By Owen Gleiberman
Updated September 04, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Did anyone really think it would work? Critically savaged, already an embarrassing failure at the box office, The Avengers is a big, spinning Wiffle ball of a movie. It’s worth remembering, though, before the picture vanishes from theaters entirely, just what this project’s evanescent allure was originally all about.

On television in the mid-’60s, Patrick Macnee, as John Steed, and Diana Rigg, as Emma Peel, would scoot around in a Bondian sports car, battling sci-fi crimes against the Empire. The ultimate action, though, consisted of the duo’s quips, sallies, and double entendres, many of which were tossed off during fencing practice that appeared to be more than a bit S&M kinky. The verbal sparring looked back over its shoulder to screwball comedy, but what people continue to remember with such affection is the way that the posh, winking savoir faire of The Avengers tickled the cusp of the sexual revolution. Steed, with his bowler hat, umbrella, and mischievous gleam, was a parody of the sort of trusty English gent who was on the verge of looking as out of style as Queen Victoria. Peel, embodied by the incandescent Rigg, was a Carnaby Street gamine in midriff-baring catsuits — a next-generation pixie. Though the characters remained platonic playmates, they seemed to be jousting across an erotic/cultural divide, and that was the show’s real romance — the image of arch British reserve giving way to swinging freedom.

All of which is to say that if you put Ralph Fiennes in a bowler hat and Uma Thurman in a catsuit and have them toss cute one-liners at each other, you can call the result The Avengers, but you’ve come about as close to capturing the eccentric, trapped-in-its-time sauciness of the TV series as you would by devoting a theme restaurant to it. The casting of Fiennes is particularly maladroit. He’s an actor of rare intellectual delicacy, but I’ve almost never seen him crack what could truly be described as a smile. As Steed, he seems less an ironic patrician superhero than an overly sensitive boy dressed up in his rich uncle’s clothes. Thurman, at least, is sultry, but she lacks Rigg’s teasing suggestion of innocence. Her Emma just seems like a runway model with attitude.

I’m only pretending, of course, that any two actors could have salvaged this movie. Directed by Jeremiah Chechik, The Avengers is too enervated to qualify as even a full-scale disaster. It’s like a Batman movie in which the villain forgot to show up, and Batman did too. Certainly, I can’t think of another film that has so thoroughly achieved the feat of making Sean Connery boring. As the evil August De Wynter, who launches a plot to control the weather, and with it the world, Connery rants and growls with monotonous nastiness. There’s a nifty scene in which Emma gets trapped in a marble stairway that folds back on itself like an M.C. Escher dreamscape. But that’s the only moment in the film with genuine visual charge. The Avengers is a package of slick nothing — pop nostalgia that can’t remember what it’s nostalgic for. D+

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