The Ridiculous, Groovy Fun of Austin Powers

When I was growing up, I only knew about a handful of classic films, such as The Wizard of Oz and Holiday Inn. Without the classics, my tastes ranged from Disney to the Harry Potter franchise to comedies starring people like Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, and Owen Wilson. I still love many of these movies; in fact, watching them can sometimes feel like my own personal time travel. For example, every time I see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on TV, I think of the time my sister and I excitedly learned that my mom bought the movie on VHS. The same thing happens with Austin Powers in Goldmember. I can still picture my dad, my sister, and I going to a car wash before we headed to the theater. We couldn't wait to see the latest Austin Powers movie and it didn't disappoint us.

It's appropriate that I go back in time watching Austin Powers and Co. considering that the series deals with time travel itself. In the first film, we're transported to 1967 as Austin Powers (Myers), a British Intelligence spy, escapes yet another assassination attempt by his nemesis Dr. Evil (Myers). When the villain gets away and cryogenically freezes himself, Austin decides to be placed into cryostasis for when Dr. Evil returns in the future. That future comes thirty years later in 1997. Unfrozen, Austin finds himself in an unfamiliar world as he adjusts to everything that happened while he was gone. With his new partner Vanessa (Elizabeth Hurley) by his side, Austin must prevent Dr. Evil's plans of world domination.

This formula generally stays the same for the next two films. In The Spy Who Shagged Me, Austin teams up with American agent Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham) when Dr. Evil builds a time machine to return to the 1960s and steals Austin's mojo from his frozen body as a way to keep Austin from stopping his latest plans. Goldmember sees Austin traveling to 1975 after learning that Dr. Evil has gone there to retrieve the vile Goldmember (Meyers again) for his latest scheme. Things turn personal when Dr. Evil kidnaps Austin's father, former spy Nigel Powers (Michael Caine).

Years later, when I revisited the Mike Myers series, I was happy to see that my fond memories were justified. These movies were still as outrageous, silly, and hilarious as I remembered them. And yet sometimes I feel guilty for adoring them. A lot of people trash Austin Powers, particularly its "schoolboy humor" and adolescent behavior. I agree that there are some regrettable aspects (Fat Bastard, anyone?), but there are many things that I genuinely love, especially now that I'm a classic film fan.

That last statement probably seems pretty bizarre. But Austin Powers is nothing if not an ode to the spy films of the '60s. The series's most obvious influence is James Bond -- there is a new female lead every film; the eponymous spy is a charismatic ladykiller; there are memorable and over-the-top villains as well as cool gadgets; the titles The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember are clear deviations of The Spy Who Loved Me and Goldfinger. Mike Myers himself said "Austin Powers is out of pure love for James Bond." I can't even begin to write down all of the Bond allusions the Powers series makes -- the first film alone is filled with 'em.

Of course, Myers wasn't the only one inspired by the chic British agent. Shortly after Sean Connery began ordering his martinis shaken and not stirred, spies were all the rage. On the small screen, you had shows like Mission: Impossible, Get Smart, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Studios, meanwhile, were trying to find the next Bond-sized blockbuster by churning out stylish action thrillers. Many of these projects provided material for star and writer Mike Myers, co-writer Michael McCullers, and director Jay Roach. The following list is just a smattering of the references and connections I've noticed:

Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley) was said to be based on The Avengers's Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). They even wear similar leather outfits.

Austin's thick black glasses come from Michael Caine's character Harry Palmer, who starred in five films, starting with The Ipcress File. The Palmer movies are basically the grittier, less glamorous cousins to the Bond movies.

Austin's cover job as a fashion photographer was a feature of Dean Martin's spy Matt Helm. For four films, Martin played Helm, imbuing him with his smooth-talking, boozy persona. The series was intended as a Bond spoof and focused more on style rather than substance. Ironically enough, the Bond films of the '70s wound up following this same pattern.

The Fembots from Austin Powers were probably inspired by Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, a sequel to the nonsensical and delightful Vincent Price vehicle Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.

In The Spy Who Shagged Me, Austin and Vanessa watch In Like Flint, which he calls his favorite movie. In Like Flint was a sequel to Our Man Flint, both of which starred James Coburn as the ultra-cool Derek Flint. The two-film series parodied Bond by turning everything up to an 11. Flint, for instance, has crazy qualifications, including five Olympic medals, degrees from 17 different universities, a black belt in Judo, and the ability to speak fluently in 45 languages and dialects. He also creates all of his own insane gadgets. I must admit that I found the idea of Coburn as Flint kind of funny, but it's actually a perfect fit. Nobody could play calm and collected like him.

The Austin Powers movies often mined other pop culture from the 1960s and 1970s:

Going back to Austin's photographer job, there is a moment in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery that is a direct reference to Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, an iconic '60s flick.

The first scene of International Man of Mystery was inspired by the beginning of A Hard Day's Night, where the Beatles are being chased by screaming fans.

Some of the editing and gags seem to be influenced by the popular but sadly short-lived TV show The Monkees. This is particularly evident in Goldmember when Austin performs the song "Daddy Wasn't There." The scene recalls the music video-like interludes The Monkees indulged in.

Beyoncé's Goldmember character Foxxy Cleopatra is straight from a '70s blaxploitation film.

Here's a fun fact: Jim Carrey was supposed to play Dr. Evil, but there were scheduling conflicts. Although Myers hadn't intended to play more than one character when they began making the first movie, he stepped into the role of the villain and later portrayed Fat Bastard and Goldmember as well. All of these multiple parts remind me of the versatile Peter Sellers, who was one of Myers's heroes.

My favorite reference Austin Powers makes doesn't come from the '60s or '70s, but rather earlier than that. In the title sequence for The Spy Who Shagged Me, there is a great moment where they allude to Esther Williams as Austin does some synchronized swimming and emerges from a pool just like Esther did in many of her films.

When it comes to casting, Austin Powers chose very wisely. Michael York is hilarious as the aptly-named Basil Exposition, the British Intelligence officer who is Austin's handler and friend. As Dr. Evil's #2, Robert Wagner's dry delivery is superb, and it's funny to see Rob Lowe as the young #2. All of Myers's leading ladies -- Elizabeth Hurley, Heather Graham, and Beyoncé -- are terrific, although I must admit Hurley is my favorite of the three. The greatest casting the series did, however, was Michael Caine as Austin's father in Goldmember. Spoofing his own Swinging London image, Caine is hysterical. (For more on this, come back in a few days for my entry to the Marvelous Michael Caine Blogathon.)

When it comes to Austin Powers, it's easy to remember the things that have become part of the fabric of our pop culture: the many catchphrases, characters like Dr. Evil and Mini-Me, Quincy Jones's "Soul Bossa Nova" as the theme music... But that doesn't mean we should dismiss the films as just a series of dumb jokes that only 12-year-old boys will like. Some of the sight gags are startlingly clever, and much of the dialogue and situations are great fun. When I was younger, I loved these movies because they were made me laugh until my sides hurt. Now I love them because they pay tribute to a bygone era in a brilliant and madcap way. And let's face it, they still make me giggle, too.


This is my contribution to the Time Travel Blogathon, hosted by Wide Screen World and Silver Screenings. Check out the other entries here.


  1. You hadda mention that AUSTIN POWERS was part of your childhood, didn't you... ((sighs as he shuffles away on his walker))

    But seriously, I like these films too. I remember recognizing some of the references to older films the first time around. It's definitely a big part of why they're fun to watch.

    Thanks for joining us.

    1. Haha, sorry! If it helps, I live with my 18-year-old niece and she constantly makes me feel old. Six years shouldn't make that much difference, but it really does.

      Thanks for having me!

  2. I agree totally. It is Myers love of the things he is spoofing that make these movies classic.

    1. Glad you agree! I'm happy that I didn't outgrow these films -- instead I learned how to appreciate them in a different way. You couldn't ask for anything more than that!

  3. Part of my childhood too, same with Harry Potter :)

    I think Austin Powers is funnier than I feel I should about that type of comedy :P

    1. I know what you mean! This series has a certain reputation thanks to its occasional lowbrow humor, but there is a lot of witty stuff, too!

      Thanks for reading!

  4. I was glad to hear that the Austin Powers re-watch in adulthood lived up to its memory in childhood.

    It's been a while since I've seen any of the Austin P. movies, and wowee! LOOK at all those references to 1960s films. Fabulous! I think I need to revisit the series just to take notes.

    Also, I love, LOVE that gif you posted at the end.

    Thank you for joining the blogathon and bringing that crazy Austin Powers with you.

    1. It was my pleasure! I almost had to drop out, but I just love this series so much, I forced myself to make time for this post.

      I see an Austin Powers marathon in your future! I'm sure there are many more references I didn't pick up on. The Bond ones alone are enough to make your head spin.

      I love that gif, too! I was happy to find it. I keep watching it with a big smile on my face.


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