In 1997, Mike Myers wrote and starred in a comedy that spoofed the spy genre, and James Bond in particular. Myers, coming off of his well-received Wayne’s World movies (which he also wrote and starred in) became a box office sensation domestically, and launched Myers to movie stardom. It arrived at just the right time, filling a gap in the market we may not have even realized was there. Whether we knew it or not, we all wanted silly comedy, and the now thirty-year-old series it was spoofing was due for a parody. With the much-celebrated Goldeneye being the most recent Bond film at the time, Austin Powers came in at a time when 007 was struggling to fit into the modern world. The next few movies saw a decline in quality in the series, with Pierce Brosnan’s run ending with the godawful Die Another Day, with Casino Royale still nearly a decade in the future. Not being of the semi-realistic vein of other popular comedies of the 1990s, Myers filled the whole movie with sexual innuendo and slapstick. He was indulging in the comedy that he grew up with, and paying homage to a genre he loved, and deconstructing it by proxy. Myer’s intention is there, and the film’s cultural influence is felt, but is it still funny?
Austin Powers could have been set entirely in the 1960s, but Myers made the choice to remove his protagonist from that era within the first ten minutes of the film. It’s a move that not only sets up some comic fish-out-of-water scenes, but puts the spotlight on the silly and problematic elements of James Bond, and other male heroes from the 1960s and 1970s. Powers is capable and revered by most of his colleagues, and was a star in his time, but the 1990s brings to light how fragile his masculinity is, and the pain that his ignorance can cause. I was worried re-visiting this movie, because I didn’t remember how deftly this was handled. The idea of a fun-loving, womanizing spy coming into an era where his sexist behavior is no longer acceptable, but still managing to convince the female lead to “loosen up” and be his girl could have a messed-up message at its centre. Luckily, that’s not how it’s handled. There’s no complexity to the gender politics, but it does clearly place Powers as the butt of the joke. He is repeatedly emasculated, ridiculed, or condemned for his out-of-date values. Elizabeth Hurley’s character isn’t noteworthy, but she isn’t fulfilling the trope of the nagging, responsible woman that spoils all the fun of the male characters either. Her arc is to learn to be more patient, but she doesn’t have a revelation that she was wrong all along. It’s the male hero that needs to change his ways.
Another element of the Bond mythos that is parodied is the villains (Blofeld in particular). Myers is known for playing multiple characters in his films, something that started in 1993’s So I Married an Axe Murderer, and continued throughout the Austin Powers series, with the Saturday Night Live alumnus playing a grand total of four recurring characters by the third installment. While it’s a commonly known fact, I still found myself forgetting that it was the same actor playing Dr. Evil. Everything about him, from his mannerisms, body language, voice and, of course, appearance, sets him apart. One of my only complaints about the movie is that he doesn’t get many scenes with his arch-nemesis, though the difficulty of filming those scenes is likely the reason for such an exclusion of comedic possibility. And the evil genius bent on world domination is undercut just like the suave hero is. His maniacal laugh peters off into awkwardness, and he stops to feed his cat during the raid of his lair. The movie is full of such subversions, and yet its heart is always in the right place. It has its cake and eats it, indulging in the tropes of the genre despite dismantling them. Scott functions as the foil to Dr. Evil, the Generation X twenty-something rebelling against his Baby Boomer father, questioning his old-fashioned and nonsensical plans. The finale is full of henchman being killed left and right, but they also spend two extended sequences showing us the emotional toll of a guard’s death on his wife and kids. There’s plenty of straight-up absurdity too, with Dr. Evil’s speech about his childhood being one of the strangest monologues I have ever heard.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery has something that a lot of comedies generally lack: Heart. Myers isn’t interested in a condemnation of the 1960s or Bond movies, and it isn’t making a case against the political correctness of the 1990s. Instead, Powers is an archetype admitting his ignorance and looking to change. For all his bone-headed, crude behavior, Austin is a sweet-natured man who wants people to like him. There are a few jokes that don’t land, and the catchphrases aren’t as novel twenty years on, but I found myself laughing more often than I do with most modern comedies. And I’m interested in watching the two sequels too, though I’m a little worried that they won’t find the same balance. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is a quintessential 1990s movie, and situates itself in that era with confidence, but its central character is both ridiculous and endearing enough to be timeless, as the character himself so succinctly remarks:
“No man. What we swingers were going against were uptight squares like you whose bag was money and world domination. We were innocent man. If we had known the consequences of our sexual liberation, we would’ve done things much differently but the spirit would remain the same. It’s freedom baby. Yeah!”
Featured Image: New Line Cinema