Before the catchphrases (honestly, how many times have you heard “Oh, behave!” in your lifetime?); before the endless impressions you heard from your friends; before the videogames and the other merchandise; before the sequels, there was Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, which came out a whopping 25 years ago.
People forget how much of a silly surprise the first Austin Powers movie was. It certainly wasn’t considered a must-see film during that summer of 1997, which was already jam-packed with much-anticipated titles. Of course, there were the sequels: The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Batman & Robin, Speed 2: Cruise Control (hey, I didn’t say they were good sequels). Will Smith, fresh off of whooping aliens’ asses the summer before in Independence Day, would be policing aliens in the first Men in Black. (This was also the summer that gave us a bald-headed Demi Moore in G.I. Jane. Just saying.) Nicolas Cage headlined two blockbusters: The runaway prison-plane flick Con Air and John Woo’s Face/Off, where he memorably switched kissers with John Travolta. Bruce Willis would go sci-fi in Luc Besson’s futuristic The Fifth Element. Harrison Ford went after terrorists as the President aboard Air Force One. Even James Cameron’s Titanic was originally scheduled as a summer-movie release before it was pushed back to the holiday season.
At the time, people weren’t really that excited for the latest Mike Myers movie. After the less-than-excellent box-office returns of Wayne’s World 2, the former Saturday Night Live star kinda laid low for a few years. (He was also getting a rep as a difficult, distant diva, a rep that’s followed him throughout his whole, post-SNL career.) During that time, he came up with the incessantly flirtatious Powers, originally the frontman for Ming Tea, a faux-mod ‘60s pop band whose members included ex-Bangle Susanna Hoffs and indie rocker Matthew Sweet. (The band would also appear in Powers, performing the song “BBC.”)
Of course, he would go on to write a spy-movie parody where Powers—in-demand photographer by day, swinging secret agent by night—battles archvillain Dr. Evil (also Myers), who looks like Donald Pleasance’s Blofeld from the James Bond movies and sounds like Myers’s former SNL boss Lorne Michaels. It’s practically public knowledge that not only is Myers impersonating Michaels, but he’s actually doing an impression of his Wayne’s World co-star Dana Carvey’s impression of Michaels. Hell, Myers wasn’t even the first Canadian to do a character based on Michaels on-screen. A year before Powers, Mark McKinney played a pharmaceutical-company head who was an obvious Michaels doppelgänger in Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy.
Both Powers and Evil are some ridiculously funny creations, the bumbling, unhip, uncouth flip sides of Bond and Blofeld. Powers literally chases Evil from 1967 to 1997, when Evil gets cryogenically unfrozen to continue his world-dominating plans and Powers follows suit to stop him. They spend most of the movie trying to adjust to the times, with the always-horny Powers discovering he can’t shag every gal he sees and Evil learning that you can’t steal nuclear warheads for a paltry million-dollar ransom anymore.
Working with a young director named Jay Roach (who would go on to direct the sequels, the Meet the Parents/Fockers movies and the Oscar-winning Bombshell), Myers crafted a gleefully kitschy valentine to the swinging ‘60s, right down to the groovy fashions and classy songs from Burt Bacharach, who appears in a cameo. James Bond and the cucumber-cool spy knockoffs that character inspired weren’t the only swaggerific things Myers was targeting. Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night also get referenced. As for all the innuendo, double entendres and cheeky, ribald humor that Myers unleashes in this film, those hearken back to such Brit-comedy institutions as Benny Hill and the Carry On movies. It’s also a tribute to Myers’ Liverpool-born father, who passed away in 1991 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Back in Myers’ younger days, it was his dad who introduced him to British comedy, hipping him to everything from The Goon Show to the Pythons.
Powers practically slid into theaters in that first weekend of May, where its only competition were the Kurt Russell thriller Breakdown and Truth or Consequences, N.M., another Tarantino knockoff directed by and starring Kiefer Sutherland. While Breakdown took the top spot that weekend, Powers was right behind it, taking in $9.5 million. It became a quiet little sleeper, as the $16.5 million comedy grossed $67 million worldwide. It eventually found a mass audience when it hit home video, when people could just pop a VHS copy into their VCRs and watch the lunacy over and over again.
Of course, the video success of Powers led to New Line Cinema, the movie’s distributor, realizing it had some bankable IP on its hands. Two sequels were made: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me in 1999 and Austin Powers in Goldmember (featuring a young Beyoncé Knowles in her big-screen debut) in 2002. And while they were global hits, both making over $250 million worldwide, they seemed more like nonsensical cash grabs, complete with time-travel storylines that brazenly made no logical sense, flabby dick jokes and shameless product placement tie-ins.
There has been talk of a fourth sequel since the mid-’00s. But even if Myers returns for what is now considered a legacy sequel, the first movie will forever be the goofy gold standard. It still remains a joyful jolt of zaniness, a randy response to the James Bond films, which were already inching towards self-parody. (Daniel Craig once remarked how the 007 films he starred in were ultra-serious because of the playful damage Myers did to the escapist Bond brand: “We had to destroy the myth because Mike Myers fucked us.”)
“I had no idea that anybody would respond to Austin Powers at all,” Myers told the Baltimore Sun in 1999. “I thought it was one universal in-joke that no one would get—because they didn’t grow up in my house.” For a brief moment in the late ‘90s, before it became the jump-off point for another massive, summer-movie franchise, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery did seem like a cool, shagadelic secret that was tucked in multiplexes—a fun, frivolous romp amidst the big-budgeted summer tentpoles.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.