by Truly Edison
image via mentalfloss
Remember all those Daniel Craig Bond movies? No Time To Die is apparently still coming out...eventually. Evidently, not on any streaming platforms, according to the most recent news from producers. I myself am violently neutral on this newest Bond reboot (if maybe still a little annoyed from having to hear “Skyfall” on the radio ten times a day back in 2012). I could never put my finger on exactly why I didn’t find them particularly compelling; something about them just didn’t click for me, some unidentifiable but obvious element. But recently I came across an article from earlier this year that started putting the picture together for me just a little bit more—it proposed the idea that this newest reboot of the series struggles because it finds itself living in the shadow of parodies and other campy iterations of its genre. Namely, the Austin Powers films.
Now, for the sake of putting any and all biases on the table from the get-go, I am an AVID fan of Austin Powers. The first film is easily one of my favorite movies of all time, and that’s movies, not comedies. My high school girlfriend almost broke up with me junior year because I got so obsessed that I started reflexively talking...Like That (groovy, baby ☹️).
I read Surrey’s article first because of the selfish fan Schadenfreude that came from the idea that these stupid movies I love were tangibly screwing up a multi-billion-dollar cinematic universe (as well as the obvious dirty joke in Craig’s lament that ‘Austin Powers fucked James Bond’). What I got out of it was a perspective on the whole phenomenon I had never considered before. These modern Bond movies have undertaken an uphill battle: the quest of becoming the ‘serious’ Bond films. They wanted to create a Bond who was nuanced, who had more weight to him than previous incarnations of the globetrotting, womanizing spy. They feared letting the lingering silliness of the character—of the concept—seep too much into their new films. And they definitely didn’t want to get too close to the cultural legacy of Austin Powers.
But where I personally think Surrey struggles a little is in his lukewarm expression of just how integral this campy approach is to Bond films—to spy films in general, to be honest. He’s willing to admit that camp might have been “occasionally the intention”, skirting around it in reference to the older films like it’s a bad word or something. I want to take it a step further. In my opinion, these movies HAVE to be campy to work at all; trying to overcome the inherent ridiculousness of the premise is a burden that not only can’t really be shed but shouldn’t be.
Like, I can’t be the only person who finds something about all those classic Bond films kind of hilarious, right? I can’t even pinpoint exactly one thing; perhaps some part of it is looking at them in retrospect. After all, in a post-Bond world, they can have a tendency to run like parodies of themselves. Those over-the-top opening credits, all those tropes and cliches we know and love presented as-is in their original context with no self-consciousness or pretense of satire...poorly aged as they are, there’s an undeniable sort of charm there. Even if we go off the assumption Surrey makes that the humor here is incidental, you can’t name a character Dr. Goodhead on accident. I mean for fuck’s sake, one of those films is called Octopussy! That’s the title of a real Bond movie! It’s not a porn parody! Spy movies in the style of James Bond are dumb as hell, and I say this as the most sincere of compliments. If you’re still not convinced, just try and listen to the opening theme for 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun with a straight face.
And taking something like Austin Powers into account, parody is the most natural cultural response to films like these. There’s just so much perfect raw material! Nothing new even really has to be added—all Austin Powers does is crank existing tropes up to eleven and put them in a ‘real world’ to highlight the absurdity. Honestly, I feel like with less time travel and genre consciousness Austin Powers could have run as a fairly-straight series of spy films (and 16 year old me probably would have been just as obsessed with it).
Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate what I’m trying to get at here is to pull an example from a more immediately obvious failure: the mid 2010s attempts to revive Superman, particularly 2016’s catastrophic Batman vs. Superman. If you're making a theoretical ‘gritty’, ‘updated’ Superman movie, you’re going to run into one major problem: Superman is, innately, a guy in a blue spandex suit who shoots lasers out of his eyes and dies if he touches a certain kind of rock. And that’s hilarious! If you lean too much into preserving these inherent qualities of Superman, you’ll wreck the intended tone of your film—but if you stay away from them, you won’t end up with a Superman movie at all, just the awkward and over-compensating shell of one. Spy movies, particularly Bond movies, work the same way to me. It’s the parts that are cheesy and dumb that are essential.
So in these recent Bond movies, you end up with this almost Freudian return of the repressed as they work so, so hard to hold back the nature of their own existence. It’s how you get cultural oddities like Casino Royale (2006)’s infamous cock-and-ball torture scene (click at your own risk!). As the first of the modern, newly ‘serious’ Bond films, it had the most daunting challenge to overcome—the need to completely define out of the genre the very things that made it. The scene is off-puttingly, and yet hilariously brutal and unnecessary. You can just feel some poor writers going See? See? Bond movies are tough and gritty now. Please don’t laugh at us. Granted, some of that humor comes from the consciously written dialogue, but a hefty portion of it is completely situational. You want to laugh not just at Bond’s shrewd wise cracks but at the whole thing, while at the same time kind of knowing you aren’t supposed to. The need to differentiate inevitably cycles back into absurdity. The harder you work to hold that essential nature of the Bond movie back, the harder it’ll pop up to bite you in the ass for trying to ditch it. It’s inescapable.
And why should we try to escape it? Why should we be afraid of a little camp now and again? It’s not a crime to make a stupid movie. If anything, we could use more stupid movies. I get so tired out by the same old cement-gray oh-so-serious vibe of (cue bitter old man voice) Movies Today™. Sure, movies today are ‘good’—but are they fun? That’s a bit of a trick question there; in my opinion, at least, a movie that’s fun is good, even if the movie is bad. And I’d rather have a fun ‘bad’ movie than a boring ‘good’ movie any day of the week.
There’s this poor guy in the comments section of that Man With The Golden Gun clip who says “I have no idea why people think this movie is ridiculous. It's one of my favorites.” Take it from your local Austin Powers enthusiast: there’s no reason those things can’t both be true. In the case of Bond films, maybe they even both should be true.