(Author’s note: Spencer’s Soapbox is a weekly column here on SHH where yours truly tries to spur a conversation on specific topics. Dive in to the latest installment below and check out the previous ones by clicking here.)
Earlier this week, a very troubling story came across the wire, wherein it was revealed that 20th Century Fox was planning yet another crack at The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. With the 2003 version now mostly forgotten from the public lexicon, they decided it was best to try again in the form of a rebooted film. Not just a rebooted film mind you, but a film with an eye toward starting a franchise. It’s hard for me to hear this news, because the League comics are among my most favorite, and having already been kicked in the face by one appalling movie, I don’t think I can stand to see another.
Created by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is among the most dense pulp adventures you can find. A sort of Victorian “Avengers,” the series revolves around a team of classic literary characters where all of these stories and more exist in one world. From the tales of Jules Verne to H.G. Wells, there’s no book that isn’t at least briefly alluded to in the comics. It’s easy to see why this sounds like a good idea to the studio, it’s a built-in “cinematic universe.” The novels that the characters of the League are born from function as the “solo” offerings, while the comic itself is their culmination “event,” not unlike Avengers: Age of Ultron. The difference though is that the genesis of this premise comes from assembling the available public domain characters as an obscene gesture to corporations hoarding characters.
What makes the MCU, and the upcoming DCCU, exciting is that these characters cannot come to life on the big screen without the companies making them. A filmmaker with no money can’t make an Iron Man movie, but he can make a movie with Allan Quatermain and Mr. Hyde if he wants because no one owns them. That Alan Moore had no shackles on him is part of the beauty of “League.” He had no masters asking why he killed a character they wanted to make into a franchise, no one telling him to revive the deceased to keep the fans happy. There is freedom in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that can only be found within its panels, freedom that also allowed Moore to make the characters into despicable villains (yet another facet that won’t jive with a big screen adaptation, and didn’t).
One of the most important traits of the League comics is the sheer amount of detail that Moore and O’Neill put into the series. Minor pieces of dialogue or the background of a panel can contain a multitude of information for eagle-eyed readers, offering a connection to yet another story from the time period and further maintaining the uniqueness of the series. How many other comics, or even movies, do you know that have had entire books written about the various easter eggs hidden in them? Which is why League can’t be adapted successfully into a feature, there is too much going on. To dilute the visuals of the comic into a palatable and unfocused action movie is a complete affront to the nature of the comic. “League” needs those little hooks, it needs readers to be reminded of what they’re looking at. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is something that needs to be dense, it should require digestion, and in a two-hour popcorn movie that’s impossible.
Which leads to the most important reason I don’t want to see this movie – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen belongs on paper. The world of the League was born from books and cartoon strips. Its characters are the products of classic novels, some of which haven’t been adapted for the big screen in decades. League’s entire livelihood is built on literature and reading. Don’t misinterpret me, it’s not that this material is “too sacred” for adaptation, but taking away the foundation, the roots, will render something that might be labeled “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” but definitely is not. If you’re a part of this community, you know how fans react to major changes to source material, it can sink movies.
We live in a culture of rebooting, so I get why this is happening. Nostalgia goggles can get a movie greenlit faster than an actual premise, and it doesn’t even matter if there’s much nostalgia for the original thing anyway. In a world where Disney can make Rocket Raccoon and Groot into household names, I have no doubt a studio can sell the concept of 1890s book characters teaming up to an audience that’s never heard of them. Why go back to this well though? Comic book adaptations might be the hot ticket, but they’re not a guarantee, studios and filmmakers have to earn the respect and dollars of the audience. Slapping the name of a comic book on a screen isn’t good enough anymore.
Maybe I’m wrong, actually, I hope I’m wrong. There might be a great writer or director itching to handle this project because they get it. The stories of the League might speak to them, they might have a passion for the Victorian era of literature not unlike Alan Moore. Nothing would make me happier than for this to turn out well and enjoyable to this die-hard fan, but comic adaptations are not in short supply. So if you can’t get them right, then what was the point in even making them? I would rather have no movie than another bad one.