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Holy Hell! Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery Turns 20

Holy Hell! Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery Turns 20

Viewed through a 2017 lens, Austin Powers makes one realize how, unlike its cryogenically-preserved hero, most blockbuster comedies simply don’t age well.

A spy-film spoof starring a Canadian comedian as a walking caricature from ‘60s-era Swinging London would fit right into a time capsule of late-‘90s America. Released in the middle of the blissful decade after the Cold War and before the 9/11 attacks, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery premiered in an era when the threat of nuclear war had faded into the rearview and a terrorist mastermind could be depicted as a bumbling supervillain who operates without extremist political or religious motives. It arrived at the height of the catchphrase comedies of the ‘90s, when Mike Myers’ fellow SNL alums Chris Farley and Adam Sandler were striking lowbrow comedy gold by sputtering nonsense like “Holy Schnikes!” and “Stop looking at me swan!” and fellow Canadian Jim Carrey was talking out of his butt.

Using the conceit of Austin Powers, a renowned spy and unlikely lothario, cryogenically freezing himself in order to fight another day against his nemesis, Dr. Evil (also Myers), who had done the same, the film most directly parodies James Bond, even though Austin possesses little of 007’s sophistication, dignity or physical allure. Instead, the running joke in this film is that the fur-chested, crooked-toothed boor of a spy is nevertheless irresistible to women. There’s rich material to be mined out of the three-decade gap since Austin was frozen, with someone from the ‘60s likely experiencing plenty of culture shock, but the film instead remains content to only casually touch upon that aspect when it’s not dwelling on lengthy urination sequences and Austin’s embarrassment at reclaiming his Swedish-made penis enlarger.

When he’s paired with Agent Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley), the daughter of his old partner, Austin is seemingly faced with the fact that times have changed in regards to how men are expected to treat women. But not really. Despite a few initial qualms, Vanessa mostly takes his overt sexual harassment in stride, eventually falling in love with him, and the only real difference for Austin in the ‘90s is the buzzkill of STD awareness creating the expectation to wear a rubber when he bangs strangers, a precaution he nevertheless forgoes when he shags Pussy Galore-parody Alotta Fagina (Fabiana Udenio) in a hot tub.

In fact, one of the aspects of Austin Powers that has most clearly taken on a different light in the 20 years since the film’s release is its cavalier attitude toward sexual aggression, making overt horniness by a man in a position of power into a punchline. Some of this obviously stems from the spy films it spoofs, where misogyny and sexual conquest were as standard-issue as a firearm, but it’s difficult to imagine a similarly high-profile film being made with the same lighthearted tone toward the subject today (even when we currently have a president who has bragged about sexual assault). There are a few other outdated gags, like a fez-wearing Will Ferrell briefly appearing in brownface as Dr. Evil’s Middle Eastern henchman, Mustafa, who is soon “very badly burned” by his boss—though I suppose you can still find similar culturally insensitive material in modern-day Adam Sandler flicks.

Twenty years later, Dr. Evil endures as a far more comical entity than Austin Powers himself. While Myers incessantly mugs for the camera as each character, Dr. Evil’s ineptitude and outright absurdity still carries some comedic weight, while Austin’s shtick has worn thin in the past two decades. Dr. Evil is made all the more dynamic as a comedic character by the revelation that he has a son, Scott (Seth Green), who was conceived using frozen sperm so that the supervillain could leave a genetic legacy in the event that the whole cryogenic-preservation-in-outer-space deal went south. In hating his deadbeat dad for not being there when he was growing up, and otherwise just wanting to hang out in his room, Scott acts as a real-world foil to the cartoonish lunacy of Dr. Evil’s malevolent operation. Scott even chimes in as the voice of reason when his cat-petting, finger-wagging father captures Austin and decides to “place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.”

Dr. Evil’s own struggles with adjusting to the 30-year gap since he froze himself also remain more amusing than Austin’s, as he memorably threatens to blow up the world with “liquid hot magma” for the paltry ransom of “one million dollars.” But the film again feels dated when he spitballs villainous ideas to frame Prince Charles for adultery or to poke a hole in the ozone layer, two things that, unbeknownst to him, had already happened while he was in the deep freeze. Princess Diana would die later that year, instantly dating a joke that didn’t make much sense in the first place (frozen since the ‘60s, how would Dr. Evil know Prince Charles was married?), and ozone layer jokes seem positively quaint in the age of rampant climate change.

Where Austin perpetually feels like a kooky character shoehorned into a James Bond role, Dr. Evil is a far more genuine parody. Not only does he mimic the appearance and eccentricities of a famous Bond villain, but his voice is a spot-on impression of Myers’ former boss, Lorne Michaels. Rife with Bond-film homage and parody—some, like the shoe-throwing Asian hitman character Random Task (Joe Son) stepping in for the hat-tossing Oddjob, acting as near carbon-copies of their source material—the characters and comedy clearly had a shorter shelf life than those found on Wayne’s World, which still resonates on many levels. But in 1997, Austin Powers would strike enough of a chord to spawn two sequels, with Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me grossing five times as much as its predecessor and introducing the term “Mini-Me” into the pop cultural lexicon. Whether you still hold a soft spot for this shagadelic film is up to you; but viewed through a 2017 lens, Austin Powers makes one realize how, unlike its cryogenically-preserved hero, most blockbuster comedies simply don’t age well.

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