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Three men stand in a library that has paper all over the floor.
I said what I said.
Photo: 20th Century Fox

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The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie is an unappreciated masterpiece

It’s the shadow of Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy

When I was a tween, I was fucking obsessed with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — the critically panned 2003 movie, not the Alan Moore comic-book series that inspired it. I watched it often — I still have the DVD — for the colorful characters, elaborate set design, constant action, and the ridiculousness of the kind of crossover that would only otherwise happen in fan fiction. In the years since, I’ve maintained my stance of, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie is good, actually,” even though I haven’t really revisited it since I graduated from high school. But with each passing year, I’ve grown more and more worried that my fervently stated opinion might not actually hold up. In light of The Invisible Man hitting theaters and the cherished memory of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s own invisible man, I finally took the plunge back in, and I’m happy to report that I was right all along. The movie is still a masterpiece.

Admittedly, it isn’t a perfect masterpiece. As an adaptation, it’s almost a complete failure. The only thing it really shares with Moore’s comics is the basic premise, in which characters from various works of literature — Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Mina Harker, Dorian Gray, Jekyll and Hyde, Tom Sawyer, and an invisible man — band together to prevent the outbreak of a world war. (Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill have disavowed the film.) But that doesn’t mean it’s a complete failure. It’s the last vestige of the silly, unaffected action movies of the late ’90s and early 2000 — it has “Brendan Fraser’s version of The Mummy” DNA. It’s big, silly, and entertaining, and even its most naked franchise ambitions feel fun rather than frustrating, because they’re so blatant. (The film’s final image, where lightning strikes the trembling grave of a dead main character, is hardly subtle.)

A man stands amidst a rain of pages.
A rain of paper.
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Visually, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is part of the pivot to the relentlessly dark visual style that was fully ushered in by the beginning of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy in 2005. But the events unfolding in that darkness are so silly that they offset any pretentiousness. This is, after all, a movie in which Sean Connery tells an attacker, “That was naughty,” after narrowly escaping injury, and Stuart Townsend actually says the word “growl” after someone calls his character a wolf among sheep. The corny dialogue is a feature, not a bug. The key is that these quips aren’t delivered via the Deadpool school of irony; there’s no sense of being too cool for the movie that’s unfolding, or being smarter than the audience. There’s just a pure sense of wonder at the unfolding chaos. Even the meta jokes come at the expense of corporations rather than the audience or the movie itself. (“Any more [invisible men] and I’ll lose the franchise,” says the movie’s invisible man, to the idea that there may be more of him.)

The marvelous details go a long way toward making up for the plot’s winding sins. Captain Nemo’s ship The Nautilus is the coolest submarine in (fictional) existence. As a long, white ship covered with silver detailing, it lives up to Nemo’s name for it: “the sword of the ocean.” (The inside of the ship is designed in much the same way.) The way the film pulls off the transformation between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is also thrilling; parts of Jekyll grow at different rates, so muscles bulge unevenly all over his body. It’s horrifying to watch, and pulled off between cuts and flashes of smoke that obscure each new addition of prosthetics. It’s clearly a painful process, exacerbated by the taxing nature of having two minds in one head, which itself is neatly illustrated by the conversations Jekyll and Hyde have via mirrors.

Two men engaged in a fight.
Fists fly.
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The bigger setpieces are similarly gripping: a fight set in a library that sends paper flying through the air like snow, a car chase during the Carnival of Venice to keep the city from sinking into the ocean. They’re catnip for exactly the kind of nerds who would love a story about all their favorite book characters getting together. The film even smoothes out its characters’ rougher edges, as the psychopathic, murderous original invisible man, Griffin, is altered (due to a rights issue) to the less problematic thief Rodney Skinner. On top of that, romantic tension abounds, as everyone shares at least one significant moment with the vampiress Mina Harker.

It’s not ideal that she’s the only female character (and that everyone seems to be a little in love with her), but she’s never a damsel in distress, and her final fight (against a former lover, set in a bedroom, and full of double entendres) is one of the spiciest battles of all time. (Or at least, it was to tween me.) It’s also refreshing to see, especially for 2003, that Dorian Gray’s macho-evading masculinity (he’s the best-dressed of the group, and is seen tweezing his eyebrows) isn’t treated as a gag, and Quatermain ends up apologizing for his initial prejudices against Captain Nemo, the one person of color on the team.

A man and a woman in the middle of a fight.
A lovers’ quarrel.
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The appeal of The Mummy has everything to do with how seriously it doesn’t take itself — the movie’s emphasis, from the titular villain being scared of cats to the “Looks to me like you’re on the wrong side of the river” moment, is on moving beyond tough posturing and embracing its characters’ quirks. It offsets all its genuinely scary moments (I’ll never look at a scarab beetle the same way again) with jokes about librarians. So it goes with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Some moments, like Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde, are genuinely scary, while others, like Mina’s impression of Quatermain, could fit into a pure comedy.

Granted, if The Mummy is a monster in its prime, LXG is that monster’s slightly feebler reincarnation. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s digital effects haven’t aged well, but the practical effects — sets that are destroyed by tanks and gunfire — are wonderful to watch, as there’s still no beating watching an actual structure crumble over its CGI equivalent. Add to that movie magic the balance between cheekiness and drama (Jekyll’s existential crisis over whether to let Hyde out at all), and you get a movie that’s more fun than its reputation suggests.

That bad rep kept me from revisiting the movie for years out of fear that, like so many movies we thought were great when we were younger (the first X-Men movie, Space Jam, etc.), it might either not be as good as I remembered it to be, or not hold up at all. Unlike my other enduring teen obsession, The Lord of the Rings, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen wasn’t exactly an awards darling; even at the time, I knew it was a guilty pleasure at most. But after taking the plunge back into the fire, I feel confident in removing the “guilty” part of the label. To tween me, a missive from the future: You were right. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen rules.