Portraying and defining masculinity is a concept that society perpetuates through various mediums, with cinema being a primary example. This sample comparative essay explores the worlds of spy-cinema. James Bond and Austin Powers reflect two very different takes on gender masculinity, with the former showcasing a professional, suave take on manhood and the latter showing a more humorous approach. As a result, have had a substantial impact on modern culture.
James Bond and Austin Powers: A cinematic dissection
James Bond has helped define masculinity for several generations of people around the world. His physique, wit and charm are some of many traits which began to reinforce the fictitious character as society’s most interesting man. With immediate success at the box office came longevity; soon after Sean Connery played 007 in Dr. No, the Bond franchise quickly went on pace to become the highest grossing movie franchise of all time.
In 1997, after dozens of Bond films were made, comedian Mike Meyers released the beginning of the Austin Powers series. Armed with an intention to humorously parody the Bond films, Meyers’s satirical take on some of the absurdities of the classic spy franchise garnered him worldwide fame. In this paper, we will compare and contrast several James Bond films with the Austin Powers franchise, articulating the critical and cultural receptions of the two films, as well as highlighting their differences in aesthetics, politics and diplomacy, interpretation of gender roles, and sociocultural influence.
Although the Austin Powers series was sparked and shaped by the success of the Bond films, Meyers’s films do not rely on their original counterpart to make the deep philosophical comments on the Bond character many critics would hope for in a satire. However, they do bring some of the many issues that can be taken with the James Bond films to light, and regardless of intention, these issues can be dissected through a cultural and critical examination of the two films.
Amplification of Enjoyment
Since the first Bond movies in the franchise were released, the series has always had an affinity for portraying the protagonist as the “coolest” or most interesting man in the world, amplifying the entertainment one could obtain from going to the movies. To satirically cast Austin Powers in a humorous light in first film of Meyers’s series, The International Man of Mystery, Austin’s eldest mistress claims that,
‘“women wanted to be with him and men wanted to be him”’
exemplifying the writer/actor’s desire to portray himself as a comedic interpretation of the film legend (Meyers 11:23).
While James Bond had humble beginnings in the pages of Ian Fleming’s gripping novels, the films had immediate success; the first three of the franchise, Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger, have been universally accepted as some of, if not the best Bond movies ever made. Even Bond producers have stated that the action scenes in Goldfinger in particular were well ahead of their time and extremely engaging.
This was a trend that was broken in the Bond films of the 1970s and 1980s with Roger Moore at the helm of the series; however, regained in the last decade of the series’ rebirth. While this paper will focus more on the Bond films that were satirically examined by Austin Powers and not the most recent movies that have made the transition to appear more realistic, we will later divulge into the aftermath the Austin Powers films and the film-conscious community may have had on the Bond franchise.
The first movies in the Bond franchise immediately received great reviews from both film critics and casual viewers looking to be entertained alike. The recently departed Roger Ebert even went as far as to say that
“of all the Bonds, Goldfinger is the best, and can stand as a surrogate for the others,”
in a review of the film (Ebert 1999). Moreover the acclaimed film critic also suggested that,
“the film is founded on a fundamental absurdity, [but] it is great entertainment” (Ebert 1999).
With this “absurdity” in mind, it is quite easy to see how a parody film and franchise could be made to satirize James Bond as its premise is over the top to say the least.
The fact that Bond was characterized as the most perfect “man” in contemporary literature yet was also portrayed in a realistic global setting gave way to criticism that the film unintentionally (or even implicitly) set the standard for masculinity and power as a Western, Caucasian male. While this is something we will visit later in this research paper, it is prudent to note that the Austin Powers films may not have simply intended to satirize Fleming’s character humorously, but rather make a larger point about the “absurdity,” of his character. Later Connery starred in Thunderball as well as a few other Bond movies. While these were not nearly as acclaimed by viewers as his past films, they were still treated with a high level of respect, considered to be impressive from a technological standpoint as well.
Advertising as a commodity
Advertising also became a commodity in which Bond producers used to increase revenue and fame from the worldwide production. As Christopher Linder states,
“the 1960s witnessed, for the first time, a significantly widespread use of the figure of Bond in advertising and design” (22).
The Austin Powers trilogy also takes this into account; in International Man of Mystery, the first film in the franchise, Mike Meyers’s character, Powers, is a medium from which advertisers across the world use to market their product (Roach 1997).
This addition to the satirical films was likely done to demonstrate the rather aggressive use of product placement (a new phenomenon which was sweeping through the entertainment industry at the initial time of Bond’s first success) in the Bond franchise, again helping to label the seemingly “realistic” figure and his stories as nothing more than a product with a means to sell audiences. It is interesting to note that this facet of the James Bond franchise has still made its way into contemporary films.
In Skyfall, Bond drinks Heineken beer instead of his usual martini (which in and of itself suggests a more aggressive effort to market other products in the films due to the figure’s marketability) (Medes 2012). This is just one aspect of the film that was satirically visited in International Man of Mystery and other films in the Austin Powers trilogy; however, it highlights that while the intention to bring about these critiques of the Bond films may not have stemmed from a desire to make a larger commentary about film advertising, the comedic trilogy can still spark questions about certain aspects of the Bond movies that can lead to interesting and informative discourse.
While the satirical elements of Austin Powers may have garnered much information from the Connery films, they seem to most heavily rely on the more poorly done and excessively tacky Bond films of the next generation. That’s not to say they weren’t excellent entertainment in their own; Some consider Moore’s earlier work to be great. Only a decade after the great Sean Connery took the screen as James Bond, he was replaced by Roger Moore. Mootr took on the role for the longest period of time as any actor to date, performing in the most movies as well. Overall, Moore’s Bond films were considered somewhat mediocre.
While there were hits such as The Man with the Golden Gun and Live and Let Die, the Bond franchise faced perpetual failure after Moonraker and Octopussy. Distraught by the lack of success, Bond reached out to redefine itself. In a new era, actor Pierce Brosnan begin to star in the Bond films. At first, he fit the role very well. Critics stated that he brought a more suave appearance to the films, different from the hard-nosed Connery and lackadaisical Moore, or Timothy Dalton for that matter.
Goldeneye, Brosnan’s first take at the role of James Bond, was quite successful; grossing over $350,000,000 it was considered a rebirth of the franchise that had been hampered by mediocrity. Yet such success was short-lived. At the end of Brosnan’s stint as Bond, he was considered too old to continue. Brosnan serves as my main point of comparison between Austin Powers as his first films came out just before Meyers moved forward with his project.
Satire of “Austin Powers”
Our current conception of James Bond may not prove fruitful in identifying the satire of the Austin Powers trilogy; however, it is prudent to dissect the job that the current Bond, Daniel Craig, has done portraying the iconic figure. Starting in 2005 with the release of Casino Royale, Craig has brought substance and complexity to the character. Differing from his fellow Bond counterparts, Craig was a “realistic” spy, hard-nosed and battered (Mendes 2013). Obviously Craig was working with great directors as well. Sam Mendes, the director of the now most successful Bond movie of all time, Skyfall, provided a palate from which Craig could truly expand his acting potential.
The reasons for the improvement of the last several films do not just stem from Craig and Mendes, of course. Twenty-first century technological achievements have made it far more possible to more accurately illustrate fictions stories. The superhero craze that first began with the release of Spiderman in 2002 sparked a whole new approach to filmmaking; now, even fictional stories could be created in a realistic way, a way that made it far more difficult to satirize than before. It is interesting to note that shortly after this new style of filmmaking began, Meyers stopped working on his trilogy altogether. While it is difficult to tell if this was due to the new cinematic achievements the Bond films were making, it is certainly a provocative thought.
On a more important note pertaining to this dissection of James Bond and Austin Powers, Craig’s Bond films are not nearly as tacky and amusing as those that provided Meyers with his stories, and seem far more challenging to satirize as the Bond films from the past. This paper will focus largely on Brosnan and Moore’s portrayal of Bond, as through critical analysis, they provided the Powers series with the majority of its satirical anecdotes. Later, however,we will also return to the newest installments of the Bond franchise to critique how its producers have pivoted to help gross more revenue at the box office and create a better, more critically acclaimed version of Bond.
Birth of Austin Powers
The Austin Powers trilogy began in 1997 with International Man of Mystery. The next film in the trilogy, The Spy Who Shagged Me, was quite clearly a more literal satirical take on the Roger Moore film, The Spy Who Loved Me. At its first attempt at satire, International Man of Mystery clearly had a lot to work with; Moore’s performance as well as the movie itself was considered to be one of the worst in the franchise’s long history.
For Meyers, the task became quite simple: take the absurdities of James Bond as a character and poke fun at his caricature. Yet the action in his films also serve as an implicit commentary on the sociocultural and political ideologies that are honed and perpetuated by the Bond films. In these instances, it is clear that Meyers and his team intended to satirically portray James Bond for all of his flaws and his irreconcilable treatment of women, racially diverse minorities, and political diplomats and shady international leaders.
Parody of Current Issues?
Thus, the Austin Powers series seems to avoid a deliberate parody of specific themes or moments in the series. Instead, it serves as more of a satirical trilogy bent on poking fun at James Bond’s portrayal in many of the films. But there are also some serious concepts discussed in the Powers films, and while these archetypes may not seem like they are a part of a larger puzzle, they are far deeper than the casual viewer may think. For example, the topic of gender equality is discussed in the Powers films. In every Bond film of the franchise, James plays a very overbearing and dominant male figure. His female counterparts, on the other hand, are often docile, unintelligent, and submissive.
While this has changed as a result of a more politically and socially conscious society, there are still hints of this outstanding ideology in many Bond films. In Goldfinger, Shirley Eaton plays Jill Masterson, a woman with whom Connery has a physical relationship with before being brutally murdered by the film’s main antagonist, Auric Goldfinger. The other female lead in the movie, Pussy Galore (whose name alone serves as a humbling reminder of the often sexist portrayal of women in the Bond franchises), was actually somewhat of a stronger character.
Yet regardless of her independence (she was not as bound to implicit gender roles of the time as her peers who appeared in the films), Galore still comes across as submissive to Bond; he often grabs her inappropriately and comes onto her in ways that contemporary society may find unappealing. These examples serve to highlight that many of the Bond women were stereotyped to the highest degree and did not actively appear as strong female characters.
The Powers trilogy takes this imagery to a very sharp, satirical level. In every film of the trilogy, the leading female protagonist, such as Beyoncé Knowles in Goldmember, is a sharper, witty version of her male counterpart. Regardless of Meyers’s intention, this reversal of roles offers discourse on Bond’s treatment of women, as Austin Powers himself is a weak male lead without the personal characteristics of dominance and masculinity that so aptly appear for James Bond.
Meyers, known for having somewhat progressive political ideologies and beliefs, may have wanted to convey the Bond franchise’s deliberate outcast of its female leads, all of which are secondary to the male protagonist by writing such strong female characters to prove his own character out of touch and fairly stubborn.
Treatment of ethnic minorities
Moreover, the Austin Powers trilogy also may have tackled another serious subject matter in the Bond franchise: its treatment of ethnically diverse people as villains. There is little debate that Bond creator Ian Fleming was not the most accepting individual; many stories have been written about his somewhat racist ideologies. In Live and Let Die for example, Bond encounters dozens of black villains.
Yet it is not simply their skin color that raises questions, but rather their portrayal. These individuals are socially “weird,” and would likely be considered and grouped as “others.” For example, nearly every black person in the film, regardless of their regional location, participate in voodoo, snake charming, and rely on tarot cards for information (Hamilton 1973). In another Bond film, A View to a Kill, Grace Jones stars as May Day, an extremely exotic and tall black woman who accompanies the film’s main antagonist, Christopher Walken, throughout many of his endeavors.
In typical Bond fashion, May Day is extremely orientalized in the fashion that Edward Said would consider to be damaging to minorities (Glen 1985). Jones portrays her character as a villainous outsider, someone who would be deemed out of place in modern Western society. Just like Jaws, the horrendously ugly villain who appeared in some of Moore’s prior films, May Day also gives the impression that she is not of Western civilization because of her exoticism, further exemplifying that many Bond villains appear on screen as “foreign,” even when they reside in the United States or United Kingdom.
Racism in Film
This perception of African-Americans and blacks as a whole is alarming, but is just one episode in many that emphasize the Bond producers’ and writers’ intention to characterize the villains in their films as out of place in “civilized” society. The casual viewer may likely have also noted that the scenes in which these people appear in Live and Let Die and A View to a Kill take place in Louisiana, New York City, San Francisco and other Western states.
This may give the perception that black people and foreigners from even the United States participate in these kinds of strange endeavors. Furthermore, the only black character in the former film who is not an enemy of Bond is the man who steers his ship across the Gulf Coast. This individual is no more than a weak attempt at a sidekick, and Bond himself treats him as if he is a second-class person.
Just how Meyers and the producers took note of this longstanding trend in the Bond movies was quite impressive. They often gave ridiculous and preposterous names to the villains who appeared in the films, including Mustafa, Frau Farbissina, and Patty O’Brien (Roach 1997). These individuals, who were all appear ethnically diverse and from different regions around the globe, typify the normal Bond villain: someone who was out of place and touch with society.
As previously mentioned, there are many negative implications from characterizing villains as such. Many uneducated viewers of the Bond films could leave with the perception that individuals from other continents foreign to the United States and the United Kingdom are “others,” or “bad.” Without getting into a debate over the Bond film’s orientalism, it is fairly clear that the intention to portray the villains in the Austin Powers films as absurdly out of place was not done for simply comedic reaction.
Political satire and government agencies
There is also a political satire of world diplomacy as it appears in the Bond franchise. Prior to the rebirth of the Bond franchise in 2005, previous films did not fully grasp the political world in which they were based in. As such, the Austin Powers movies took note and cast the diplomats in the films as incompetent fools. This was likely done to articulate the absurdity of the Bond films, suggesting that the idea that one man or individual could save the world on a continuous basis is complete nonsense.
In International Man of Mystery, Powers deals with completely inept politicians. Meyers chose to simply incorporate this into his films for mere comedic enjoyment; rather, he was likely intentionally mocking the Bond franchise’s take on the international political arena, which its filmmakers often portrayed as incompetent. The suggestion that this fairly stubborn man, could save the world from disaster was essentially commentary about the absurdity of the notion that a single spy, no matter how talented, could do the same. Agreeing with this point as such, the “realism” that viewers find in the Bond films should be rendered more fictional, and should be viewed more along entertainment purposes more than interest in clandestine government operations.
There is thus also a sense of humor to the satire, some of which does not nearly offer the same commentary as others. The sidekicks are mainly humorous portrayals of those that appear in the Bond films. For example, OddJob, Goldfinger’s sidekick in the film Goldfinger, used his hat as a weapon, throwing it at things like statues and cutting off the heads of people with whom his boss had disagreements with (Hamilton 1964). This individual is allegorically played by a man of similar appearance in International Man of Mystery. Instead of throwing his hat at enemies, however, he throws a shoe, obviously suggesting the absurdity of the villainous OddJob of Goldfinger.
These instances, as well as those that contain another Bond nemesis, Jaws, whose mere size and strength is so great that he can attack enemies by literally biting or gripping them to death, typify a main issue critics and individuals have had with the Bond franchise: its failure to find a place as either entirely fictitious or realistic. Part of that ignorance is truly blissful; Ian Fleming never sought to make larger sociocultural commentary about the world and simply wrote his character with the idea to entertain, not educate. However, the average viewer may have difficulty grasping that although the films are set in contemporary society in as realistic a setting as possible, they are on the whole pure fantasy.
Meyers also mocks the British themselves in fairly amusing ways, using his comedic gifts to again simply bring some of the serious demeanors of Bond and his co-actors and actresses to shame. His appearance and clothing (something that even for its time would be rendered unrealistic and over the top), teeth, and incredibly poor accent was a deliberate attempt to poke fun at the British world in which James Bond resides (Roach 1997).
There are thus many aspects of the parody that were solely intentioned to be humorous, and simply poke fun at some of the many overtly serious mentalities of Bond and the producers of the franchise’s many films. And while the argument could be made that the film as a whole was solely comedic in its interpretation of Bond, the prior arguments illustrate that there is at least a discussion pertaining to the means in which Meyers characterized Austin Powers and his surroundings. The commentary the either unintentionally or implicitly bring about on the Bond films on a political and sociocultural level.
With all of these reasons above, it is quite easy to see why the franchise took a new direction in 2005 with the casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond. While it cannot be proven that Casino Royale producers did so to contrast the satire they had seen in the Austin Powers films, it is very interesting to note that they chose to take the film series in a new direction after the trilogy was complete.
The rebirth included a far more realistic version of Bond than ever before; no longer was he a rather fictitious character dealing with absurd villains with plans and technologies that were nonexistent. Instead, Craig tackled the role with a dose of realism; even the villains and their plans far more plausible than they had in the past. As such, the last three films in the franchise have garnered more critical success than their previous counterparts. Skyfall, a later addition to the Bond franchise, was nominated for best picture by the Academy Awards, and while it did not win the Oscar for best picture, it did gross more money worldwide than any Bond film in history.
Comedic satire as art
The comparisons between James Bond and Austin Powers may at first seem far-reaching and somewhat absurd. To many viewers, the Austin Powers trilogy gives way for only one method of thought: comedic satire. However, as this paper articulates, regardless of whether or not Meyers and the film’s producers intended to critique the Bond films on a political and sociocultural level, their work stands alone as a sharp contrast to the absurdities of the Bond franchise.
Obviously, their work with the comedic films was not intended to simply highlight gender inequality and racism in Ian Fleming’s stories. However, careful examination of the Austin Powers trilogy illustrates that regardless of intention, many topics regarding women, international diplomacy, and race and ethnicity were fleshed out as a result of Meyers’s films being made. As the Bond franchise moves forward, one can expect that it will only continue to expand on the trend of making more realistic films. The villains and plots to the most recent Bond films (despite Quantum of Solace which suffered mediocre reviews) are far more emotionally and psychologically gripping than any of their previous counterparts. In doing so, the Bond figure has slowly garnered a more respected name in both the entertainment industry and social circles.
A View to a Kill. Dir. John Glen. Perf. Roger Moore, 1985. Film.
Ebert, Roger. “Goldfinger.” Great Movies. January 31, 1999: n. pag. Web. Retrieved April 6, 2013, from http://www.rogerebert.com.
Goldfinger. Dir. Guy Hamilton. Perf. Sean Connery, 1964. Film.
The International Man of Mystery. Dir. Jay Roach. Perf Mike Meyers, 1997. Film.
Linder, Christopher. The James Bond Phenomenon. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003. Web.
Live and Let Die. Dir. Guy Hamilton. Perf. Roger Moore, 1973. Film.
Skyfall. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, 2012. Film.