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By 1997, James Bond was nearly a parody of itself, with the titular hero in a sort of formulaic loop that left him feeling archaic in a time when progression was everywhere. The films leading up to the the late 1990s were meant to be a grittier reboot though after an admittedly good start with Martin Campbell‘s Goldeneye (1995) with new star Pierce Brosnan donning the tux, things took a hard turn to the absurd again, and dated tropes and sexist themes were beginning to wane with audiences.
Meanwhile, Mike Myers, a Saturday Night Live alum who had already amassed a couple of hits on the big screen with his SNL-adapted films Wayne’s World 1 and 2, was about to set it all on its ear. With a new set of characters and his sardonic eye finely tuned like “lasers” upon the famous MI6 spy, he took to lovingly skewering the genre that had a few cracks taken at it already, though none quite like this. And like anything, it was all about the timing.
While critics and audience were a bit hesitant to catch on, it wasn’t long before Austin and his nemesis Doctor Evil, both played by Myers, become a phenomenon, and no matter one’s opinion of the film, the pop culture landscape was flooded by catchphrases and endless impersonations. Everyone was jamming their pinky into the corners of their mouths and there probably wasn’t a guy out there who wasn’t quoting something from the film to impress others. It was hit and everyone wanted more. Yeah, baby, yeah!
That all said, allow myself to introduce … myself, er, rather the 5 best reasons why 20 years on, Austin Powers: International Many of Mystery is still the best spy spoof ever made.
Austin Powers Sincerely Loves The 60s: Lots of movies have used the seismic shifts in politics, civil rights, entertainment and culture clashes of the 1960s to bare, and with Austin Powers, it was no exception, and yet, there was something fresh about it, employing many of the era’s most noteworthy movements and giving them a sort of second life on modern screens. From the cutaways that harkened back to the groundbreaking television of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to the fashion shoots that accurately reproduced clothes of those of the time, everything was up for grabs and Myers, who wrote the screenplay and director Jay Roach were always careful to never make it predatory. We could laugh because we knew it was real, but we never felt it was bitter or snarky. Myers always kept the humor on target but never mean, something that made it easier for us to feel good about looking back at some turbulent but curious history.
Austin Powers Does Sexy Right: Like James Bond, Austin is a ladies man, and because he’s a parody of such, takes it to ridiculous extremes where all women not only want to be with Austin, they chase him down the streets in roving gangs of spontaneous dancers. Austin himself is perpetually randy, er horny baby, and always on the make, not quite getting the 90s mentality of monogamous love rather than the more open, free love he was used to. Always a fine line to tread, sexualizing anything for a laugh risks being offensive, and yet again Myers and Roach don’t just walk it finely, they managed to run up and down it with arms and legs flailing. It works because Austin is not immune to learning, and we get an arc that allows him to be sexy and express his baser desires while still being sympathetic. He’s not above making a pass at a girl, but he’ll never take advantage of one either, and while the women in the film are all beautiful (don’t deny you got a little turned on by Mindy Sterling‘s dominatrix-like turn as Frau Farbissina), they are also never weak. Speaking of which …
Austin Powers Has Great Women (Double Entendre Bonus Point): Bond has made a whole set of fans devoted to the Bond Girls, the women who have come to help define the series as a whole, with most being either damsels in distress, co-spies in the game, or villainous henchwomen (who go to bed with him anyway). With Austin Powers, the women are remarkably sexy but they are also equally independent, starting with the beautiful Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley), a fellow government agent and daughter of Mrs. Kennington (Mimi Rogers), Austin’s alluring partner from the 60s. Both of these women are equals to Austin, and even though one era made it socially acceptable to hit on one of them, and another where it was frowned upon, Austin is smitten but always respectful. That’s the great thing about the Austin Powers franchise as a whole that helped separate it from the Bond series to that date, where women, while accomplished, were often not just sexualized but pandered, even demeaned. With Powers, these women are all smarter, more clever, and sexier than Austin, and that is what makes him (and us) all the more attracted. Yeah, baby.
Austin Powers Always Keeps Us In The Joke: There’s not a moment in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery where we aren’t a natural part of the experience. Myers and Roach are fully aware they are tinkering with icons and as such give a wink whenever they can, with both Powers and Evil often looking right at us, inviting us in. This is especially so in the aforementioned scene breaks where Austin dances à la Laugh-In, and ends each bit staring breathlessly into the camera, often for just a second or two longer than we expect, purposefully exposing the production of it all rather than the show. Myers deftly manages to bounce about from silly sight gag to physical pratfalls and never lets it feel forced, even as it relies on puns and low-brow comedy per se. The fun comes from the epic lengths they go to get a laugh and how just about every one of them finds it’s mark. Sure, the humor isn’t for everyone, but when you can go from an extended urination joke that involves a man peeing for more than a minute to a breathlessly brilliantly multi-layered satire in a support group where Dr. Evil details his curious upbringing and have both work as well as the do, something is more than right. It’s genius. And for those that miss it, you just don’t get, do ya? You don’t.
Austin Powers Introduces A Character For All Times: James Bond had many memorable enemies, though most probably remember Blofeld best, seen in a number of films and portrayed by different actors, including Christoph Waltz in 2015’s Spectre. With Dr. Evil, Myers understood that as good as his Austin Powers was, if his nemesis wasn’t better, he’d have nothing. Jim Carrey was originally intended for the part, an admittedly intriguing thought, but he had to drop out, leaving Myers to fill the gap. With that, and the film’s balance resting doubly on his shoulders, he went ahead and created a character so sharply on target, it forever changed the entire concept of the world-dominating villain, stripping away any credibility of any “serious” figure in future Bond films. Just look back as the previously mentioned Waltz, who himself has become a parody of sorts for his now iconic portrayal of movie bad guys and you can’t help but see Dr. Evil in his place. Myers skewered the genre so surgically well, it changed the landscape of Bond films, even if they were slow to catch on. Dr. Evil is a masterpiece of cinematic farce and Myers wields him with such surprisingly effectiveness, you lose sight of who the actor is and simply watch in wonder at the marvel of what he is. If you haven’t seen this movie, in the words of Evil himself relating to something entirely (trust me) different, I’ll just say this: It’s breathtaking. I highly suggest you try it.