Looking back at the Austin Powers films, a series now almost as out of touch with modern sensibilities as the character himself. But does that matter?
It’s sobering to realise that the Austin Powers series is now almost a quarter-century old – the first film having been made in 1997. It’s that curious thought that a collection of films based on the idea of a fish out of water character transferred from the Swinging Sixties to the 1990s are now almost as dated as the titular character – that the modern world that Austin Powers finds himself in is now itself ancient history. You could almost remake the films with a swaggering relic of the decadent Nineties transferred to the modern age, except that – unlike with the original films – no one now would be laughing at the inappropriate behaviour of the main character. The movies are almost certainly now seen as ‘problematic’ – the very sort of 1990s comedy that now comes with a stern warning against laughing at it – and Austin Powers himself would be seen less as an amusing relic of a different time and more as a #metoo candidate, his once quotable dialogue now likely to be seen as sexual harassment. For all the talk of a fourth film that even now is trotted out as a possibility by star/writer Mike Myers and director Jay Roach, the idea of a 2021 Austin Powers movie is unthinkable, unless it would literally be Powers apologising for ninety minutes.
In 1997, the Austin Powers films still seemed like lightweight fun – the whole idea of a James Bond-style superspy frozen at the height of the swinging Sixties and then thawed out thirty years later, having to deal with the new sexual politics of the time and negotiating his way through a world that is a lot less shagadelic was a lot of fun, and the films themselves had their cake and ate it – even at the time, there was an audience who were well up for Carry On humour, bad taste, sexual innuendo and a character who didn’t give a shit for modern sensibilities. While the films supposedly spoofed 1960s social and sexual attitudes, there’s actually more a sense that they were quietly celebrating them – enjoying a world of psychedelic colours, swinging chicks, groovy music and much more liberation than we had in 1997. Ahh, if only we’d known what was to come.
1997 was, if we look back now, a somewhat groovy time in itself. The height of the alternative culture that had existed at the start of the decade might have been over, but this was still the time of the new sexual liberation – Nineties Porno Chic with adult movie stars as legitimate celebrities and smut being celebrated rather than demonised, fetish and alternative culture in full flow, the swaggering laddishness of Cool Britannia and the rise of sex-positive feminism. It was an era as far removed from today as the Sixties were, a time before everyone became offended by everything and identity politics meant that there was a continual competition to be the biggest victim. The Austin Powers movies now feel as though they are part of ancient history – even as comedy, you just can’t imagine this character flying now. Could you picture a plot where a sexist Sixties relic eventually makes an uptight modern feminist loosen up and embrace her wild side being approved? Would Fat Bastard be seen as an outrageous comedic character or an attack on the plus-sized? Would Powers’ wild promiscuity and his hitting on every attractive woman he meets still seem funny? I suspect that large audiences would still be entertained by such movies, given the chance – but the idea of them having that chance seems slim, to say the least – which studio would green-light such a movie now? The Austin Powers films have become even more dated than the title character, who at least could adapt to the 1990s.
Seen again now, the first Austin Powers film feels like a test run – the character is being tried out, some of the comedy is dragged out and pointless (the scenes showing the private lives of henchmen make a good and intriguing point about the fact that these nameless, faceless characters we see casually killed off in spy movies will all have families and loved ones, but my God, the point is laboured) and perhaps too much time is spent showing that Austin is a relic of a different age. The film is still funny, but it’s a story feeling its way – at least in retrospect. Mike Myers as Powers owns the movie – it’s a point that even the film seems aware of, that even in his dated approach to life, Powers is by far the most entertaining and relatable character here. We can see gags being set up that the first sequel would take and run with (and the second sequel would hammer into the ground), characters who are begging to be developed – primarily Dr Evil, who is a great character in the first movie but really takes off in the second one – and scenarios that will later be expanded and developed. The first film suffers from the presence of Elizabeth Hurley, who might be effective as eye candy for Powers to leer at, but is not a great actress or comic performer, and has a rather thankless character to struggle with here – she never feels like a good match for him. The second film smartly takes Powers back to 1967 to be paired with a female secret agent who is his match in every way – he needs a swinging chick by his side, frankly, and Heather Graham’s Felicity Shagwell is sexy, saucy and more of the sort of Avengers-influenced action heroine than Hurley’s Vanessa Kensington could ever be – even though Emma Peel and the like were clearly her influence.
The Austin Powers movies are seen as James Bond satires, and perhaps they are. However, they seem more influenced by the assorted Bond copycats and satires of the 1960s that flooded out of Europe and the USA, from Bulldog Drummond and Matt Helm to various Italian and German superspies. It’s easy to forget just how many of these films there were, mainly because most have long since sunk into obscurity (and even at the time had marginal releases outside their home territories), but the Bond films opened the floodgates for smooth, seductive secret agents – or people who were mistaken for them. Even the Fu Manchu series of the Sixties essentially plays on the Bond themes of outrageous supervillains who seemingly have more money than you could dream of (I mean, how much would it cost to hollow out a volcano and build a base, complete with weapons of mass destruction?) yet are willing to throw it all away in pursuit of some mad scheme that will never work. Dr Evil is a fine demolition of these oddly petty villains, with his ludicrous demands and insistence of carrying on a life of pointless criminal activity even though his organisation is making much more money in the legitimate world. Would the scarred Dr Evil be accepted by modern audiences? Perhaps. I have more doubts about Mini-Me.
Anyway – Powers feels like one of those Bond-a-like characters more than Bond, brought back even as his more famous rival is being slowly stripped of everything that made him who he is, in the name of pleasing the sort of people who would never watch a Bond film anyway. It’s an odd thing with Bond – here is, perhaps, the most famous film character in the world, one who can generate headlines and massive press coverage for each hugely successful movie, and yet the producers seem to have no confidence in him whatsoever. We all know what to expect from a Bond film, yet the format has been constantly tinkered with to bring him up to date, copying other, less popular and more short-lived franchises and chasing cultural trends in a desperate attempt to remain relevant when there is no sign that the general public care or want to see a PC Bond. You have to wonder why the films carry on at all if the people behind them are so embarrassed by the main character (we know, we know – money). What a pity that Barbara Broccoli didn’t see the Austin Powers films and decide to take Bond back to the Sixties as a smoking, drinking, womanising degenerate. It’s probably the best thing that could happen to a series where, currently, the main character is treated as a bit of an embarrassment all round.
The Bond copycats of the 1960s tended to be more lightweight, if not entirely comedic, so Powers absolutely fits in with them. His nods to other movies – not just spy movies show a connection to the deliriously and often deliberately camp films of the era and beyond – if Austin Powers is influenced by Bond, then it’s surely the Bond of the 1967 Casino Royale (music, of course, by Burt Bacharach, a regular guest star of the Powers films that increasingly would come to a complete stop just to showcase his songs). The major influence – rarely mentioned because hardly anyone knows about it – is BBC time-travel spy show Adam Adamant Lives, in which an Edwardian dandy is revived in 1966 to continue his battle with an old adversary – Powers and Adamant notably share a fashion style. The films reference everything from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to The Bionic Woman alongside the spy movies of the 1960s and passing pop culture moments (Dr Evil calling one of his schemes The Alan Parsons Project) that will probably go over the heads of most viewers, as they should – these are in-jokes for those in the know. Notably, the first film’s title – International Man of Mystery – feels like a Sixties eurospy film title that has been translated, while The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember are crude variations on Bond titles.
Like many a film trilogy, The Austin Powers films start well, peak with the second film – where all the bugs have been worked out, all involved know the characters and the parts of the first movie that haven’t worked are jettisoned – and then falls apart with the third film, which just over-eggs the pudding. Goldmember is not terrible, but it isn’t very funny. It’s the disc that remains unwatched in box set editions. Of the three, it is the first film that tends to have the most life, perhaps understandably – people just assume that the original movie in any series is the important one. How many revivals it will have remain to be seen – I’m guessing the film can be contextualised by talking heads and warnings, the latter seemingly essential given that the film’s comedy contemporaries and successors like The League of Gentlemen and Little Britain have gone from admired to cancelled, pretty much overnight. The Austin Powers movies are awash with content that – even as a pointed satire of the very thing that is offensive – will be seen as punching down. The difference, it seems, between then and now is that now there are subjects that are seen by many as entirely off-limits for comedy, context be damned.
On that basis, we might think that the Austin Powers films do not have staying power – that their humour is now as dated as the leeringly sexist comedy of the Sixties and Seventies that it satirises, and perhaps for some it is. I’m guessing that if you wonder what on earth Carry On movies are still being shown on TV for, then these movies will equally leave you cold. If you are the sort of person who has made a decision that the stuff you laughed at a decade ago is no longer acceptable – if you have, to paraphrase a current trend, awoke to the error of your ways – then these films are probably going to be the sort of thing that you will look back on laughing at with some shame. I would argue that you are very much in the wrong for doing so – more, that you are missing the point, conflating satire and comedy with approval, and that’s always a dangerous road to go down unless you want your comedy to remain utterly bland and inoffensive. And even then, who is to say that’s today’s harmless humour is not going to be tomorrow’s victimisation?
For those with more open minds and less tendency to seek offence at every turn, the Austin Powers films have held up rather well – at least, the first two have. Goldmember has not improved with age. But those first two films are a gleeful collision of nostalgia, pop culture and bad taste, mashing sophisticated humour and an oddly British crudeness – double entendres, crude sight gags, comedy names et al – into something that was probably a little out of time even when made. Like the main character, the Austin Powers films are a time capsule of a different time that we might quietly look back on enviously – were things so simple and so much fun then? Be it the Sixties or the Nineties, these movies show a world that wasn’t engrossed in self-pity and anger, and the thought of popping into Dr Evil’s time machine for a return visit seems very tempting.
Austin Powers International Man of Mystery has just been reissued on blu-ray by Icon in the UK.
Help support The Reprobate: