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About That Time James Bond Recycled a Plot Twist From Austin Powers

Spectre Goldmember
New Line/Sony

The following post contains SPOILERS for Austin Powers in Goldmember and Spectre. Are you really worried about having Goldmember spoiled though? I hope not. 

Austin Powers in Goldmember is not a very good movie. Most of the jokes are callbacks to the previous two Austin Powers. Whole scenes consist entirely of co-writer/star Mike Myers riffing, usually with himself, about random subjects like moles or poop. The plot barely exists; its time-travel component makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Goldmember is the cinematic equivalent of a cubic zirconia. It bears all the superficial features of a movie. But something, something crucial yet invisible, is missing.

There’s basically no reason to watch Goldmember — except one, and that’s the movie’s big plot twist which, 13 years later, became the big plot twist in Spectre

That’s right. More than a decade after a “shocking” surprise in a wacky James Bond spoof, an actual James Bond movie tried to pass off the same “shocking” surprise as a legitimate twist. I would say you couldn’t make this stuff up, but no less than six screenwriters did on two separate occasions.

First, let’s travel back to 2002. The Austin Powers franchise is riding high. The first film,1997’s International Man of Mystery, was a modest spoof of James Bond and other ’60s spy films, and a modest success in theaters. On home video, though, Austin Powers became a runaway smash. When the sequel, The Spy Who Shagged Me, opens in theaters two years later, it outgrosses its predecessor by almost $250 million.

How big was Austin Powers in the late ’90s? The Spy Who Shagged Me made $80 million more in the U.S. than the James Bond movie released the same year, The World Is Not Enough. Is it a coincidence that the last two Pierce Brosnan Bonds, released right as Austin Powers reached the peak of its popularity, got increasingly absurd and campy? I doubt it.

Although the second film was a hit, the franchise was already showing signs of strain. James Bond is an endlessly renewable resource; get a new actor, throw in a new villain, hatch up a few new action scenes, and you’re ready to make another half a billion dollars. Austin Powers, on the other hand, was built on a very small and very specific high-concept premise. The 007 film series began in the 1960s and continued to present day, but the character never aged and only changed incrementally over decades. But what would happen if a spy from the swingin’ 1960s got frozen and then thawed out in the not-so-swingin’ 1990s? He would be in for quite a culture shock.

It was a brilliant idea for a comedy, but not for an endless film series. Once Austin adapts to his new surroundings, then what? Myers and Austin Powers director Jay Roach never quite found a satisfying answer to that question, and instead looked for ways to reuse the bits people loved from the first movie. They immediately ditched the symbol of Austin’s newfound emotional maturity (his wife, played by Elizabeth Hurley, who they retconned as one of Dr. Evil’s “fembots”) and returned him to a life of carousing and debauchery. The only original component of The Spy Who Shagged Me was Dr. Evil’s clone, Mini-Me, who didn’t add much to the story but did provide a lovely allegory for the Austin Powers sequels: They look basically the same as their predecessor, only with much smaller entertainment value.

By the time Myers and Roach got to Goldmember they were really struggling. They rehashed every joke from both of the last two movies. They traveled back in time, then returned to the present. They threw in Michael Caine as Austin Powers’ father (who did get the movie’s one really funny line: “There’s only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures … and the Dutch.”). And in the movie’s final scenes, they played their trump card: Caine’s Nigel Powers wasn’t just Austin’s father, he was Dr. Evil’s dad too.

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It’s a desperate and silly twist (although the use of old Michael Caine movie footage in the flashback was a clever idea), and it basically killed the franchise for good; once Austin and Dr. Evil are brothers and buddies, there’s really nowhere else to take the story. Even though Goldmember made almost as much money as The Spy Who Shagged Me, and even though it ended on a cliffhanger with Dr. Evil’s son Scott (Seth Green) inheriting his dad’s throne, it was the last Austin Powers movie.

Fast-forward to 2015. Spectre is the fourth film featuring the latest James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, and the first in decades allowed to include Bond’s arch-nemesis, Ernst Stravro Blofeld, and his criminal organization, SPECTRE (the acronym used to stand for “Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion”; now it stands for nothing). By coincidence, Blofeld is also the character who inspired Dr. Evil.

As is the fashion of the day, though, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) wasn’t allowed to simply be Blofeld. Even though the movie was called Spectre (Blofeld’s organization), even though Christoph Waltz was the obvious guy you’d cast as Blofeld, the production insisted he wasn’t playing Blofeld. When Waltz first appeared onscreen in Spectre it was as “Franz Oberhauser.” Eventually, in a lengthy torture scene, Oberhauser announced his other name and his Goldmembery origin. He wasn’t just some deranged terrorist fixated on James Bond for no good reason; he was a deranged terrorist fixated on James Bond for a sort-of good reason. Blofeld and Bond were adoptive brothers.

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Spectre didn’t copy Goldmember exactly. The two foes don’t set aside their differences to take down a third madman intent on destroying the world. Their father isn’t an onscreen character. And Blofeld doesn’t rap his own version of Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life.” But the central dynamic and big reveal are shockingly similar.

In retrospect, this helps illuminate why Spectre was such a disappointment after the heights of Casino Royale and Skyfall. The James Bond series, which had been floundering when Austin Powers ascended to the summit of popular culture, regained its mojo specifically by rejecting all the stuff the Powers series liked to mock. Gone were the gadgets, the catchphrases, the mindless shagging. Daniel Craig was the anti-Austin Powers. That’s why people liked him.

Then they went and shoved his Bond in a storyline that didn’t just evoke Austin Powers, it was actually recycled from Austin Powers. Even worse, it repurposed that storyline while leeching out all of its jokes, which left you with a goofy concept played with deadly seriousness. Dumb as the whole arch-enemies-are-really-brothers thing was in Goldmember, at least there it was done with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Spectre tried to pass that off as a genuine revelation, one that supposedly explained the long and tortured history of the two men. (It didn’t.)

Pitting Craig’s Bond against a soft-spoken psychopath in a jacket with no lapels was the kind of cliché audiences had tired of long before Mike Myers started satirizing 007. Doing that in 2016 after three Austin Powers movies? Throw me a frickin’ bone here.

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