The Nuances of Spy Satire - Austin Powers vs Johnny English
Recently, I saw Johnny English Strikes Again, the third instalment in the Johnny English series. And unsurprisingly, it wasn't very good. The plot was obvious and unoriginal, rather questionable messages were sent out, and most importantly, it wasn't remotely funny. Honestly, this wasn't particularly surprising to me, and though the Rowan Atkinson series consistently does well at the UK box office, I couldn't help but be reminded of a far better spy spoof series that only slightly predates it: Austin Powers.
Neither series have really been seen as critical darlings, but at least reviews of Mike Myer's creation are consistently positive, if not hugely so. The same cannot be said for the Johnny English trilogy, the most recent film currently sitting at 39% on Rotten Tomatoes - an embarrassingly low score for a comedian so well regarded just a decade or so ago.
Both series can be classified as satires, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as 'The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people's stupidity or vices' - in this case the stupidity being found in the depiction of the British 'gentleman spy'. In my opinion, one understands effective satire where the other does not, and this is the core reason for the difference in reception, as well as the level endurance and cultural impact that each has displayed thus far.
As already stated, it is the James Bond archetype being shown up in both of these characters, each series being named after the lead spy spoof character to cement this comparison. Johnny English plays this fairly straight; here we are presented with a protagonist who believes himself to be intelligent, dashing, and courageous when he is none of the above, and this is where the jokes are generated. English is placed into scenarios that Bond might find himself stuck in, but deals with them far more poorly - however, he always finds a way out of it in the end.
The Austin Powers series uses Bond as a key reference, as well as previous successful Bond spoofs but also the entire context surrounding his creation: Swinging London and a culture of misogyny. Conveniently described by Michael York's Basil Exposition as 'the ultimate gentleman spy', this is ironically juxtaposed against scenes of him calling his female partner 'baby', hitting on her and others in bizarre and off-putting ways. This is the basis of his character arc in the first film, as he gradually learns to adapt to his modern '90s environment, but a good amount of humour is provided by the framing of this behaviour also. Rather than acting like a buffoon but eventually being rewarded for it, Powers is repeatedly knocked down by a modern society that no longer accommodates his viewpoint, and he must learn to adjust to this whilst still maintaining the values that he holds dear.
And by switching out the cool, sleek Bond aesthetic for something far more garish and dated, Myers is able to effectively lambast the absurdity that surrounds James Bond. Best exemplified by the scene where Powers regains his outfit in the nineties ('One blue crushed velvet suit, one frilly lace cravat...'), by making his costume, house, and belongings a product of his time, he places the spy film tradition in a similarly ridiculous and outdated context. In other words, his clothes are as behind the times as his mindset.
Pastiche and Critique
This brings me to the key difference between the two franchises' approach to satire: Johnny English's pastiche, and Austin Powers' critique. The former is a stylistic imitation, not necessarily indicative of satire but with the potential to provide this. The latter is as it sounds, taking a more critical look at an existing property or viewpoint.
These two modes are not mutually exclusive, and the issue with Johnny English, for me at least, lies in its overuse of pastiche without any other form of commentary. For the most part, Atkinson's films look and sound like a James Bond film would, to the extent where the trailer for Strikes Again begins with an implied Bond parody using only shots from the actual movie. The humour is intended to emerge from the fact that, despite resembling a James Bond film on a superficial level, English as a character is less attractive, charismatic, and intelligent than you would expect him to be. But despite this, he almost always succeeds in his goals, and therefore the movies have almost the same plot trajectory as your average Bond flick. Johnny is given an assignment, he fails several times, and he eventually gets the baddie. This lack of meaningful change to the Bond formula means that, although amusing at points, Johnny English never really has the ability to effectively lampoon the esteemed spy franchise.
Austin Powers, on the other hand, has created an aesthetic almost entirely its own. Undoubtedly, it does borrow aspects from Bond - most notably Dr. Evil being a visual pastiche of Ernst Blofeld - but it mostly uses these references to highlight their inherent issues rather than to put them on a pedestal and not live up to them. For instance, Pussy Galore in the campy yet serious context of Goldfinger is capable of being viewed as a sex symbol - Ivanna Humpalot in The Spy Who Shagged Me, with her thick fake Russian accent and intense longing for the odd looking Powers, not so much. We see the bizarre sexualisation of women in the franchise as the logical conclusion of the Bond girls.
Punching Up or Down?
When reluctantly watching the most recent Johnny English movie, I found myself musing on some of Rowan Atkinson's earlier sketches: his many jabs at controversial British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1980s sitcom Not The Nine O' Clock News, in particular. Through these, he is attacking a ruling class that consistently showed either an indifference or an outright hatred towards the working class and minorities like POC and the LGBTQ+ community. It is satisfying and meaningful to watch this figure be taken down a peg by Atkinson and his fellow comedians, and its this subversive take on institutions that is sorely missing from his hapless spy films.
The most recent movie is undeniably the worst offender in this regard. There are scenes in which English mocks the idea of his companion Bough's wife being in the Navy ('is she a cook? A secretary?'), displays a homophobic fear of Bough's physical affection towards him, and causes grave injury to several low-level service workers. All the while, the audience is supposed to simultaneously laugh at Johnny's mishaps and the misfortune of the people in his path. Only, for me at least, it just felt like mean-spirited bullying after a certain point. English is a character with an immense amount of institutional power, and watching him exercise this against innocent characters of a far lower societal ranking is punching down rather than up - harming people already in a poor position does not make for meaningful satire.
The target of Austin Powers, on the other hand, is largely its own titular protagonist. From drinking human faeces to his frequent social blunders, the character is rarely - if ever - framed as cool or particularly in control. His desperate attempts to seduce love interest Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley) in the first film serve to reveal the misogyny inherent in his lifestyle, and he eventually succeeds in winning her over when he attempts to overcome this. Even in a cheesy way, he manages to escape Dr. Evil's mutated sea bass trap by using the new dental hygiene equipment given to him as a welcome to the 90s, ultimately defeating the bad guy by embracing this modern lifestyle. This is a franchise that points out the flawed thinking in the old ways being the best ways - essentially the opposite message of Johnny English and his British traditionalism.
As previously stated, the two series are hardly comparable in terms of how they've been received since their first inception. Asking someone their opinion on a Johnny English film will likely elicit an indifferent reaction, but if you quote some of the more memorable lines from Austin Powers, it is likely that roughly four out of five people will understand, and maybe even laugh at, your reference.
For as much as I have berated the English films throughout this article, that isn't to say that I think they are impossible to enjoy. Clearly, this isn't the case, with much of the British public flocking to each new release. If you enjoy watching Rowan Atkinson make a fool of himself, as many people pretty reasonably do, then chances are you'll get a decent evening of entertainment out of any one of these films. My issue with them is less their entertainment value, and more their purpose and longevity - if I'm honest, I've often forgotten that the Johnny English films even exist, despite growing up with the first one.
But Austin Powers, for however goofy and 'mainstream' it is, presents an almost ideal critique of the attitude and culture surrounding British spy movies. The movies are funny with or without this extra context, but watching Austin learn to respect women and make a mockery of the very clichés every Bond film is built on will always bring me far more satisfaction than Rowan Atkinson pulling a funny face in a Jaguar.
So in the roughly two-decade old debate of which spy spoof franchise is superior, for me it's a no-brainer - Powers is miles ahead.