly pasts, either).
I haven’t read the rest of the LXG series, but there seems to be a missed opportunity in omitting the character Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. In the supplementary material there was a reference to how the Creature had made himself a Bride, just as he had been denied one by his father, and that they lived together as rulers of an island of their automaton creations. Now that’s a story I would have liked to see in full. Even with the filmmakers merrily adding characters for sex appeal or American sales, didn’t Frankenstein even come up in discussions at all? Would he have dominated the other characters and therefore wouldn’t work as a member of an ensemble narrative? If you really did want to go down the route of the Fantom stealing each League member’s essence to create genetically modified warriors for a world war, I would instead have had the main villain (Moriarty, in this case) forcing Victor Frankenstein in order to create super soldiers.
May the new century be yours, son, as the old one was mine…
Some good points: I love the steampunk aesthetic and the music, and the film ticked along at a nice pace. Time has not been kind to the VFX (and there were way too many badly-rendered explosions) but the Hyde suit looks really impressive still, a prime example of practical effects outliving their digital counterparts. But I did think it was a bit ridiculous how Hyde seemed to have somehow procured a giant top hat for his nightly jaunts – where does he shop, the Victorian Big & Tall? And I actually think the film has some good action sequences, like the library scene at Dorian’s house – in which we get to see (without being told) what all the characters are capable of – and the Venice sequence, where we see everyone put their USPs to the test. Regarding non-action scenes, the segment on the deck of the Nautilus was rather nicely done, with Quatermain showing Tom how to properly handle a gun (only now am I beginning to see the subtext here…), and Quatermain’s introduction is nicely put together, especially in highlighting the difference between the old ways (Alan’s manual rifle and his fisticuffs) versus the new (automatic weapons and proto-nukes) – this should have been the opening to the film, instead of the pointless bank break-in with the Fantom’s tank. Dorian is a real highlight of the film, spouting some of the film’s best lines (‘I’ve lived long enough to see the future become history’), some daft ones (‘I’m an immortal, sir. Not a gazelle’) but also one of its worst when, after staking ex-lover Mina with poker, he drawls ‘I hoped I’d get to nail you one more time. Didn’t think it’d be literally.’ Smh. As bad lines go, it has good company, along with the many henchmen who constantly yelling out obvious plot points in case the audience aren’t keeping up – a prime example is Anonymous Henchman #84 shouting ‘the buildings are falling like dominoes’, as if we couldn’t have worked that out for ourselves.
Using the essence of the League to create (even more) monstrous versions of themselves to create an army was a nice touch – vampires from Mina’s blood, invisible assassins from Rodney’s etc. – though it doesn’t live up to its full potential (and makes Alan’s inclusion on the tea, pretty pointless) but I feel they could have expanded on it more: e.g. had each member fight ‘themselves’/ their evil counterpart. They did this to an extent, with Mina vs. Dorian as sparring immortals (which was good, if a little disjointed), Hyde fighting his even bigger, stronger version of himself (which was bad, especially with 2003 graphics) etc. But a spectacular invisible man vs. invisible man fight was denied to me, and frankly I feel cheated – they had an invisible man fighting Tom, but where’s the narrative circularity in that? I realise in 2003 you couldn’t have done it, but I would love to have staged an invisible man fight, all the possibilities of how you could make them seen by the audience – e.g. one gets covered in liquid, one gets covered in flour, one manages to draw blood and that makes them visible, one gets caught up in a sheet and drags it along with them etc. I’m just spit-balling here, but it could have been really inventive. However, the denouement with Sawyer shooting a fleeing Moriarty from a distance, just as Alan did in the start is simply beautiful filmmaking and if there had been more of it this film may have garnered a warmer reception. (Though I hadn’t realised until now how high this film’s body count is; seriously, it makes Man of Steel look like My Little Pony). It finishes, rather adorably, with a shamelessly sequel-bait ending, but I do feel it could have improved with another instalment (though it may have gotten worse, too). The death of Alan and betrayal of Dorian finally binds the survivors together, and, after some sage words from Mina (‘we’ve all been hiding in one form or another’), the remains of the league set off into the new century together, finally a team.
A New League Assembles?
Penny Dreadful is the LXG adaptation we never had, a Gothic mashup of characters who battle their own inner demons as frequently as they fight real ones: Vanessa Ives leads the team with haunted compassion like Mina; Malcolm Murray is the weary explorer akin to Alan Quatermain; Ethan Chandler struggles to suppress his werewolf side just as Jekyll tries to subdue Hyde (Jekyll did later appear in the series, played beautifully by Shazad Latif, but he was not connected to the main story and never unleashed his ‘Hyde’ side – I’m still hoping for a Jekyll spin-off). After this, the connections get a tad more tenuous – Captain Nemo (my favourite character in the graphic novel and one of my favourites in the film) is tormented by his dark past and the wrongs he’s committed, a trait shared by both Sembene and Frankenstein’s Creature in Penny Dreadful. Hawley Griffin, too, has no direct comparator in the series, but elements of his selfish, misanthropic and lascivious character can be found in his spiritual successor Dorian Gray (and also to an extent in Victor Frankenstein). I’ve written more on the superlative Penny Dreadful is here.
‘You can’t kill the future’ according to M, but sadly the future of the LXG was DOA. It remains a strange blot of wasted potential on the history of Gothic cinema, but I do think this film is strangely enjoyable in its own way – nowhere near as good as the director’s earlier work, Blade, which remains a high point of the comic book movie genre. It’s rather misjudged and ridden with mistakes, but in my opinion it was the wrong film at the wrong time. If it had come out in the 90s it could have been a niche proto-Gothic classic, in the same way that Mystery Men is a cult proto-superhero classic with a niche fan-base (myself included). It was the worst of both worlds – too much commercialism in the VFX, script, and sweeping changes to the source material which alienated fans, but also with enough interesting and unique touches that wouldn’t appeal to the masses. I wonder if it could have been salvaged with a sequel/ reboot/ overhaul, and there are rumblings of a TV series in the works. Despite all this, LXG has a special, nostalgia-steeped place in my heart (along with its largely-hated, yet underrated peer Van Helsing).
I would love to see a reboot of this franchise, something of a heady mix between Penny Dreadful and Wynonna Earp in tone and treatment of its ensemble cast – whether they go for a more direct translation or a gender-swapped version, I’m totally on board, and if I had any say in it, here are the people I’d cast. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Wilhelmina ‘Mina’ Murray: Gemma Chan [Alternative: Ruth Negga]
Alan Quatermain: Charles Dance [Alternative: Jeremy Irons]
Captain Nemo: Ben Kingsley [Alternative: Oded Fehr]
Hawley Griffin: Ennis Esmer [Alternative: Tom Ellis]
Dr Jekyll/ Mr Hyde: Rami Malek [Alternative: Peter Dinklage]
Tom Sawyer: Michael Ealy [Alternative: John Cho]
Dorian Gray: Shazad Latif [Alternative: Pedro Pascal]
M/ Moriarty: Toby Jones [Alternative: Bill Nighy]
Wilhelm ‘Will’ Murray: Riz Ahmed [Alternative: Max Minghella]
Alana Quatermain: Helen Mirren [Alternative: Judi Dench]
Captain Nemo: Shoreh Agdashloo [Alternative: Mozhan Marno]
Hadley Griffin: Natalia Tena [Alternative: Michaela Coel]
Dr Jekyll/ Mr Hyde: Eva Green [Alternative: Emily Blunt]
Tom Sawyer: Maggie Q [Alternative: Lucy Liu]
Dorian Gray: Melanie Liburd [Alternative: Gugu Mbatha-Raw]
M/ Moriarty: Helen McCrory [Alternative: Olivia Colman]