No Time to Die marked the definitive end of Daniel Craig‘s tenure as James Bond. His five-film run began in 2006 with Casino Royale, a still electrifying movie that brought Bond down to the real world from the light-hearted, rather silly realm of his predecessor, Pierce Brosnan. Craig’s Bond arrived at a time where mainstream, blockbuster cinema took a hard pivot into seriousness. From The Bourne Identity to Batman Begins, action films were concerned with creating a world of plausibility, where every possible outlandish element could be backed up by pseudo-practicality and tactility. For Bond, this meant limiting the gadgets and one-liners, replacing fun travelog elements with deep character drama, and morphing Bond from a Lothario into a blunt instrument. The gambit paid off, and many see Craig as the best actor to ever take up the 007 moniker.
The tonal change in the mid-2000s was a necessary one, though not just because they wanted to fit in the overall direction of blockbuster moviemaking. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson needed to escape a specter, if you will, that had really ripped apart the franchise for nearly a decade prior to the release of Casino Royale. That specter was the James Bond spoof created by Mike Myers in 1997, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. That film and its two sequels, The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember, so thoroughly made fun of every trope of the Bond series and left such an indelible impression on the public that watching a James Bond film without seeing some hint of Austin Powers inside of it became nearly impossible. Daniel Craig even said of why they chose the direction they did, “We had to destroy the myth because Mike Myers fucked us.”
As the film turns 25 in 2022, many may not realize what a colossal pop-cultural force Austin Powers was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The crushed velvet-suited, glasses-wearing secret agent was inescapable. Everyone and their mom did impressions of Powers and his arch-rival, Dr. Evil. Nearly every line became part of the popular lexicon. School kids on the playground would shout “Do I make you horny, baby?” and parents would just laugh, thinking about the good time they had watching that movie. It was a true phenomenon.
The status of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery as a monumental force was not immediately apparent. That film took in a respectable, but nowhere near extraordinary, $53.8 million at the domestic box office and just $13.8 million everywhere else. Where the movie really found its mojo was on home video. 1997 was primetime for the VHS and also the first year of commercially available DVDs in North America, and the film found a whole new life, racking up purchases and rentals. Its popularity grew and grew to the point where, in 1999, the first sequel The Spy Who Shagged Me made $54.9 million in its opening weekend. It became the first sequel in history to outgross the previous film’s entire box office run in its opening weekend. Eventually, the film exceeded $300 million at the worldwide box office. Three years later, Goldmember would make just under $300 million.
All three of these films came out the same year as a Pierce Brosnan-led James Bond film, with Powers releasing in the summer and Bond in the winter. Domestically, Austin Powers stomped James Bond at the box office once the phenomenon settled in. The Spy Who Shagged Me took in a whopping $80 million more than 1999’s Bond entry The World Is Not Enough. 2002’s Die Another Day, which brought in a massive star and freshly minted Oscar winner in Halle Berry to be the co-lead, still was no match for Goldmember, falling $43 million short of that film’s gross. The interest had clearly shifted away to the films that knew they were silly from the ones where you were not quite sure if they knew.
The Austin Powers trilogy tackled everything that made Bond what it was and expertly turned it into a joke. Seeing a bald Mike Myers in a grey Nehru suit inside a hollowed-out volcano lair no longer made the larger-than-life adversaries of James Bond formidable opponents. Taking the innuendo-laden names of Bond girls and amping them up to “Alotta Fagina” and “Ivana Humpalot” no longer made the implied names that amusing. Sharks with laser beams attached to their heads took the menace out of any elaborate trap the villain would put Bond in. It got so deep inside Bond that even a film like Spectre, which came out over a decade after Powers had been put to bed, bears a striking resemblance to Goldmember in the relationship between Bond and Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) in regards to Powers and Dr. Evil.
All that being said, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery came out 25 years ago. The character last appeared on screen 20 years ago. Like many comedy phenomena before and after it, the cultural caché of Austin Powers now is nowhere near as strong as it was when the films were being made. You say “Yeah, baby” or “Oh, behave” to someone now, and you are just as likely to get a full-body cringe from that person as you are a chuckle. Two decades is a long enough time to rethink what the public is willing to buy in a James Bond film and start introducing some of those more outlandish, iconic elements back into the series.
No Time to Die hinted at the transition back to basics. It brought back the elaborate secret lair on a remote island, complete with a garden of poisonous plants. Blofeld had his cronies carry around his robotic eye on a pillow for his birthday. These things were still played incredibly straight though. Effective, but serious. Craig got to deliver a few jokes, which I am sure was a relief to him, but those were counterbalanced with easily the most dramatic and emotional material any Bond has ever had to play.
Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson have an incredible opportunity in front of them. They have a completely blank slate with which to work, and any direction is possible. You can have some fun with Bond again. The biggest behemoth in Hollywood, Marvel, already has laid the groundwork for more lighthearted fare for the big blockbusters, and Eon Productions could push that even further. More importantly, they no longer have the burden of living in a world dominated by Mike Myers’s creation. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is still a howling good time after all these years (the sequels to varying degrees), but its cultural importance has waned. James Bond can be whatever it wants to be now, and in a time where many are looking for a smile and a good time, what better place to find it than with a character that has delivered just that for 60 years on screen?