Making A Case for a Director’s Cut for the 1998 Avengers Film
In the dying end of the summer box office rush in 1998, Warner Brothers quietly released a re-imagined feature film version of the cult classic UK spy TV series The Avengers (not based on the Marvel comics superhero series). Directed by Jeremiah Chechik (Benny & Joon, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and countless episodes of great TV shows such as Chuck and the Middleman) and produced by Jerry Weintraub (legendary producer of films such as Nashville, Diner, the Karate Kid (the original one!) and the remake of Ocean’s Eleven), The Avengers had been put together and sold to theaters as a major summer tent pole blockbuster film. Not only were the people behind the camera seasoned and talented professionals, also the cast was amazing, including: Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, Sean Connery, Eddie Izzard, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Shaw, and also from the original TV series, the now late Patrick Macnee. All of the ingredients seemed to be in place for a hit movie, but ultimately it did not find an audience. A large segment of the critics panned the film at the time, and even now it still sits at only 5% on Rotten Tomatoes. Why did the Avengers flop? Where did it all go wrong? Why should you care? I will answer all of those things in short order, but for the uninitiated I would like to answer the following questions first:
What is the Avengers?
The Avengers was a TV series from 1961 – 1969 that focused on the exploits of the British gentleman spy John Steed (portrayed by Patrick Macnee). Steed investigated a wide variety of cases from the mundane to the phenomenal, usually with a trusted partner by his side. His colleague were always highly intelligent, creative and exceptionally capable. Perhaps the most popular of his coworkers was Dr. Emma Peel (portrayed by Diana Rigg), a witty, highly decorated scientist turned spy who was also heavily trained in martial arts. Together, Steed and Peel investigated and judo chopped their way through all manor of criminals and nefarious plots. No idea or storyline was too outrageous for the Avengers, as often they tackled invisible men, shrink rays, time travel and various other science fiction based threats and/or technology. The show was well liked by viewers from all over the world due to the intricate plots, quirky characters, witty innuendo laden banter and high octane action. Check out the video below for a sample of this stylish and infinitely enjoyable show.
Why did the Avengers flop?
The movie was released on August 14th, 1998 to very little fanfare and even less box office ticket sales. The film was not made available to movie critics before the release date, which is normally an indicator that the publisher is not confident in the product that they are releasing. There was no major marketing push, and even the trailers at the time were not adequately selling the film’s strengths, for a more modern example of this just refer to the marketing that Disney put together for John Carter, which was absolutely shameful and effectively killed a wonderful sci-fi film franchise. The people who did see the Avengers in the theater were treated to an oddly disjointed movie that had massive plot holes and strangely cut sequences that didn’t seem to match up with the rest of the film. It was an awkward film, that seemed to be trying so hard to be classic TV the Avengers, but with one hand tied behinds its back at all times. Many viewers walked away from the experience confused and without an appreciation of the quirkiness or the subtle humor that had been baked into the movie. Ultimately, due to the way that the final cut was put together, there was a lot lost in translation. Some have argued that Steed and Mrs. Peel, played by Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman respectively, did not have the right chemistry together. Others have ballyhooed that Sean Connery was way too hammy as the weather manipulating villain, Sir August De Wynter. There have been a number of review articles pro and con about the Avengers feature film, and you can read through a few of them below, if you’d like, though please be aware that they may contain spoilers:
Bottom line, the finished product was not what movie going audiences were looking for, and even worse than that, it wasn’t the celebration of the original TV series that many Avengers fans were hoping for. Take a look at the trailer for the film to compare with the footage from the original series above.
Where did it all go wrong?
This is where the story gets interesting. There are many variations on how everything went down on the final cut of the Avengers back in 1998, but there are some portions of the story that seem to be the same in each version of the tale, so lets list them:
- The cut of the Avengers that went to the theaters was not the preferred cut of the director, Jeremiah Chechik
- There was a changing of the guard at Warner Brothers between the filming of the Avengers and the final release. The initial executives liked the script and were enthusiastic about the film, whereas the new executives that took over the WB did not like the script and were not convinced that the film had any chance of success
- A preliminary cut of the film was test marketed with one sample audience in the states, as well as another rough cut in the UK, and based on the audience feedback the studio decided to drastically re-cut the film significantly, chucking well over 30 minutes of the movie away (and in some versions of the story over 50 minutes was cut)
- The original soundtrack was to be scored by the legendary Michael Kamen, who was dropped from the film before the final release, as the new executives considered his score to not be a good fit for the film as it was too heavy and dark. Joel McNeely, who put together a wonderful arrangement, was then hired to score the film in a manner that was fully in line with what the studio was looking for
- The director, Jeremiah Chechik, was cut out of the final cut process entirely, and the version of the film that you can watch via digital download or disc based media is not representative of what he had envisioned the film to be
The infuriating thing about this story, is that the director will tell you that the filming and the creative process that initially brought the theatrical spies from the Avengers to life went exceptionally smoothly, as you can read about in his interview at Den of Geek. It ultimately was butchered apart by the studio, because of a test screening that didn’t go as well as they would have liked it to have. The audience didn’t click with the film, supposedly because it was dense, complex, layered, quirky and exceptionally British, much like the original TV series was. Regardless of which version of the story you hear, what it all boils down to is that the movie that Jeremiah Chechik filmed and initially cut was not the film that audiences were subjected to in August of 1998, and that the studio cut of the film was a piping hot mess.
Why should you care?
I was curious a few years back, as to how different the original cut might have been compared to the final theatrical release, so I dug around the internet and eventually found a bootlegged scanned copy of the original shooting script for the Avengers. After reading the script, I truly believe that Warner Brothers did audiences a major disservice by gutting the film as significantly as it did. The 30 plus minutes of cut content included a much more fleshed out story, a ton of plausible explanations for plot points that go otherwise unexplained in the final release, and a lot more nods to the original series. The shooting script was in fact the celebration of the Avengers that we had been looking for, it was playful, weird, kooky and above all else a lot of fun. Upon watching the film while reading the script along with it at the same time, even simple dialogue driven scenes were altered massively, as if to make the dialogue snappier but without any substance. It was heartbreaking to see what this film could have meant to this beloved franchise in sharp contrast with the film that was actually released.
Watching the final cut of the film, knowing what I now know, I have begun to understand the struggle that directors can go through in trying to get the right cut of a film out for wide release. I’m thinking about Mark Steven Johnson’s director’s cut of Daredevil, David Twohy’s director’s cut of the Chronicles of Riddick, and Ridley Scott’s final cut for Blade Runner, all of which that were significant improvements to the theatrical cuts of their respective films. And I get it, in the overall scheme of things, the Avengers is a hard sell to an American audience for a variety of reasons. It’s stylish but silly, sexy but with a quirky twist, outlandish but with a message, the villains aren’t your run of the mill terrorists, its tongue is planted firmly in cheek and above all else it is positively 100% British. It’s a complicated mix to say the least, and even the marketing for the movie (as noted in the trailer above) had a tough time adequately selling the film to a mass audience. However, the ingredients for this complicated mix still exist, and a re-cutting of the film could save it’s legacy from being simply a relatively forgotten financial flop to an endearing love letter to a franchise that deserved better. A new cut of the film would be like a phoenix rising from the ashes, better, stronger, and more radiant than ever. You should want to see this new cut of the film, because you should want the team that put this film together to finally be able to show you that their hard work was more than just the sum of the fragmented parts of the theatrical cut. Bottom line, you should want this film to be the best film it can be, and I think we could make it happen.
A Directors Cut
Every so often, I see rumblings that there could be a director’s cut of the 1998 film the Avengers, and every time I see it I hold out hope that maybe one day we’ll actually get to see the film that Chechik had envisioned for us. The director has even gone on record saying that he would re-cut the movie for free if Warner Brothers would let him (although I think it would be shameful if he had to do that amount of work for free!). So it begs the question, what is holding Warner Brothers back from allowing him to re-cut the film? The cost in re-cutting could not be that cost prohibitive, and the interest from the AV community, videophiles and Avengers fans alone would guarantee enough initial sales to justify the minimal costs. Even still, there are other revenue streams that could be created easily by licensing the director’s cut to video streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and the many other services that have popped up recently. On top of that, there would be new reviews for the re-cut of the film as well upon the release of the Blu Ray that would drive new interest and create even more sales opportunity. It would appear to be a win-win situation that would require minimal effort from the studio.
Consider this now an open letter to Warner Brothers:
Warner Brothers, let me know what it would take to get your approval to have Jeremiah Chechik re-cut the 1998 film the Avengers, and I will make it my personal mission to make it happen. If it’s just a matter of money, then we can start a crowdfunding campaign to procure the necessary funds. If it is something else entirely, then tell me what it is, and I will work with any and everybody involved to make sure that we jump through all the necessary hoops in order to make this thing happen. You need a show of interest? I will get you a petition with as many signatures as you need. Tell me what you need, and I will make it happen. Also, if Jeremiah Chechik reads this, know first: you are awesome and your movies and TV episodes have greatly entertained me over the years, and also know this: I truly hope that one day soon you will be involved in the completion of a director’s cut of the Avengers that will finally be a true representation of what you and Jerry Weintraub had originally intended the film to be.
I implore all necessary parties, let’s all work together and make the 1998 film, the Avengers, a success story that we and viewers can be proud of. I can be contacted via my blog through the comments section below, via email or through Twitter. I’ll be ready to start working on this ASAP. The ball’s in your court, toss it to me and I promise you that I will run with it all the way to the goal. Let’s do this!
Viva la Avengers ’98!
After 8 months of contacting Warner Brothers Home Entertainment, I finally got this response:
Dear Mr. Smith:
Your email has been forwarded to me for response. Though we always appreciate hearing from our passionate fans, I am sorry to say that we are unable to take you up on your enthusiastic offer.
Warner Bros. Customer Service
And there you have it. As of now, Warner Brothers has opted to decline any measures that I might have been able to help with in order to bring about a Director’s Cut of the Avengers to film viewers around the world. Certainly was not the response that I was hoping for, but there it is. It is a set back, but I’ll keep asking more Warner Brothers employees until I can find one that might be willing to let me know what it would take to have the Director’s Cut put together.
I received a response to my follow up email to Warner Brothers:
Dear Mr. Smith:
Thanks again for your note about The Avengers. As you are no doubt aware, Warner Bros. owns one of the largest libraries of film and television content in the world. Decisions as to which properties are revisited and which are not are based on a variety of factors such as company priorities, what is in the marketplace, rights issues, and many other confidential considerations. I don’t believe that anyone at WB can give you the answer you seek. All we can tell you is that there are no current plans to revisit this property, notwithstanding your optimistic and persistent enthusiasm.
Bottom line: Warner Brothers is not going to let a fan, effectively an industry outsider, have any access whatsoever into what it would take to have a Director’s Cut of the Avengers made. To their credit, Warner Brothers did respond and were polite. For the time being, it would appear that Warner Brothers has no interest in going forward with, nor discussing the matter any further. I will continue to see if I can find someone within Warner Brothers who is willing to try and make this Director’s Cut happen.