Thursday, April 30, 2020

Austin Powers still haunts the James Bond Franchise

James Bond Franchise

Daniel Craig just can’t seem to escape James Bond. While the actor has technically wrapped up the fifth and final movie in his stint as 007 with No Time to Die, the film’s title has unintentionally turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Originally scheduled to come out in April, the movie has since been moved to November in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic—and given that experts believe a second wave of the deadly virus could emerge in the winter, it’s quite possible that it will be delayed once more into 2021. It is not yet time for this Bond to die.

Craig, for his part, wants nothing more than to put 007 in the rearview mirror. The dude melodramatically said that he’d rather slash his wrists than do another entry in the franchise before returning for No Time to Die. The inevitable press tour for No Time to Die, during which Craig will pretend to give a shit about something he’s clearly come to loathe, should be worthy of an Oscar nomination. (Don’t feel too bad for the actor, who reportedly received $25 million for taking the role.) The grueling physical toll of the part notwithstanding, it’s notable that Craig has devoted some of his recent non-Bond work toward playing really eccentric characters: the explosives expert Joe Bang in Logan Lucky and Detective Benoit Blanc in Knives Out, both of whom have a ridiculous Southern twang. It almost feels like a cry for help: Daniel Craig just wants to have some fun (and use an over-the-top Southern accent, as a treat).

But as excellent as some of his Bond films have been, fun probably isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind when describing Craig’s take on the character; that was a point unto itself. “Mike Myers fucked us,” Craig told the Bond fan site MI6 Confidential Magazine in 2014. “I am a huge Mike Myers fan, so don’t get me wrong—but he kind of fucked us.”


He’s referring to—what else?—the Austin Powers franchise, Myers’s iconic spoof of Bond and the larger spy genre. An internationally renowned secret agent and inexplicably irresistible sex symbol, Austin Powers (played by Myers) is a far cry from the conventional attractiveness of any iteration of 007: The character has garish teeth that are so ugly that, in one scene, they cause a car’s rearview mirror to shatter, and has chest hair formed in the shape of a penis. Powers creates countless mishaps when trying to save the world. (He punched his boss’s mother, mistaking her for a man, and once sipped a stool sample he’d thought was poorly brewed coffee—cinema.) Meanwhile, his archnemesis, Dr. Evil (also Myers), is modeled after the Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld—right down to the scar, Nehru jacket, and feline companion. (Dr. Evil’s cat, Mr. Bigglesworth, unfortunately, is a little different from Blofeld’s; after being cryogenically frozen, he ends up losing his hair.)


If you haven’t watched them, the Austin Powers movies are—and I mean this in the best possible way—unbelievably stupid. These films spend as much time perfecting sight gags, like Myers and Elizabeth Hurley using wedding gifts to block their private parts at the end of International Man of Mystery, as actual spy movies would with action sequences. An extended dick joke in The Spy Who Shagged Me was so effective, they brought it back in Goldmember with boobs and the Osbournes. (The Osbournes being a big get perhaps speaks to the franchise’s age.) And all due respect to BeyoncĂ©, once you watch the late Verne Troyer’s Mini Me hump her character’s leg in Goldmember, you can never unsee it.

With the exception of the franchise’s frequent use of time travel, the framework of Austin Powers and its quirky cast of characters all come straight from Bond—the list of references is so comprehensive it requires a glossary. It’s also satire that doesn’t need to change things too much, because the Bond franchise was already pretty ridiculous to begin with. (It’s hard to come up with a name more absurd than Pussy Galore; Alotta Fagina was a worthy effort.) The winking humor of James Bond, particularly during the Roger Moore era, was seen as a feature rather than a bug—though leaning into the camp at times deflated the onscreen product, like the abhorrent whistle sound effect used in The Man With the Golden Gun’s superlative corkscrew car jump. Still, even if camp was occasionally the intention, Austin Powers had loads of material to parody.

Like any good spoof, Myers’s franchise came from a place of endearment—the comedian has said the films are a tribute to his late father—that nevertheless skewered established Bond tropes like the character’s constant womanizing, the villains’ tendencies to set up absurd and easily escapable situations for 007, and glitzy opening credit sequences. The Austin Powers musical openings had no right to be this good.


Incidentally, Goldmember—the final Austin Powers film, though there’s always the glimmer of hope for more—was released the same year as Pierce Brosnan’s Bond swan song, Die Another Day, which is among the worst-reviewed entries of the franchise. (I wish I was kidding, but if you Google Die Another Day, one of the top results happens to be “Is Die Another Day the worst Bond movie ever?”) Die Another Day’s tepid reception in 2002 also coincided with the arrival of the Jason Bourne franchise, which showed there was an appetite for a grittier, grimmer, more realistic kind of spy movie. As much as audiences enjoyed watching 007 recite his martini order before running off with a beautiful woman, sometimes you just want to watch a living weapon dispatch a goon using a pen.

It’s within that context that we get a better understanding of how James Bond transformed from a guy who surfed through a terrible CGI tsunami to save Halle Berry into a man unforgettably tortured via whipping of the testicles in the span of four years. Casino Royale, Craig’s debut as 007, goes to great pains (see: testicular torture) to underscore that this was the Gritty Bond—someone shaped more by trauma than the thrill of globe-trotting and chasing women.

Of the four films released, Craig’s Bond has been a mixed bag. Casino Royale is, in my mind, the single best entry in the history of the franchise: a movie so good that 007 spends most of the sequel (Quantum of Solace) recovering from its events. Skyfall, with an elite Adele theme and Oscar-nominated cinematography from the legendary Roger Deakins, might have even more admirers. But Craig’s Bond movies also have a smaller margin for error. Say what you will about Moore’s and Brosnan’s tenures as 007, but even their most disappointing movies managed to coast on good vibes—the comparatively dour spirit of Craig’s entries can, at times, be their own worst enemy. And sometimes they’re just asking to be made fun of.

When Spectre brings back Blofeld—this time played by Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz—after Dr. Evil left his indelible mark on the character, the film inadvertently leans into self-parody. We find out in Spectre that Bond and Blofeld are foster brothers, a reveal that wouldn’t seem so embarrassingly shortsighted if Goldmember hadn’t already toyed with the clichĂ© by having Austin Powers and Dr. Evil be secret twins. As much as Craig believes Austin Powers fucked over James Bond by preventing it from being able to embrace camp like it used to, the franchise has also sort of fucked itself.


With the end of the Craig era—well, once No Time to Die can actually be released—James Bond will have a clean slate again. And while it will be interesting to learn who might be eyed for the title role once Hollywood slowly returns to business as usual, it also remains to be seen whether there’s been enough time since Goldmember for 007 to once again embrace a playful spirit. (There’s still hope No Time to Die will rectify some of this; last year, Emmy-winning phenom Phoebe Waller-Bridge was asked to “spice up” the script.)

A franchise as enduring and iconic as James Bond is no stranger to parody—Matthew Vaughn’s ongoing Kingsman series is a profane, gory, R-rated alternative—but the sting of Austin Powers has persisted at MGM and Eon Productions even long after the films’ pop culture references have become dated. Influencing one of the biggest franchises in the world is perhaps not one of the legacies Mike Myers intended for his trilogy, but it’s impressive all the same. Or, to put it in terms that the international man of mystery with hideous teeth and phallic chest hair might understand: Yeah baby, yeah!