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Does 'Austin Powers' Actually Suck?

Twenty years later, does 'International Man of Mystery' hold up or is it a dated mess?

by Tre Johnson
01 May 2017, 6:34pm

Does It Suck? takes a deeper look at pop cultural artifacts previously adored, unjustly hated, or altogether forgotten, reopening the book on topics that time left behind.

The Austin Powers franchise spanned five years and three movies, beginning 20 years ago with 1997's International Man of Mystery. What followed was 1999's The Spy Who Shagged Me and 2002's Goldmember—movies that grossed nearly $600 million dollars in box office sales and made Myers, already an SNL alum sensation with his Wayne's World sketches and movies, a household name.

International Man of Mystery was built around a formula that continued throughout the series: the libido-driven British spy Powers (Mike Myers) teaming up with a gorgeous woman (Elizabeth Hurley; Heather Graham; Beyoncé) to take down the latest plot by Dr. Evil (also Mike Myers). The series introduced a number of memorable pop-culture characters like "Alotta Fagina," "Fat Bastard," "Random Task," and "Mini-Me." The first film also featured surprising celebrity cameos (a trend that would also continue throughout the series), from stars like Tom Arnold, Carrie Fisher, and Burt Bacharach to a host of bit actors you'd possibly recognize from the 90s, like Larry Thomas (Soup Nazi) and Cindy Margolis.

Looking at the first installment now, you can see why much of the franchise's trappings worked then. For starters, Myers was seemingly at his apex, with the Powers series giving him a fuller arsenal of toys to play with. It's a bright, vibrant movie—the opening included a stretch where Austin Powers dances with local Brits and then is chased, Beatles-style, through the streets by a throng of women.

Much like Powers himself, Myers seems to ignite something in the people around him, and so the movies play with that in-character, out-character charisma. It's part of what makes the tagline "Man of Mystery" rather laughable: Myers and Powers don't leave much to figure out about anything in the movies—the jokes are played straight for their juvenile, puerile, and sometimes imbecile ways, constantly breaking any "adult" tension with an untimely, exaggerated bit of bodily joking. It's a constant and curious theme for a movie whose lead character has such a relentless, voracious sexual appetite, every moment of potential intimacy between Austin and a woman continually undercut with adolescent distraction. This playful dynamic makes the sexual politics of International Man of Mystery all the more bizarre.

His scenes with Hurley's Kensington are equally off-kilter: their sexual encounters punctuated with Powers's mood-killing behavior; exaggerated pin-up style poses on the jumbo jet's rotating bed; later, moments after he literally jumps into Kensington's bed, he pretends to be encased in an imaginary human-size nutshell. By the time playtime is over, Kensington has drifted to sleep, drunk from the champagne. Toward the end of the film, Powers battles the Fembots, the beautiful, lingerie-clad blondes intended to seduce and kill him. Squirmish and squeamish in bed, Powers only feels comfortable again once he's on his feet destroying the Fembots with a series of sexually suggestive moves.

In some ways, this is how Powers intentionally differs from his counterpart James Bond. Bond would have both bedded and murdered (if needed) the women, always preferring the sort of tactile off-and-on intimacy switch that Powers lacks. This is another facet in which fact and fiction begin to blur. In a 1999 Rolling Stone profile on Myers, Kristen Johnston shared the following anecdote about the comedian and his intimacy:

"Jay Roach had to tell her not to grab Myers' ass so explicitly. Johnston, dressed in black lingerie, harrumphed, "It's too much? I'm basically naked. And touching his ass is too much?" It was then that Myers chipped in. "Yes," he said, "it's too much."

"Do I make you horny, baby?" and "Yeah, baby, yeah!" were the sex-positive catch-phrases popularized in the series, and both represent that Powers is more comfortable with wordplay than with foreplay. They're also part of what adds a darker, aged shade to the Powers character: much like Powers's behavior with women throughout the franchise, these phrases represented something entitled and boorish. The franchise always had a "boys will be boys" vibe to it, and his encounters with his trio of female sidekicks and Dr. Evil's female stooges carry an air of sexual entitlement that now feels aggressive instead of just playful.

It went that Powers merely couldn't "help himself" in the presence of beautiful women; his come-ons, touchings and thinly veiled innuendo in the most mundane settings encroached all definitions of decency for everyone but Austin himself. The series also constantly used less "conventionally attractive" women as the butt of the films' humor, with characters like Frau Farbissina and Basil Exposition's mother getting decidedly different treatment that often gets justified. The movies aren't explicitly mean-spirited about this dynamic, but it's there, and they're all the more squeamish when viewed now in country where the sitting president could be summed up in these same terms, in a nutshell.

There's other bits that haven't aged as well, both in terms of Mystery and the series as a whole. Will Ferrell, as the Arab henchman "Mustafa," has darkened skin, appearing in brown face. There's also a pervasive anti-Asian narrative throughout the trilogy—even setting aside the Bond-inspired send-up "Random Task," modeled after the equally ferocious-but-silent Asian henchman "Odd Job" from Goldfinger and toeing the line between homage and tone-deafness. There was also "Mr. Roboto," whose Japanese lines were subtitled against his office's all-white furniture; in Goldmember, Powers runs into Asian twins named "Fook Mi" and "Fook Yu," teenage twins that Powers flirts with at a party, marking an inconspicuous first time in the series that Powers sexually entertains women that don't seem old enough to drink. It's a familiar vehicle not only for Hollywood, but Myers too; his previous franchise Wayne's World, also treated Asians and Asian culture similarly.

In May of last year, Jay Roach was quoted in an Independent article saying that he and Myers are still kicking around ideas for a fourth installment of Austin Powers. It's likely such a project would have to take a lot of its prior universe into consideration if it ever makes it to the silver screen again. The process would likely find itself like its titular hero: slowly thawing out and emerging into a new society.

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