You get the rights to a beloved comic by a famously reclusive comic book writer who has hated every adaptation of his work with maybe like two exceptions. You somehow convince Sean Connery to be the lead because he was so worried about missing out on another Lord of the Rings scale franchise because he didn’t understand the script. And you somehow end up with a critically middling review, a degree of financial success, and a premise that somehow still sounds fascinating.
Welcome to a retrospective of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). LXG, if you’re nasty.
It is the early 2000s, and you and your immediate family are on vacation. After a long day of vactioneering, you are in your hotel watching television and stumble on the start of a movie: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In the opening moments, your parents recognize Sean Connery as the lead, Allan Quartermain, and the quick descent into fast paced action seems entertaining. Suddenly, a mysterious M figure appears from the shadow, and then there’s a team up involving a submariner named Captain Nemo (you, a child, immediately thinks of Pixar’s Finding Nemo and not 20,000 League Under the Sea), a vampire, an invisible man (that one you do recognize as a literary figure).
But before you get too comfortable with the already inherent weirdness of a motley crew of pseudo-literary figures on a saber shaped ship, Special Agent Tom Sawyer shows up as well as Dr. Henry Jekyll and alter ego Edward Hyde. At this point, you understand why Jekyll/Hyde would be involved in the mix, but you have several hundred questions about the exact trajectory of Tom Sawyer’s life, none of which get answered in the slightest. However, at this point, you and your family are a little too curious about this steampunk world on the verge of global war that ends up being a very convoluted plan involving varying degrees of science and supernatural. At the end, the League continues to exist to do, and Allan Quartermain may or may not be resurrected by an ancient ritual?
You’re not really sure what happened, but it was moderately entertaining.
Years later, you begin reading comics thanks to surprisingly easy access made by Barnes & Nobles and Borders (truly dating the piece right here) and an even more surprising comprehensive selection at your local library. (In hindsight, this is not actually surprising. Your media access literacy was just skewed.)
Since you already worked with Watchmen, The Killing Joke, From Hell, V for Vendetta, you’re pretty confident that you like Alan Moore’s general corpus so when you stumble upon the League of Extraordinary Gentleman graphics you are intrigued.
And to your surprise, you recognize story beats as you read through the first volume. You register that this was in fact the source material for a movie you watched years ago in a random hotel. Except coherent? Except good? And without Tom Sawyer? So while you know the inevitable betrayal is on the horizon, the storytelling is absolutely enthralling between Moore’s masterful dialog and Kevin O’Neill’s artwork. Perhaps this is also due to a deeper understanding of the literary influences that inspired these iterations of the character, or more likely the adaption kinda just missed the point.
Which is probably for the best, because I’m not sure I could handle a pastiche of the other volumes which introduce elements like:
- John Carter of Mars
- H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds
- Dr. Moreau
- George Orwell’s 1984
And that’s just an abbreviated list of the wild things that happened during the original run.
Another couple of years pass, and you see League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on a random cable channel. Now, with the power of the internet, you begin looking up things about this movie.
You discover that Alan Moore has consistently hated every single adaptation of his work with mainly one exception of a Justice League Unlimited episode. You discover that Sean Connery only signed on to this movie for fear of missing out on another big franchise since he passed up on Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and Harry Potter, but that the experience was so bad that he quit acting and that this was his last on-screen role.
You note that the ideation of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is solid. You note the modest success of Penny Dreadful on Showtime. You note the attempt of a similar concept with the Dark Universe Cinematic Universe, which almost could have worked had the first movie in the DUC, The Mummy (2017), not tried to usurp The Mummy (1999), despite itself being a reboot; however, a four decade gap is probably the right amount of time to reboot.
Hell, you even look at Bungo Stray Dogs as a riff on a literary inspired story. Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans’ take a more dark fantasy riff, but the point stands that a metafictional meditations on the literary canon is a deep well that can be drawn from.
Bringing together disparate characters from various continuities is money printing premise, at least some of the times. And with maybe just a modicum of consideration on why juxtaposing different characters and ideologies in the same setting works rather than just doing it for the sake of doing it.
It has been twenty years since the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen released on July 11, 2003. Critically middling, somewhat financial success, with a strong source material as a foundation, but a clumsy execution for a wide variety of reasons, the film still lingers in your memory.
It serves as a touchstone of character archetypes and tropes that show a throughline through history. You see the inspirations of classic literature and how they evolved into their current form, and if nothing else, the movie was mildly entertaining.
And perhaps when the dust settles and maybe more characters enter the public domain, someone else can try to bridge gaps and craft new adventures for old characters with the respect that they deserve.