The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Oh, disappointment

I did not re-watch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the most receptive frame of mind. I saw it in theaters when it came out, and I thought it was terrible. Really bad. A jumbled, confusing mess. A bunch of heroes get together in an alternate Victorian Age to save the world. Then the city of Vienna spends half an hour falling down, building by building, before the heroes finally stop the buildings from falling through the clever trick of… blowing up a building. Then they go to an icy castle and fight a bunch of different Bad Guys. The heroes win and prevent a world war. The End.

To make things worse, League has essentially one female character (Peta Wilson) and one person of color (Naseeruddin Shah). So when Netflix brought the DVD to my door, I settled down to re-watch a bad movie full of white guys. Yawn.

Despite my bad attitude, though, I didn’t find it as bad as I expected. This might be because I was simultaneously ironing quilt blocks rather than being held hostage in a theater where I had to focus my entire attention on the movie.

So on first viewing I hated it, and on second viewing I found it reasonably entertaining and inoffensive. Unfortunately, then I spent some time Googling while writing this review. Now I’m back to feeling disappointed.

Let’s start with Peta Wilson’s character. Wilson plays Mina Harker, vampire, vampire hunter, and chemist. Good combination, right? Beauty, brains, unnatural superpowers? Also, a team of hairstylists that apparently follows her around to give her different looks depending on which of her facets is dominant at the time. (I would not mind this myself. Hey, now I’m a government relations professional in a suit. Hey, now I’m a groovy South Austin chick in jeans and a tank top. Hey, now I’m really pissed off and my hair’s all wild!)

Unfortunately, though, Mina spends a lot of her time in the movie revolving around the men. I saw it coming when the team asks Mina to explain her background. She starts like this: “My husband was Jonathan Harker. Together with a professor named Van Helsing…” Her explanation of her own life begins by identifying men. It’s a perfect reflection of how Mina is treated by film’s creators. She has several roles: ex-girlfriend, love interest, obsession, target for sexism, and finally, a body to grab as a joke for the other team members and the audience. Rarely is she just herself.

On the other hand, Mina often rocks. She doesn’t function as either damsel in distress or bait. When the first fight the team is ambushed by at least a dozen gunmen, and everyone fights… except for Mina. She is removed from the action for her safety, then reappears at the end of the fight as a hostage – but then she says she doesn’t need protection and she sucks the hostage-taker’s blood. In case you were wondering, at least two of the heroes do find that quite sexxy, which annoyed me because it put the focus back on the men – but I still enjoyed their collective shock at her transformation from proper lady to bloodthirsty vampire. Oops, I’m sorry, did we break a few of your assumptions?

For this, and for some followup scenes where Mina takes care of business (with bats! and a sword! and science!), it’s almost worth listening to Sean Connery’s Allan Quatermain make cracks about how women are useless for the first half of the movie. I didn’t fully appreciate Mina’s good scenes when I first saw League, probably because I was so sick of hearing about how hot Peta Wilson was in La Femme Nikita.

However, when I was searching for the exact wording of the quote above, I accidentally refreshed my memory of the comic book. I read some of it after I saw the movie and didn’t like it very much, so it hadn’t really stuck with me. In the comic book from which League was adapted, Mina is the leader of the group, instead of Quatermain being the boss. She also goes by Mina Murray, not Mina Harker, because she and Jonathan are divorced. Not a big deal in today’s society, but notable in a story that’s supposed to be set in the late 1800s.

So even with Mina’s sometimes coolness, I ended up with a bad taste in my mouth. Quatermain’s comments about women’s inferiority seem more like comments from the filmmakers when you realize that they’ve changed the source material to make the only woman less powerful and independent.

Let’s move on to Captain Nemo, played by veteran Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah. I was completely unfamiliar with the character of Captain Nemo before seeing League, except that he came from a classic science fiction novel. I didn’t even know he was Indian in the books; I thought the choice of Shah was innovative casting. While I was watching the film, I felt very positive about Nemo. The Captain and his crew are definitely professionals. They are skilled, disciplined, and fearsome in battle. Captain Nemo himself just outclasses the rest of the team. He doesn’t bicker, he doesn’t swagger, and he shows respect to Mina instead of seeing her as an object.

(Mina, however, doesn’t get it. After seeing Nemo in a room with a statue of Kali, she asks whether a man who worships death can be trusted. Is it just me, or is this the typical sort of bonehead comment that people make when they don’t know a thing about another religion except a few oversimplified stereotypes?)

As with Mina, though, finding out a little more about the character made it far less satisfactory. The Wikipedia entry on Captain Nemo was my first hint:

It is in the sequel, The Mysterious Island, where Nemo presents himself as Prince Dakkar, the Hindu son of the rajah of Bundelkund and nephew of Tippoo Sahib, having a deep hatred of the British conquest of India. After the Sepoy mutiny, he devotes himself to scientific research and develops an advanced electric submarine, the Nautilus. He and a crew of his followers cruise the seas, battling injustice, especially slavery.

Cynthia Fuchs takes it further in a review of League on on Pop Matters:

In some previous incarnation, Nemo was a truly complicated character (this according to the film’s press notes), anti-British Empire and working, by piracy, to restore his own land, India, to independence. To this end, he has created the famous submarine Nautilus, and assembled a stash of weapons and a loyal crew of be-turbaned men. The contraptions and troops are visible on screen, but the backstory is mentioned only in passing, as Nemo (an ostensible worshipper of Kali, the goddess of death, as noted, presumably ironically, by the undead Mina) is offered amnesty for his crimes. And with that, he appears fully willing to throw down with whoever to save Britain.

So he’s presented as a great guy, but his politics are completely betrayed by roping him into a plot to reinforce the Empire. Not cool. The movie gives lip service to the idea that a war among the colonial powers will cause suffering to everyone else as well, but I agree with Fuchs that the dominant feeling is more “imperial self-preservation project” than protecting the colonized from the fallout of world war.

(Speaking of stereotypes, I also had big problems with the portrayal of Alan Quatermain’s relationship with Africa. There’s a big “What These People Need is A Honky” problem here, where Africa seems to only exist in order to be loved by a white man who wants to live there and hang out in a bar where all the patrons are old white men and all the employees are black Africans.)

With all of these contradictions, I can’t give League more than 1 star. Mina kicks ass, and I’d have Captain Nemo on my team any day. However, she gets sold out and he’s co-opted into reinforcing colonialism, while Africa and India are afterthoughts in the impending global conflict. So if you haven’t yet seen it, I think it’s safe to leave it off your list.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.