(Printed in OC WEEKLY, July 25, 2002)
It has been said that you know a genre is dead (or at least gravely ill) when the parodies start coming along. Mel Brooks has made a long career out of satirically kicking the last breath of life out of timeworn genres: the Western has never quite recovered from Blazing Saddles; the Hitchcockian thriller was already coughing up blood when Brooks went after it in High Anxiety; and the bloated, Star Wars-ian space opera was so ripe for parody that it’s a shame Brooks botched it so badly with Spaceballs. Sometimes a genre can recover from the parody treatment, but a really popular and deftly executed parody is quite capable of taking out a genre for good.
What, then, are we to make of the seemingly deathless power of the James Bond franchise? Since its inception in the early ’60s, it has endured legions of parodies, including an assault by Mel Brooks in the form of the ’60s series Get Smart. Bond has been endlessly sent up on The Simpsons, in the Cannonball Run pictures, even on Deep Space Nine, for heaven’s sake. TV has given us entire series featuring James Bond-ian chimps and James Bond-ian cartoon mice. And through it all, the Bond franchise has somehow prospered.
But if anything would have seemed likely to ring the death knell for the Bond pictures, it would have been the Austin Powers films, a parody that briefly surpassed its source in popularity. Say what you will about Mike Myers’ sometimes iffy skills as a writer, but the man has an absolute genius for devising catch phrases that worm their way deep into the world’s workaday vocabulary. “Yeah, baby, yeah!” “Oh, behave.” “Shagadelic!” Throw in lines taken from his various Saturday Night Live characters, and Myers could fill half of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations all by himself. And now yet another installment of the Austin Powers series is about to crash down on America in a great tsunami of hype, and Meyers will rake in a few bazillion dollars making cheeky fun of the Bond franchise one more time.
And yet when the next Bond adventure hits the big screen, people will cheerfully line up to see it as they have for decades past and probably will for decades more. Even Timothy Dalton couldn’t kill Bond. Superman’s appeal waxes and wanes over the years. Batman is in a slump. Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and the Lone Ranger are all hurting for work. But Bond is as big as ever.
And how can this be? After you’ve seen Maxwell Smart chatting on his shoe phone, or Doctor Evil griping about the sharks with laser beams on their heads, how can anybody take James Bond seriously again?
Well, maybe the secret is that nobody took Bond that seriously to begin with. For all the violence and sex of the Bond films, they have always been irresistibly campy affairs at their core, with a streak of self-parody that is sometimes as silly as anything in Get Smart. The chief difference between Bond and Powers is not so much in the circumstances they confront—the rocket cars, the mountain lairs, the improbably buxom ladies and vaguely European villains are all pretty much interchangeable in both series—but in their reactions to said circumstances. For while Bond strides through it all with an aloof smirk, Powers gushes with dorky enthusiasm. His reaction is not so different from the way most of us would respond if we found ourselves living the adventuresome, sexed-up, consequence-free life of an international man of mystery: “Yeah, baby, yeah!” This of course makes Powers far less cool than James Bond but a great deal more recognizably human. He’s a wish-fulfillment character who recognizes how lucky he is.
This week offers you an interesting chance to compare and contrast the greatest Bond parody with the original article, for just as Goldmember hits the multiplexes, Cerritos Park is wrapping up its Bond film series with a rare public screening of Thunderball. This adventure sees Bond attempting to thwart the detonation of a pair of nuclear weapons while . . . ah, it’s pretty much the same nonsense he’s always up to, really. And we would have it no other way.