This week Mike Myers's "Austin Powers in Goldmember" turns 15. The third film in the trilogy, which began somewhat inauspiciously with "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" in 1997, made nearly $300 million worldwide, closed just as quietly. Despite occasional discussions of a sequel or reboot, with "Goldmember" the trilogy was definitively closed, and with it marked the end of the greatest comedy trilogy of all time. If you're thinking that the movies were just goofy spy spoofs with sex humor and sight gags, well, you're right. But they're also much more. Yeah, baby yeah!
The concept for the first film was inspired by Myers's love of all things English. While he is Canadian by birth, his parents are from Liverpool, so everything that he was riffing on in the film (James Bond movies, British chat show hosts) was stuff that the comedian had grown up with. (For such a high-concept conceit it's oddly personal.) When the first film was released it didn't do particularly well, making $67 million worldwide on a $16.5 million production budget. But it grew in popularity on home video, thanks to then-burgeoning DVD format, so the decision to green light a sequel, which cost considerably more money and made a huge amount more (total gross: $312 million), was a no-brainer. Myers, who had started the project as a spoof of the seemingly endless James Bond franchise, had accidentally made a franchise himself.
And what a franchise it was.
One of the reasons that these movies are so great, and, in particular, this applies to "Goldmember," is that they were each so different. The only constants were some ribald humor, extensive 007 references, and a plot device that involved, in some way, time travel. Everything else was up for grabs.
Unlike most comedy trilogies, something like "The Hangover" or "The Naked Gun" (which were both successful in their own ways), which are careful to meticulously recreate the formula that made the original such a success with each passing movie, Mike Myers and his team of core collaborators were happy to throw out what didn't work and start over from scratch. They fearlessly built, destroyed, and rebuilt the story's "mythology" and took zany detours that would have been otherwise unthinkable (like introducing a disco-obsessed Dutch madman who turns his enemies penises into gold hood ornaments). Had the series been more conventional, we would have been robbed of such flights of fancy. There would have probably been just as many sex jokes though.
But that brings us to another element that makes this trilogy so unforgettable -- its surprising amount of heart. If you re-watch the first film, you'll probably be taken aback by how sweet it is. It's basically a fish-out-of-water comedy where the fish is an incredibly awkward '60s swinger; not only does he acclimate to his new environment but he also changes, finding a more evolved person inside. While the sequel, undoubtedly the weakest entry in the trilogy, retreads some of the same lessons, the third film unlocks Powers's previously unexplored daddy issues and his complex relationship with Dr. Evil, who it is revealed is his father.
These are easily identifiable emotions and, wrapped inside all of the nonsense, relatable experiences. They might be distorted or bizarre, but if the franchise wasn't so warm and huggable then it also wouldn't be as lasting. Is there anything you can really vibe on in, say, the "Rush Hour" trilogy? Didn't think so.
Obviously, "Goldmember" and the other movies are spoofing James Bond films ("Goldmember" is a play on "Goldfinger," "The Spy Who Shagged Me" is "The Spy Who Loved Me," etc.) but this is the rare franchise that transcends its references to become something wholly unique and original on its own. The franchise's dialogue with pop culture, both in terms of relics from previous eras and the of-the-moment movements (just think about Dr. Evil and Mini-Me's prison-set remake of "Hard Knocks Life") and it has inspired just as much popular culture, from that amazing episode of "Happy Endings" to Myers's current outing as a middle aged British comedian and host of ABC's revival of "The Gong Show" (whatever that is about, we're in, fully).
These are films that look different, too. The first and third entries were photographed by Peter Deming, who shot "Evil Dead II" and is responsible for the look of Showtime's bewitching "Twin Peaks" revival, beautifully emulating the films and eras that they spoofed but being richer and more detailed. They were all on a budget, even at their most expensive, but you wouldn't know it by looking at them. They always had tremendous production design and a playfulness about them that is rarely seen in mainstream comedies. You'd give anything just to be on one of these sets for a few hours. (The voluminous supplemental materials that accompanied each film's home video release only cemented this sensation.)
The most important reason that makes Austin Powers the greatest comedy trilogy of all time is that it is still outrageously funny. It doesn't matter if you make an appointment with your Blu-ray box set or catch 10 heavily edited minutes on TBS one Sunday afternoon, these movies are still hilarious in a way that few films, upon repeated viewings, are.
Myers and director Jay Roach built a series that could stand the test of time. They're indestructible. Like Austin himself they seem frozen from the period they were constructed in but are able to adapt to any modern setting. He might have been a product of the swinging '60s but Austin Powers can fit in anywhere.