In the summer of 2003, one year after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man starring Tobey Maguire set box-office records, 20th Century Fox attempted to capitalize on the rise of comic-book cinema with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. As envisioned by creators Alan Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill, the comic introduced a Victorian-era Justice League — a super-team of famous literary characters, including Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery); Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah); the Invisible Man (Tony Curran); Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego, Mr. Hyde (Jason Flemyng); and their leader, Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), one of the survivors from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Wildstorm Productions published the first volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in 1999 through Moore’s imprint, America’s Best Comics. The initial miniseries was an immediate hit with readers and critics alike, and it quickly came to the attention of producer Don Murphy (Transformers), who had previously adapted Moore’s comic From Hell as a feature film. Stephen Norrington, the director of Marvel’s Blade movie in 1998, soon signed on to helm the film, which was scripted by James Dale Robinson, a comic-book writer who was behind DC’s popular Starman revival.
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On paper, the high-concept film seemed like a good bet to launch Fox’s next comic-based franchise after the studio’s blockbuster X-Men series: critically acclaimed source material, a director and screenwriter with comic book cred of their own, established characters, an Oscar-winning star in Connery.
But things went very wrong.
Even before The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen arrived in theaters on July 11, 2003, Connery’s clashes with Norrington were well documented. In fact, the actor was so bitter about the process that he never made another live-action film before his death in 2020. Meanwhile, the film’s tepid $66 million domestic gross proved that audiences wouldn’t show up to a movie just because it was based on a popular comic book. So how did The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen go from would-be blockbuster to cautionary tale — and was it really that bad?
Sean Connery vs. Stephen Norrington
By his own admission, Connery was once offered the chance to portray Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. To entice the former James Bond actor, New Line Cinema offered Connery 15 percent of the trilogy’s worldwide box office. However, Connery turned down the role because he didn’t understand the script. With The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Connery was determined not to make the same mistake again. Connery’s $17 million payday for the film surely helped him make that decision. But it wasn’t long before Connery clashed with Norrington.
O’Neill, who died in 2022, recalled his visit to the film’s set during a 2009 interview with The Times of London.
“I met Stephen Norrington, the director,” said O’Neill. “He seemed to be under a huge amount of pressure. The problems he was having with Sean Connery were common knowledge by then. It was a very frosty set.”
"There have been differences of opinion about almost everything," added Connery in a 2002 interview with The Scotsman. "Professional differences, personal differences, you name it. ... Oh yes, it’s been difficult. Very, very difficult. There’s no question about it."
“I would say that it appears to be a bit of an instance where Connery and Norrington clearly had two very different ideas of what is the appropriate way to do a movie,” Brian Cronin, a senior writer for Comic Book Resources, explains to Yahoo Entertainment. “Connery [was] of the mind that you come to the set with a plan, while Norrington liked to improvise new ideas on the spot. ... That led to a good deal of waiting around while [Norrington] did all his extra set-ups, and Connery was sick of it.”
Within the comic, Quatermain was a shadow of his former self from his heyday in H. Rider Haggard's novel, King Solomon's Mines. He was lost to his opium addiction until Mina and Nemo forced him to get sober in order to help them face a threat to the British empire. In the film, Quatermain was in retirement and mourning the death of his son when he was recruited to the team. And he quickly took the reins of leadership. The movie also portrayed Quatermain as an elder statesman action hero, even though Connery himself seemed very unengaged with the material.
Connery’s experience with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was so frustrating that he retired from the industry. In a 2007 interview, Connery recalled that Norrington “wasn’t certified before he started because he would have been arrested for insanity. … So, we worked as well as we could, and [I] ended up being heavily involved in the editing and trying to salvage [it].”
Once Connery decided that he was done acting in movies, not even Steven Spielberg could lure him to come back in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Skyfall director Sam Mendes also wanted Connery to return to the James Bond franchise as Kincade, the gamekeeper of the Bond family’s estate at Skyfall. But Mendes’s desire did not come to fruition, and Albert Finney ended up playing Kincade when Skyfall was released in 2012.
Norrington skipped the world premiere of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and subsequently stepped back from Hollywood. Since then, Norrington has given very few interviews and he did not respond to Connery’s barbs in the press. Although Norrington hasn’t formally retired, he has yet to direct another live-action movie.
What else went wrong?
Norrington and Robinson took significant liberties with Moore and O’Neill’s comic book. For example, they added Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) to the team as well as an adult Tom Sawyer (Shane West), despite neither character appearing in the comic. But O’Neill was particularly upset about the changes to Mina.
In Stoker’s novel, Dracula came very close to turning Mina into a vampire, but she was saved from that fate by her husband, Jonathan Harker, and their ally, Abraham Van Helsing. As reconceived by Moore and O’Neill, Mina was divorced from Jonathan and scandalized by her ordeal at Dracula’s hands. Yet out of sheer force of personality, Mina assembled the League and became their leader. In the movie, Mina was simply a vampire and Quatermain was the leader of the team.
“They changed the whole balance by marginalizing Mina and making her a vampire,” said O’Neill. “I mean, what the hell is she doing there, why is she there? Quatermain is in charge. The whole thing falls apart and lacks cohesiveness."
“I remember [Moore] telling me a story about the producer calling him up and excitedly telling Alan about a scene with Mina using her vampiric powers to climb a wall and bite someone on the neck,” Scott Dunbier, publisher Wildstorm’s original editor on the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Alan told me he replied, ‘That's an interesting interpretation of my work.’”
Moore’s most famous comics have already been adapted by Hollywood, including a film and an HBO series based on Watchmen, as well as movies for V For Vendetta, From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But Moore has also publicly distanced himself from each and everyone of them.
“On League ... Alan wants nothing to do with films — he's simply not interested,” explained O’Neill. “It's nothing to do with our [League] and I'm not sure if Alan has ever seen anything more than a clip from it.”
“It was a different time, Alan viewed movies as separate from the comics, and a nice way to get extra cash,” added Dunbier. “But, as time went on, his thinking changed. He became more and more disenchanted with the films, for a number of reasons.”
"As long as I could distance myself by not seeing them, enough to keep them separate, take the option money, I could be assured no one would confuse the two. This was probably naïve on my part,” said Moore in a 2007 statement to CBR. "After the films came out, I began to feel increasingly uneasy. I have a dwindling respect for cinema as it is currently expressed."
The League of the Extraordinary Gentlemen had the poor fortune of going up against Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, which had a $46.6 million opening that easily beat League’s $23 million opening. Critics did not hide their displeasure with the film, and the late Roger Ebert said that it had “incomprehensible action, idiotic dialogue, inexplicable motivations, causes without effects, effects without causes, and general lunacy.” Comic book movie fans largely turned their back on League, and the film limped to a $179.3 million finish at the worldwide box office.
Regardless of LXG’s box office failure, it turned out to be a financial windfall for the publisher and the creators.
“While many [of the Wildstorm staff] did not like the movie itself, we were grateful to have it out there,” says Dunbier. “I remember that the sales of the collection — which were already very good — increased dramatically. ... I'm happy it came out and made Alan and Kev much more money from book sales.”
Moore and O’Neill’s next chapter in their story, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II, was published as single issues before and after the release of the film. Over the next sixteen years, they revisited the League at different points in their history and moved the narrative through the 20th century and beyond. Following the conclusion of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume IV: The Tempest in 2019, Moore and O’Neill retired from comics.
Did Hollywood learn anything from Extraordinary Gentleman?
Director Martin Scorsese has famously bashed Marvel movies as being “theme park rides,” but his critique could easily apply to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as well. It’s a film that tries to be a big loud action movie at the expense of the source material.
“The movie failed for a number of reasons,” former Variety editor Thomas McLean tells Yahoo Entertainment. “The most obvious one is that it wasn't a very good movie. The tone was very uneven and it lacked the charm of the comic by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil. I also don’t know if people thought of it as a comic book movie.”
“As brilliant as the graphic novel is, it is not a movie,” said Robinson in a 2003 interview with The Los Angeles Times. “The studio wanted something a little bit flashier, more of a summer movie. Stephen wanted something that was more introspective. I was relieved to find out that even though the complexity of the characters had been whittled down, the shadings of those complications still remained.”
Ironically, the 20th anniversary for this film arrives at a time when comic book movies are starting to struggle or even bomb at the box office. The Flash is the most recent example of this. Regardless, McLean doesn’t believe that LXG’s box office performance can be held against other films in the genre.
“Can its failure be used to predict whether other comic book films connect with an audience? I would think no — especially 20 years later, when comics movies are such an established genre and many have failed in the interim without affecting the overall success of the genre,” adds McLean.
But even this failure won’t stop Hollywood from trying again. As reported by The Hollywood Reporter in May 2022, Hulu is developing a reboot of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Whether it will actually happen remains to be seen.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is available to stream on Prime Video.