The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) is a movie that has been widely panned by many. It has poor CGI, a contrived plot, stiff acting, and a number of details that just don’t make much sense. Fans of the comic that it was based on found it to be a poor adaptation. It was even infamous for ending the acting career of the legendary Sean Connery because he was so disappointed in the movie that it cemented his decision to retire. All of these critiques are valid as the movie is objectively not very good. And yet, I love it.
Some of this might come through the rosy glasses of nostalgia. The movie came out at a perfect time for me to love it. It hit me just at the right time in my life that I was starting to gain an appreciation for the broader classics, but I had not yet gotten deep enough into cinematography to understand the flaws of the movie. For me, it was my first experience of seeing characters from a variety of classic works combined in a novel way. A concept that I still adore even decades later.
However, looking back on the movie I think there are the bones of something deeper that a part of me recognized at the time. A hodgepodge of flawed but powerful characters teaming up to fight a greater threat than any of them could face on their own. In the process learning about both themselves and how such a diverse group can use their strengths to cover each other’s weaknesses. This is the formula that would eventually become the most successful movie franchise in history in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was not the first movie to present the concept, but I think that more than any other it laid the groundwork for the Avengers.
To begin with, there is the important aspect that every character present was already established in some form in a different work. Just like the Avengers, at least some of the audience did not have to be introduced to these characters because the characters themselves were already familiar. However, the Avengers succeeded where this movie did not in part because of budget. Marvel was willing to have a slew of movies that came out before the team-up where many of the heroes got a chance to be introduced and be independent heroes. While The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen uses established characters, it does not give them time to breathe. Instead of having time to establish this movie’s version of the characters, they are immediately thrust together.
In terms of direct character parallels, the most obvious is comparing Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde with Dr. Banner/The Hulk. In many ways, Banner and The Hulk in the comics were based on Jekyll and Hyde, so the comparison is an easy one. However, this movie depicts Hyde as a large muscular beast, much like The Hulk. The character in both movies is even introduced as hiding in some amount of seclusion where they have to be hunted down and coerced to join the team. In both cases, the scientist half is highly valued for their science, but when push comes to shove, their teammates want “the other guy.”
There are also strong parallels between Tony Stark and Captain Nemo. Both characters are highly wealthy masters of technology that solve problems by throwing expensive tech at it until the problem is fixed. While Nemo is a bit more subdued than Stark, he is very lavish in how he decorates and has his moments of gregarious presentation. In particular, his presentation of the Natilus bears some similarity to Stark’s presentation of the Jericho missile.
On the surface, one might assume Mina Harker to fill the role of Back Widow due to them both being the only woman on the team. However, at a more subtle level, she fills all of the same roles as Thor. She is a creature of myth who is vastly powerful and can defeat a large number of enemy combatants at the same time, but with that power comes a destructive potential that must be carefully managed. If either Mina or Thor is not careful with how they manage their power, innocent people can easily get hurt.
The role of Black Widow is more fully met by the Invisible Man. Both are the stealthy infiltrator of the group who can sneak into locations unseen to accomplish tasks their less subtle teammates are not capable of. Both are highly skilled fighters who nonetheless find themselves overwhelmed by the sear scale of power that some of their teammates can bring to the fight. Neither are heavyweights, but both are highly important for certain tasks.
Quartermain fills the role of Captain America. Both are men of an older time who are famous for their heroics in times past, but time has moved on without them and they are somewhat out of place in the modern world. Both are very patriotic in their own way, though Quartermain starts the movie with the kind of disillusionment and weariness that it took Rogers a decade of movies to develop.
And then there is Sawyer and Hawkeye. Both of them are relatively normal people compared to the rest of the group. Pretty much just a good shot and not much else. And yet, they charge into the fight with the others because that is what is needed. Both find their ways of being useful despite their lack of the skills and experience that the others possess.
Of course, there are differences. The false friend of Dorian Grey doesn’t have a perfect fit with the Avengers. The closest fit might be Loki, but that only works for following the Thor storyline, not the Avengers as a whole, and even within the Thor stories Loki is a much more complicated character than Dorian. M/Moriarty ends up filling the roles of both Fury and Thanos in that he is both the mastermind who brings the team together and is also the mastermind behind the plot they are trying to stop. A better-written movie might have separated the characters rather than the poorly delivered twist that was present. The MCU deciding to keep those roles separate benefited those movies because the respective characters could fully sink into their roles rather than have to balance a poorly thought-out twist.
Ultimately, the movie suffers from its low budget. All of the problems can trace back to that one issue. A lack of separate movies to develop the characters before combining them. A lack of time on set to get the acting right with the director pushing them through scenes instead of refining takes to get a better movie. A lack of time and hardware devoted to the CGI to even catch up with the likes of Jurrasic Park (1993). A lack of care in the script doctoring to smooth out potential plot issues. The lack of funding on these aspects are why the movie is widely regarded as a failure.
Make no mistake, this is not a good movie. However, it is the kind of bad movie that I can’t help but appreciate for what it tried to be. It is like an uncut gemstone. Intriguing to look at in its rough state knowing what it could be even if it hasn’t reached its potential. It’s the kind of movie with watching as a retrospective. Both to have fun pointing out all of the bizarre flaws and to marvel at its place in cinematic history. It was a movie that almost had everything to be a massive generational success, but it wasn’t quite there. Instead, it paved the way for later movies to reach that success, and looking back on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen one can appreciate the movie as the stepping stone it was for the movie industry.