Twenty-five years after the original movie’s release, Austin Powers remains popular. But could that type of comedy work today?
It’s hard to overstate just how popular Austin Powers was 20 years ago. But back in the summer of 2002, when Mike Myers starred in his third and (as of press time) final appearance as the character via Austin Powers in Goldmember, the James Bond and 1960s spoof was more than just a comedy hit in its moment; it was the moment.
Released in late July, Austin Powers 3 opened to $73 million in its first domestic weekend. Back then that was staggering for a comedy. And frankly, it’s staggering for a comedy right now. The debut marked a 75 percent increase from Austin Powers in the Spy Who Shagged Me’s bow three summers earlier when that second picture premiered to $17.98 million in the shadow of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999). But more than just dollars and cents, the popularity of Myers’ shagalicious routine as Austin was so extreme that the third picture acted as a veritable who’s who of Hollywood A-lister cameos.
During the threequel’s opening sequence, we see Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow, Steven Spielberg, Danny DeVito, and Kevin Spacey (that aged well) all make glitzy applause line walk-ons. Even Britney Spears showed up long enough to help Myers retread the “fembot” gag from the first movie.
Generally speaking, it’s that recycled joke with Spears which speaks to why Goldmember has aged the worst of the three Austin Powers movies. Whereas the first picture, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) felt like an inspired, if still lowbrow, homage to ‘60s Bondmania, by the time Goldmember rolled around, Myers and director Jay Roach were just rehashing the best bits from the first two movies to diminishing results. But it sure looked fancy with Beyoncé as a co-lead—which, again, underlines how beloved these movies were in their day.
1960s Nostalgia Is On the Decline
While simply looking at the Austin Powers movies by themselves, their particular appeal always had a specific shelf life. For like the Back to the Future movies before them in the 1980s, and Stranger Things when it premiered in 2016, Austin Powers benefitted from the 30-year nostalgia pendulum.
As an academically proven phenomenon, mass cultural nostalgia tends to heighten and reach critical mass for an “era” or time period about every 30 years after the fact. Presumably this ties into generational turnover, with adults becoming new parents and being eager to introduce to their children the things they loved growing up.
Clever storytellers and shrewd media companies have long exploited that by “reimagining” old popular iconography. Hence why Marty McFly traveled back to his parents’ literal high school youth during the 1950s in 1985’s Back to the Future, as well as why folks are so eager to disappear down ‘80s rabbit holes with backwards-looking projects like Stranger Things or Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) novel that spawned a 2018 Spielberg movie. More recently, studios have even realized it might make more sense to simply exhume old intellectual property without serious repackaging; thus new Ghostbusters or Star Wars movies.
Austin Powers was part of that trend with Myers writing the International Man of Mystery screenplay as a love letter to the types of movies his English father showed him growing up: Sean Connery’s James Bond flicks released between 1962 and 1971; Michael Caine in The Ipcress File (1965); and the Beatles’ swinging London adventures in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965).
Whatever you think of the overall Austin Powers fad, the opening titles scene of the original film remains a tour de force in cheeky nostalgia told from a sideways glance. Acting as a blender of all three of the above mentioned properties, Myers’ uber-groovy superspy Austin Powers is introduced with the swagger and occupation of Connery’s Bond, the paradoxically bespectacled masculinity of Caine’s Harry Palmer, and a lifestyle equivalent to the Beatles in a fantasy version of swinging London that intentionally recreates the opening moments of A Hard Day’s Night. Fashionable mod squad dressers in London’s trendy Soho and Mayfair districts absolutely lose their minds for Austin’s “secret” agent, swarming him like he’s a mop-top rock star before joining him in a choreographed dance routine. When scored to the undeniably swinging music of Quincy Jones—a composer and jazz musician who came up during the ‘50s and ‘60s—it’s irresistible.
It’s also nostalgic for an era that is now far removed from our current mainstream zeitgeist. The fashion and music of the 1960s will likely never go out of total style, and is still called upon in movies like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho (2022). However, the former of those centered on the 50th anniversary of a gruesome event, with the Sharon Tate murders during the summer of ’69 generally being recognized as the “end of the ‘60s” as a cultural idea. And despite being a superbly made chiller with a great cast, Soho flopped at the box office, perhaps in small part because the “statesmen” of that era were now pushing 80 with actors like Dame Diana Rigg and Rita Tushingham playing grandmotherly roles toward the film’s 20-year-old star (Thomasin McKenzie) as opposed to being the parents, a la Caine’s appearance as Sir Nigel Powers in Goldmember.
James Bond Movies Have Moved Past Austin Powers
Perhaps the biggest compliment to pay the Austin Powers movies is that they changed their primary 007 source material forever. Two years before International Man of Mystery, Pierce Brosnan made a rousing debut as the fictional MI6 secret agent in GoldenEye (1995), which is generally recognized as one of the best in the Bond oeuvre. That film, directed by Martin Campbell, was a great then-modern distillation of the Bond tropes of the previous decades: the gadgets, the one-liners, and even more minute things like Brosnan’s virile Bond still doing things like Connery and Roger Moore’s infamous “judo chops” while fighting Sean Bean’s villain. GoldenEye even continued the questionable tradition of female lead characters being given names that worked as crude double entendres (Xenia Onatopp, anyone?).
The three Austin Powers movies took the piss out of all of that with Myers’ buffoonish secret agent making dad joke-puns until his leading ladies were visibly uncomfortable, and literally calling out the absurdity of his one-hit kills by saying “JUDO CHOP!” every time he slapped someone with his hand. Brosnan never did that physical maneuver again. And while his tenure maintained some of the aforementioned tropes (hello, Dr. Christmas Jones!), it’s notable that his following three films were produced in the same years as the Austin Powers trilogy. Goldmember and Brosnan’s unfortunate swan song in the role, Die Another Day, were both released in 2002. And while Myers announced even then that he was done with Austin and Dr. Evil, the Bond movies apparently were done for a longtime with all of that stuff too.
When the next Bond movie was released four years later, and in a movie also directed by Martin Campbell, 2006’s Casino Royale was about a million miles away from anything that could be confused with Austin Powers. Daniel Craig’s Bond was a broken, tragic man who’s more inclined to brood into his martinis than smirk; his first several villains were as blandly low-stakes as most of Brosnan’s baddies were “takeover/destroy the world” Dr. Evil big. And by the time Dr. Evil’s original inspiration was finally introduced nearly a decade later in Spectre (2015), Blofeld was played by a Christoph Waltz with a luscious mane of hair and a desire for nothing greater than to control the world’s already existing various surveillance states for his own little schemes.
Can a Comedy Ever Dominate the Zeitgeist Again?
At the end of the day, the biggest hurdle preventing comedies like the Austin Powers movies from dominating the zeitgeist again is the fact that comedies themselves appear no longer capable of doing so unless they’re wedded to a larger (and more stifling) intellectual property.
The brand of comedy Myers reveled in of course met its sunset well before the current death of the Hollywood studio laughers. As video essayist Patrick H. Willems pointed out in 2020, the Austin Powers flicks came out during the peak time for comedy actors to create larger than life and often cartoonish onscreen characters. In the years leading up to 1997’s International Man of Mystery, Jim Carrey was building a menagerie of strange beasts with Ace Ventura, Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber (1994), and The Mask (1994) while Eddie Murphy had just reinvented himself again as the Nutty Professor. Half of Adam Sandler’s earliest hits were just named after his latest buffoon: Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and the Waterboy. In the years after Goldmember, Will Ferrell would become arguably the most popular comedic leading man in Hollywood by starring in films with subtitles like The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, or simply Elf.
That style of humor began falling out of fashion by the late 2000s when Judd Apatow resurrected the R-rated comedy while directing and/or producing raunchy, foul-mouthed laughers that tended to rely on improvisational and slightly more grounded scenarios… which seemed to always come down to white man-children stuck in twentysomething arrested development learning to appreciate the power of friendship.
Still those types of movies, or the more out-and-out fratboy renaissance in pictures like The Hangover (2009), maintained the popularity of studio comedies as a viable genre and paved the way for perhaps more transgressive and cleverer efforts like 2011’s Bridesmaids.
Which is why it’s so odd that the studio comedy has largely seemed to vanish from the multiplex. Unlike, say, the death of the Western or the original Hollywood musical during the 1960s and early ‘70s, there’s no one flop or string of them to point to as the turning point either. Instead it seems, much like the mid-budget drama and the more benign romantic comedy, all studio comedies were abandoned by studios seeking to maximize profits for corporate shareholders via the release of more superhero movies and similar genre fare built around fanboy-love for old intellectual property.
There are exceptions of course, like 2018’s Game Night, but for every modest sleeper hit like that there are seemingly three more Booksmarts (2019), sharp, hilarious, and well-reviewed laughers generally produced by indie studios that die in theaters and maybe find an audience on streaming. Indeed, streaming increasingly has become the home for comedy stars who were once Myers’ contemporaries, such as Sandler in Netflix fare like Hubie Halloween (2020) or Apatow’s most recent directorial effort, last spring’s The Bubble. But if you watched those Netflix releases… you probably also noticed they were both awful.
Ultimately, when we live in a time where comedy is now mostly treated as shovel content by streaming services, it seems impossible for one to ever capture the zeitgeist again—certainly not to the point where Steven Spielberg deems it worthy enough to cameo in the sequel.