Avengers Disassembled
Empire Australasia|April 2018

Before supergroup the avengers, there was super - flop the avengers, a summer movie that almost destroyed its director

Dan Jolin
AFTER THE AVENGERS failed in 1998, Jeremiah S. Chechik fled Hollywood. Not to a beachside retreat to drown his sorrows in margaritas and escape the deafening silence of box-office tills. Not even back across the border to his hometown of Montreal. The director, deemed responsible for a hot mess that scraped in only $48 million against a $60 million budget, felt so profoundly battered by the experience he disappeared into the literal wilderness.

“I went across the Gobi desert to the edge of Western China,” he tells Empire. “I travelled through West Africa, through all these war-torn areas. The most dangerous places.” Now 62 years old, Chechik is reluctant to share details of his self-imposed exile, saying only that he had “plenty of dangerous experiences”. Though none so harrowing as his Avengers trauma. “I was so damaged. I felt I couldn’t direct anymore. So I went walkabout for several years: just endless roaming through the world. To get in touch with what’s real again.” 

IT’S HARD TO find something more out of touch with what’s real than the 1998 Avengers. Based on a beloved espionage series broadcast on ITV from 1961 to 1969, it is an action-adventure comedy set in an eerily unpopulated England where the ’60s never ended. An England where a weather-controlling villain played by Sean Connery machinates from the fuzzy depths of a teddy-bear costume. Where Uma Thurman uncomfortably struts in kinky boots opposite a killer-brolly-wielding Ralph Fiennes, and has fight scenes against herself as an unexplained clone. Where giant robot bees attack. And where virtually every third scene involves the drinking of tea.

After its 14 August release, San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle described it as “a bad and weird and strangely off picture”. He, like most critics, winced at the awkward, stiff-rather-than steamy banter between Fiennes’ dapper secret agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee in the original) and Thurman’s Emma Peel (previously rendered so iconic by Diana Rigg). There were no preview screenings, so the lack of faith its studio Warner Bros. had in it was palpable. Warner even refused to put on a premiere — unheard of for a big summer movie.

It was such a calamity, few could fathom the decision to make it in the first place. But, as Fiennes pointed out to The Guardian in 2011, “You don’t go to work thinking you’re making a bad film. I went to work thinking, ‘Great, let’s reinvent The Avengers,’ which I loved as a kid. It’s only now, because of the way it was received, that we look back and groan.”

The blame was laid most heavily at Chechik’s door, but the project pre-dates him by several years. Music tour manager-turned-Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub, the cigar-puffing raconteur behind Nashville and The Karate Kid, had secured the remake rights and was keen to pull a viable movie script together. He, like Warner Bros. co-CEOs Bob Daly and Terry Semel, reasoned that if kooky ’60s TV show Batman could be turned into a cool modern blockbuster, then wasn’t The Avengers similarly ripe material? The movie first properly took shape in late 1993, when British screenwriter Don Macpherson was brought on board. The former Time Out film critic had impressed Warner Bros. with his work on projects as diverse as A.S. Byatt adaptation Possession, a never-made Tim Burton take on Frankenstein and Terry Gilliam’s stalled attempt to do Dickens with A Tale Of Two Cities. He was surprised they’d come to him, but had loved the show as a kid and still appreciated, as he now puts it, its “mix of pop art, low budgets, Alice In Wonderland and Hammer horror.”

So in 1994 he delivered a script which focused squarely on the character of Peel. It was a “dark thriller” in which, unhinged by grief, she sets out to avenge the mysterious murder of her scientist husband, accompanied by secret agent Steed, who has secret orders to kill her if needs be. It had the teddy bears, the Peel clone and weather-controlling tech, but Macpherson’s logic was that ‘Avengersland’ is a reality essentially viewed through Peel’s trauma — “a twisted, broken mirror of a place”.

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