The Avengers at 25: The screenwriter explains what went wrong with the notorious flop

Released in 1998, The Avengers suffered at the hands of studio interference

Original Film Title: THE AVENGERS.  English Title: THE AVENGERS.  Film Director: JEREMIAH S. CHECHIK.  Year: 1998.  Stars: SEAN CONNERY; UMA THURMAN; RALPH FIENNES. Credit: WARNER BROTHERS / Album
Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery in a promotional still for 1998's The Avengers. (Alamy/Warner Bros.)

It was all meant to be so different.

When 1998's The Avengers — the big screen adaptation of the 1960s British spy caper TV series, not its Marvel namesake — was released 25 years ago it was greeted with the kind of reception that suggested the filmmakers had murdered the critics’ firstborn.

But the film that had been released, starring Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery, was much different to the one originally envisaged by screenwriter Don Macpherson.

After disastrous tests, the film was butchered by a panicky studio, which took nearly an hour of footage out of the original. The finished movie was massacred by critics (Radio Times called it a "stunningly designed blockbuster that's stunningly awful in every other department"), and by audiences (it received a CinemaScore rating of D), and was subsequently nominated for nine Golden Raspberry awards, winning one for Worst Remake.

Read more: The Avengers Remains a Bizarre Blunder 25 Years Later (ComingSoon, 7 min read)

It scraped in $54.7m at the global box office against a $60m budget, making it a flop in every sense of the word.

We talked to Macpherson, about his original, much darker, vision for the film, what went so wrong and the tantalising possibility of a director’s cut.

How do you feel about revisiting The Avengers? It was rumoured to be an unhappy experience both for you and director Jeremiah Chechik...

I'm delighted to talk about it. I suppose I feel that the film and its experience are ready for re-evaluation. I was a journalist and a movie critic in my early career. When the movie came out I was surprised that friends of mine — who were writers — never asked me one thing about what it was like to work on it, what had really happened.

And it seemed to me a kind of incredible naïveté that they would listen to the Warner Bros. line about it, which was crazy and incoherent.

The studio was doing damage control?

Yes. It was like listening to Stalin on crack. Crazy s*** came out from them. For people to believe that we'd deliberately tried to do a bad, campy movie, or that that's what they had originally put into production, it beggars belief to me.

What was your original vision for the film?

I thought that this was a chance for a dark, stylish European movie. My hook was 'who killed Mr Peel?' She's called Mrs Peel in the TV series, but there's no Mr Peel. I thought, well if she's a widow then that would be interesting.

British actors Patrick McNee and Diana Rigg are John Steed and Emma Peel, on the set of the TV Series The Avengers, created by Sydney Newman. (Photo by ABC Weekend Television/Associated British Corporation/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Patrick McNee and Diana Rigg as John Steed and Emma Peel on the set of the TV Series The Avengers. (Getty Images)

And she was on this hell-crazed rampage of revenge against whoever killed her husband. She would be tormented by the killer – a kind of Joker character. The bad guy would be Peter Peel’s half-brother who had always been in love with Emma.

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She’s got to find out who killed her husband. If she finds out, everything's OK. If she doesn’t, Steed's got to kill her. The rest is crazy scenes and action.

So the original screenplay was way different to the movie that got released?

Oh yes [laughs]. It was inspired by an early King Hu Wuxia, Touch Of Zen, which was my main touchstone, but also George Franju, Dario Argento and Mario Bava's Danger Diabolik.

It sounds really kind of ‘out there’

Yeah. But I remember thinking, if they distribute this correctly it's a pretty commercial script.

It's a lighting fast revenge movie with lots of crazy bits in it. Very fast and very bloody with a lot of kung-fu. Set in a mythical London with a kind of Magritte vibe.

Who was in the frame to direct?

On the set of Alien 3, directed by David Fincher. (Photo by Rolf Konow/Sygma/Corbis via Getty Images)
David Fincher made his feature debut with 1992's Alien 3. (Getty Images)

At first the studio was very gung-ho for it. We approached Jean-Jaques Beineix (Diva) and Alex Proyas (The Crow). But Beineix had to pull out and Proyas was making Dark City.

So then we took it to David Fincher. I had worked with him on Alien 3 and he had finally been let out of directors’ jail. We went to see him on the set of Se7en. He really got it. He saw it as really perverse and dark and cold.

You must have thought he’d be a perfect fit?

Yes. He wanted to do it in black and white, you know to up the ante [laughs]. And then he even made a commercial for Honda that’s really the bee attack from the screenplay.

He wanted to prove to Warners that he could do it. But he was too much trouble for them. He’d probably have been fired before we started shooting [laughs].

Then Nicholas Meyer [Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan] took it on. He was a bit more workaday, but he got it, he had done Sherlock Homes and so on. But there were delays and then he couldn't do it.

You finally ended up with Jeremiah Chechik as director, how did you feel about that?

Well, I'm not going to pile in on Jeremiah. He has suffered enough. He did a great job of doing a version that, by then, was the one that Warners wanted to make.

Both in person and artistically Jeremiah is much warmer. You know... Benny & Joon.

CENTURY CITY, CA - MARCH 20:  Jeremiah Chechik attends the premiere of
Jeremiah Chechik in 1996. (Getty Images)

He's very stylish and so on but he has a much more generous way. The script that we went into production with was still pretty good. But it was a gentler version. A less crazed version. I had wanted to do mine all guns blazing.

A crazed witch-woman killing everyone... the black widow.

When did you start to feel that things were really going wrong?

Uma Thurman as Emma Peel in 1998's The Avengers. (Alamy)

One of the first things they wanted to do away with was the whole Mr Peel plot. Well, I said, "But that's what it's about! This is Hamlet without, the revenge."

And they wanted to make the villain more coherent, and easier to track. I could see that. But I was very unhappy about losing the whole Mr Peel thing. So it was a reduced version. But she's still nuts. So I could live with it.

Sean Connery played terrorist weather scientist Sir August de Wynter in 1998's The Avengers. (Alamy)

The cut that Jeremiah came up with was good. I pay full tribute to him. Making those movies is not a walk in the park for anyone. The 2 hours and 20 minutes cut was pretty great.

It was a reduced version of my megalomaniac original. But he'd done a good job.

It’s when they test it that things start to really go kerflooey?

Robert Downey Jr & Tommy Lee Jones Film: U.S. Marshals (USA 1998) Characters: & Chief Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard  Director: Stuart Baird 06 March 1998   **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of WARNER BROS. and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To WARNER BROS. is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.
Robert Downey Jr and Tommy Lee Jones in 1998's U.S. Marshals, the sequel to the Oscar-winning The Fugitive. (Alamy)

Basically, Warner Bros began to eat itself. There was a succession battle underway and there were suddenly a lot of factions. Plus there were a lot of other productions which went over budget and kind of out of control. This is the period when they managed to screw up the follow-up to The Fugitive [U.S. Marshals].

They screwed up a Michael Crichton adaptation, Sphere, which I was going to do, and then luckily didn't. They’d managed to screw up the Batman movie, Batman Forever.

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Then, a lot of other movies got into trouble and our movie — which was intended as a sort of European Jean-Jaques Beineix movie, or David Fincher movie — became a candidate for a ‘big Summer release’.

Which you had never intended...

No. And the marketing department then saw it and was probably furious. "We can't sell this s*** in the Summer. It's crazy!" They previewed it not in Paris or London or Berlin where Mario Bava and Argento would be bywords of cinematic excellence. They previewed it in the Valley somewhere. And people [were saying] "What is this s***?"

Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman in 1998's The Avengers. (Alamy)

And so everybody at Warners starts pointing at each other and saying, "Well, I didn't know anything about this." We had a meeting with [Warners boss] Terry Semel. He's the big guy. There's no way you can tell him how to run his studio.

But he looked round the room and says, "So, this is a spy movie right?"

The obvious reply would have been, "No, you put $60 million into a European arty revenge flick!"

They took nearly an hour of footage out. Do you remember seeing the release version for the first time?

I remember Jeremiah and I had gone to see a Jean-Pierre Melville movie, can you imagine, and the trailer for The Avengers came on. There was this ripple in the audience. And we thought, "That looks pretty good!"

But unbeknownst to us, it was all the stuff that the studio had already cut out. We were the last to know. I didn’t see it until a couple of days before release. I'd been cut out completely.

Uma Thurman & Ralph Fiennes Poster Film: The Avengers (USA 1998) Characters: Emma Peel & John Steed  Director: Jeremiah S. Chechik 13 August 1998   **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of WARNER BROS. and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To WARNER BROS. is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.
The poster for 1998's The Avengers. (Alamy)

I met [producer] Jerry Weintraub and I remember him saying to me, "You know Don, you're a great writer, but I got something to tell you. You take two weeks off with your family, you go someplace nice, you work on other things, and we'll do something else together."

He was a major player and he knew he'd been f***ed. And there was nothing he could do about it. And he wanted me not to feel bad.

There has been gossip about a directors’ cut. Is it something you’d like to see?

I would like it. I still love the Avengers. I love that world. I'm not going to say it could have been like Brazil or The Matrix, but what I was shooting at was in that category.

Read more: Directors who regretted their movies

So the version that's out there is a kind of a massacre for us. And I think Jeremiah did do a great movie that is yet to be seen by anybody.

The Avengers is available to rent or buy on digital.