In 2012, when Marvel Studios released The Avengers, the film was given a much clunkier title for U.K. distribution. Marvel’s Avengers Assemble doesn’t have quite the same catchy beat of its original title, but Brits had to make do. David Cox of The Guardian called it one of the worst film titles ever, although it obviously didn't quash audiences' excitement for it on any side of the pond. The reason for the title change? Walt Disney Studios believed us Brits would be confused by the title and think we were going to see another big-budget adaptation of the classic 1960s spy drama series.
In fairness, another film based on that Avengers could have been given any title and audiences still would have stayed away in droves. It's been 20 years since The Avengers was released in theaters and its legacy is more one of calamity than acclaim.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Take a beloved retro TV property, update it for modern audiences, give it a bigger budget, and cash in on the growing summer blockbuster craze. The James Bond franchise was at new peaks with Pierce Brosnan, so why not provide some dapper competition featuring the original Bond as your villain?
Movie adaptations of television series were big business in the 1990s. After all, this was the decade in which we saw the first ever film adapted from a TV series get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (that's The Fugitive, for those who may need to use that titbit in a trivia night). However, the results were very mixed. For every Addams Family Values, there was a Lost in Space. The Avengers may be the worst of this bunch, made more so because the potential was so high. Instead, what audiences got was a film that nobody seemed to want to make, based on material that the primarily American creative team had no idea how to handle.
The original series had its broad moments but it never delved into the sheer madness the film does. For reasons one cannot quite figure out, the story of The Avengers centers on the weather, more specifically, an evil plot to control the weather and sell it to the highest bidder. Sir August De Wynter, played with active aggression by Sean Connery, is the kind of villain who could only exist in a film written by people who stopped caring five pages into the screenplay. At least Connery gives it his all, chewing every piece of scenery like an untrained attack dog. Somehow, he has managed to become more Scottish with each passing year.
There’s something you may not know about us Brits. We like to drink tea. It’s a big secret we like to conceal from the rest of the world but rest assured, The Avengers will remind you every seven seconds or so that tea is the beverage of choice among our kind. Almost every scene is punctuated by a character announcing that it’s time for tea. The film seems to believe that this quirk is enough characterization for everyone in this surprisingly large ensemble. Even the cars have tea-making facilities. Why tell us anything else about their emotions or motivations when we have tea? At the very least, they could have thrown in a joke about queuing or red buses.
Ralph Fiennes should have been pitch-perfect casting as the debonair John Steed. Instead, like almost every other actor in this film, he looks embarrassed to be there. You can practically hear him fighting the urge to fall asleep with every line reading. It doesn’t help that he has negative sexual chemistry with Uma Thurman as a gifted scientist who also seems to be the stupidest person alive. It may be unfair to judge the characters by the increasingly ludicrous decisions they make because the film seems incomplete, or at the very least slashed to pieces in the editing room. It doesn’t help that half the special effects look unfinished, stuck in that PlayStation 1 era of unreality.
It’s so tempting to eschew the typical think-piece format in favor of just listing all the inexplicable nonsense that happens in this film. Why does Ralph Fiennes bring a newspaper and his bowler hat to read while visiting a sauna? Did Sean Connery turn up on set in that full tartan regalia and insist it be part of the scene? Why is London utterly devoid of people? Why is Uma Thurman so utterly nonplussed about discovering there’s a clone of herself committing high-level crime? What the hell is up with the bear costumes?
Ah yes, the bear costumes.
In fairness, it is a majestic sight to see Academy Award-winning actor and James freaking Bond himself dressed like a walkaround character from a knockoff Disneyland. The bear scene exists because Sir August has decided the best way to disguise his dastardly deeds and keep his team anonymous is to have them dressed in giant bear outfits. Really, that only poses more questions. Did Sir Sean have to buy the costumes himself? Did he get a good bulk deal? Was everyone super okay about wearing them? What were the other disguise options? How practical is a bear costume for fights? What makes it all the funnier is that the film plays these moments completely straight. Not one character seems to notice how completely bonkers it is for everyone to dress like bears.
Oh, and one of the bears is Eddie Izzard.
There are so many ways The Avengers could have been a rollicking good time. They could have leaned into the camp nature of the story or turned the story into a cheeky parody of the genre, Austin Powers-style. They could have made an old-school spy story, free of the bad sci-fi subplot. Guy Ritchie pulled it off when he made another classic 1960s spy series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., into an uber-stylish adventure film with high stakes, an effortlessly cool aesthetic, and Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer at their most charming.
The major problem with the film is that it doesn’t seem to think its source material is all that interesting beyond the bowler hats and umbrellas, so they tried to make it full Hollywood. The Avengers tries to please an audience that has no interest or attachment to the source material, so it ends up pleasing nobody. Nowadays, few people remember this film, and even fewer remember it fondly. Still, there’s something to be said for seeing a film at its worst in order to appreciate it at its best. Truly, Marvel had nothing to worry about when it came to changing their titles.