It's easy - very, very easy, I'd say - to look at the current state of comic book movies and feel nothing but cold dislike for the machine-pressed non-art that the genre has largely turned into, as we enter the third decade of the post-X-Men superhero boom. But, while I have no desire to apologise for the ponderous mediocrity of the superhero genre as it is presently constituted, it's worth reminding oneself that it could be absolutely so much worse, and has been, and indeed part of the reason for the merciless quality control that strains all of the personality out of everything that comes out of Marvel Studios and the people desperately trying to mimic Marvel Studios is because nobody wants a repeat of the horrible old days of the late '90s and the 2000s. Particularly in the decade between Blade in 1998 and Iron Man in 2008, everybody was starting to figure out that there was some real money to be made here, but nobody really had a sense of how the hell to put together movies to get at that money, and so, absent a number of exceptions so few in number that you can count them on the fingers of  hand, the superhero comic book movie was pretty much a flailing shitshow for several years.

We come now to one of the most flailing, shittiest of all examples: 2003's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which manages despite stiff competition to remain the worst adaptation of an Alan Moore-written comic ever filmed. Indeed, if you'd asked me when the film was new, I'd have said it was the worst comic book adaptation, period  (and in fact I did say it, though in those days I had no place to say it for posterity). Sadly, it only managed to hold onto that title for a little bit more than year, until Catwoman came along to set a lower bound for comic book movie malfeasance that will only be surpassed in the end times, when the Beast and Dragon reign over the world in the days before the resurrected Christ leads the righteous into battle. This is annoying, as it means that I cannot rip The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen all the new assholes it deserves with quite as much force as I'd like. Any statement beginning with "It has the worst..." must contend with the fact that Catwoman actually has the worst, and it's really not even all that close.

Still, being the second-worst comic book adaptation I've ever seen is still a pretty substantial anti-achievement, and I'm certainly content to reserve that record for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It is appallingly stupid and incompetently made. It takes a work of ultra-nerdy Victorian literary fan-fiction and tries to turn it into some Michael Bay orgasm of high-tech machines, blurry fast cutting, explosions, and action choreography that's really just not worth trying to parse in terms of its relationship to three-dimensional space. There is no better way I can think of to sum up the film's blatant asshole douchebaggery than to refer to its official acronym. I mean, that title - that is deliberately puffed-up, overly wordy, and designed to feel obviously old-fashioned in a slightly ridiculous way. So, of course, the studio decided to promote it as LXG. My God, that X! Nothing screeches early-'00s self-conscious tryhard edginess like throwing random Xs at things. But at an in-joke for 19th Century English literature majors?

The hook is, all but explicitly, "the Avengers of Victorian genre fiction". Someone is causing trouble in Europe in 1899, looking to start a war most likely, and the British government, in the form of a secretive agent named M (Richard Roxburgh) - both a Bond and a Sherlock Holmes reference, though not the same Sherlock Holmes reference in the movie as in the comic book - has decided to assemble a team of humans with unusual powers - extraordinary gentlemen, you might say, and the film is going to lean on the word "extraordinary" hard enough for all of us, even if you mightn't. These include Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery), the entirely normal hero of several novels by H. Rider Haggard, but perhaps being Sean Connery is extraordinary enough. Also, the cast is divided over whether to call him "Quatermain" or "Quartermain", and the latter spelling, I am irritably delighted to say, shows up on a prop. The other team members are Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah) and his gigantic submarine Nautilus, so high tech that it's able to cruise effortlessly around the canals of Venice despite being something like 40 feet high and a quarter of a mile long; Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), whose recent encounter with the late Count Dracula has left her a sexy vampire; the haughty Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), who is invulnerable as long as he keeps his magical portrait hidden; Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran), an off-brand and therefore copyright-free invisible man; and Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), a sweaty neurotic, who is of use only insofar as he can hulk out into the massive pile of grotesque muscles known as Edward Hyde. Also, U.S. Secret Service agent Tom Sawyer (Shane West). This is because the producers were afraid that Americans would reject the movie without an American character, and so one was chosen purely for name recognition, not because of anything in the literary character's skill set or personality that would suggest he'd become a government agent. He doesn't even convince the bad guys to paint a fence.

The adventure these seven characters embark upon is an inane pile-up of clue-hunting and betrayals, leading to a mad scientist's secret Mongolian lair, where he hopes to make an army of super-soldiers using the League's powers. Why in God's name he needed Quatermain or Nemo to accomplish this isn't addressed, a rare example of LXG (*yuck*) failing to puke out ream upon ream of the most cluttered, wordy exposition conceivable. Ooh, actually, that's the thing this movie does worse than Catwoman. It has, my hand to God, maybe the worst expository dialogue of any big-budget American film of the 21st Century. This is what comes of deciding that a group of characters assembled to appeal to literature nerds is not sufficiently familiar to multiplex audiences at the turn of the millennium, and that the solution is to ruthlessly and artlessly situate them in the most ham-fisted way possible. The worst of it is when Quatermain realises SPOILER ALer oh whatever, fuck it, that M is actually James Moriarty, and the screenplay elects to wordily clarify that Moriarty didn't die at Reichenbach Falls without actually explaining who he is, or how in God's creation Allan figured out from the zero pieces of evidence that this was his identity. But let us not only blame the exposition: James Dale Robinson's screenplay is full of clanging lines of unreadable prose, and quips that are so complicated that it's hard to even see where the joke is meant to be until after they're gone (a particularly awful example is Mina's put-down of her new teammate: "I imagine you with quite the library, Mr. Quatermain. All those books you must have read merely by looking at their covers"). The writer seems to be trying for some unmanageable combination of punchy modern-style quips and elevated 19th Century speech patterns, but he actually doesn't understand how the latter works, and so we just get a bunch of mumbling, delivered poorly by the actors, punctuated by awkward instances of modern slang.

Ah, the actors! Connery is the only cast member who isn't completely humiliating himself on the messy characters and impossible writing, and he still hated the experience enough to retire from acting so hard that not even Steven Spielberg could tempt him back out with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, five years later. But Connery bristling on autopilot still gives us the charisma and the burr, and that's enough to keep Quatermain at least watchable. Everybody else sucks, though Wilson, whose character makes the least sense on paper, is visibly struggling the hardest to assemble something like a personality, or even a consistent way of delivering lines.

Director Steven Norrington, who'd made Blade before this and would be forcibly retired after this, handles all of the broken-storytelling by making it go very fast;  the one thing we cannot complain about LXG (*yuck*) is that it drags. Mostly, this comes by racing through scenes with no sense of pacing, with editor Paul Rubell chopping scenes off the minute they've done their work; at one point Shah is still delivering an entire line of story-motivating dialogue while the film is urgently dissolving to the next scene. The action is no more nor less anachronistically busy and explosion-heavy than a film that creates an enormous car to go speeding around the streets of Venice (the streets. Of Venice) would be. Honestly, taken just as an action film, LXG (*yuck*) isn't any worse than the other garbage action movies of around the same period; in this respect, it's barely distinguishable from fellow "mash-up with a vampire" picture Van Helsing from 2004, with the possible exception that this movie's extremely bad CGI (the Hyde effect in particular is just the most wretched bullshit) is slightly smoother and less convincing than that movie's extremely bad CGI.

Understand that "the action is no worse than in Van Helsing" is hardly a bar to clear at all, and it's still the best thing I can say about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. That, and the production design is, in its gaudy and over-the-top way, fairly entertaining. It is, otherwise, as lousy as any other big-budget action film from that period I can name, with terrible writing, acting, and directing all combining for a choppy, incoherent story that gracelessly stampedes its way across the screen for 110 loud and ugly minutes. Setting aside terrible horror films (for you only really have yourself to blame for watching terrible horror films), it might still be the least I've enjoyed watching a movie that I saw during its original theatrical run; God willing it remains so!