The Evergreen Appeal of Spy Comedies

A brief history of a beloved subgenre.
Spy Comedy Movies
By  · Published on March 20th, 2020

There are few cinematic traditions as beloved as spy movies. There is something uniquely entertaining and exciting about watching attractive people with highly specialized skills complete dangerous missions often with just enough time to avoid world destruction. Certainly, superhero movies fulfill the same criteria to an extent, but the top-secret nature of their work gives spies a chicness that Captain America simply cannot compete with.

However, spy dramas possess a self-seriousness that makes them ideal material for parody and comedic reimagining. As long as there are spy films, there will be an equal number of spy comedies that poke fun at the intricate choreography, convoluted narratives, and excessively complex weaponry of movies such as the James Bond series.

Spy comedies embody a fascinating tension between having cultural and temporal specificity and evergreen appeal. To an extent, all films reflect the cultural, social, and aesthetic obsessions and preoccupations of the times in which they are made. Thus espionage and spy films are shaped by current fashions, political events, and cinematic trends, whether filmmakers are aware of it or not. Yet spy comedies, for all their unique and specific qualities, reference and resemble one another quite closely despite being produced in different decades.

There are a number of comedic elements present in almost every spy comedy: clumsy protagonists who cannot keep a secret, malfunctioning spy gear, unlikely partnerships between an experienced agent and an awkward everyman/woman who inevitably undergoes a dramatic makeover to match their sleek, stylish counterpart. Their evergreen appeal lies in their ability to seamlessly blend comedy and action, combining impressively choreographed fight scenes with slapstick silliness. Regardless of how characters are dressed, the language they use, the specifics of their missions, or the music that scores their adventures, the physical comedy of an unlikely hero accidentally saving the day is timelessly funny.

The film rights for Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the first novel to feature James Bond, were originally acquired by producer Gregory Ratoff in 1955, and were then sold to Charles K. Feldman after Ratoff’s death. While the producers had difficulty funding, writing, and casting their adaptation, Eon Productions was making incredible amounts of money from their sexy, funny, stylish Bond films Dr. No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965).

Feldman eventually decided the best way to capitalize on Bondmania and the influx of spy movies during the 1960s — including Our Man Flint (1966), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Master Spy (1963) — was to make Casino Royale a spoof. With its impressive ensemble cast, iconic brassy soundtrack, and fast-paced comedic gags, the 1967 version of Casino Royale is the main touchstone for spy comedies as we know them today.

Starring David Niven as the “original” James Bond, Casino Royale sees the character come out of retirement to investigate the mysterious deaths of secret agents around the world and to train six different MI6 agents to become “James Bonds” in order to confuse and defeat the evil Russian organization SMERSH. The film is deliberately overcrowded with plot lines and characters, providing maximum space and time for jokes, both visual and verbal.

Much of the film’s humor is derived from what British audiences found funny in the 1960s, which unfortunately includes racial and cultural stereotyping as well as placing young and beautiful women in compromising situations. For instance, at one point Miss Moneypenny (Barbara Bouchet) is tasked with attempting to seduce an entire group of potential new agents in order to determine their weaknesses, and the film’s climactic fight sequence features a group of white men dressed as Indigenous people dancing around a fire in the middle of a casino.

These crude stereotypes have rightfully fallen out of favor with modern audiences. Yet the way the film sends up spy narratives is genuinely funny and has had an immeasurable influence on every spy comedy produced in its wake. The sequence where Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) is given a tour through Bond’s (Niven) MI6 training program is full of visual and verbal jokes, with soldiers marching into an elevator, a trainee who is knocked out while demonstrating the use of a hat that doubles as a gun, and Tremble’s quip about the poisonous pen being perfect for “sending a poison pen letter,” to which Q (Geoffrey Bayldon) and his assistant (John Wells) remark that all the newbies make the same joke.

This training sequence is mirrored in films such as 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, with the introduction of goofy spy gear and a motley crew of personnel providing the perfect opportunity to dismantle the seriousness of rigorous top-secret spy programs. MI6’s cramped basement and ridiculous training programs — for instance, Coop’s (Terence Cooper) self-defense exercise in which he wards off seduction attempts from beautiful women — remain funny to this day and have had an indelible influence on the comedic setups of spy comedies throughout the following decades.

Perhaps the most successful spy comedy series ever, the Austin Powers trilogy directly references Casino Royale and the James Bond film series, and its remarkable critical and commercial success demonstrates that audiences in the late 1990s and early 2000s were just as keen on laughing at spies as people in the 1960s. The first film follows the recently un-frozen Austin (Mike Myers) as he teams up with Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley) to stop Dr. Evil (also Myers) from destroying the world using nuclear weapons.

Much of the film’s comedy comes from Austin’s outdated 1960s way of life, including his goofy crushed velvet suits, shiny Italian boots, lack of proper dental care, and swinging free-love philosophy. What makes comedies like Austin Powers so funny is that they are only slightly exaggerated versions of the spy dramas that they parody. “Alotta Fagina” (Fabiana Udenio) may even be a tamer double entendre than “Pussy Galore” (Honor Blackman) from Goldfinger.

Austin Powers takes its cue from Casino Royale and Our Man Flint in mining the comedic potential of elaborate spy gadgets and villains obsessed with world domination. These two key elements of spy films provide perfect setups for comedic payoffs, as when Austin is presented with floss, a toothbrush, and toothpaste and he assumes they all have alternative uses as weapons when in reality he is being urged to step up his dental hygiene. Parodying megalomaniacal villains is an excellent opportunity for comedic actors to show off their range, best demonstrated by Myers’ disappearance beneath makeup, prosthetics, and goofy accents in his portrayals of Dr. Evil, Fat Bastard, and Goldmember.

By zeroing in on the same spy movie tropes parodied by its predecessors and creating its own unique, silly world filled with lovable weirdos, Austin Powers has become one of the most beloved spy comedy series ever made. Its long-lasting popularity and the enthusiasm for a potential fourth installment further prove spy comedies remain funny and beloved by audiences long after their releases.

The early 2000s was also a time when spy comedies became pint-sized, with Spy Kids (2001) and its three sequels, The Island of Lost Dreams (2002), Game Over (2003), and All the Time in the World (2011) proving that audiences of all ages are interested in this subgenre. It is a delight to watch Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) as they discover their parents’ secret identities and confidently develop their own spy skills, and these great performers and their action-packed adventures have made  Spy Kids one of the most successful and beloved family comedies of its time. Spy Kids works well because it is heartfelt and funny, and focuses on the timeless importance of having strong familial bonds even in the face of unthinkable danger.

Spy Kids opened the floodgates for more family-friendly spy comedies such as the goofy Johnny English (2003), the offbeat yet adorable Despicable Me (2010), and the fast-paced Will Smith vehicle Spies in Disguise (2019), proving that people of all ages enjoy these films’ particular blend of parody and action, of silliness and genuine self-discovery.

Alongside these children’s movies, the popularity of adult-themed spy movies has remained strong in the past decade, with films such as Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), The Spy Next Door (2010), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015), and Keeping Up With the Joneses (2016) becoming critical darlings and/or audience favorites. Standouts such as Spy (2015) and The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018) largely follow the same rhythms as other spy comedies but update the formula to include more women both as spies and as villains.

Spy features a career-best performance from Melissa McCarthy as Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who has spent much of her career assisting her partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law) from the comfort of her desk. Susan volunteers to finish Fine’s mission despite her lack of fieldwork experience, and infiltrates the cold-hearted Rayna Boyanov’s (Rose Byrne) inner circle, despite the fact that the women strongly dislike each other, exchanging endless (and endlessly funny) insults throughout.

McCarthy is funny and genuine as Susan, whose heroism seems to come from a combination of intelligence, experience, and dumb luck. She is well-matched by Byrne, who infuses her stylish and sexy femme fatale character with her subtle comedic talent. McCarthy strikes a perfect balance between determination and awkwardness, and Byrne provides an excellent foil with her dry wit and precision.

The cast is well-rounded, featuring an exasperated Allison Janney as Susan’s boss, the sweet and clumsy Miranda Hart as Susan’s close friend, and a surprisingly amusing Jason Statham as a tough-guy CIA agent (whose trademark cap Susan remarks makes him look like a character from Newsies). Spy is funny and entertaining without ever objectifying its female leads, and its critical success proves that people are eager for more thoughtful yet funny action comedies such as this.

Spy and secret agent comedies have been endlessly popular since at least the 1960s, with countless films that play on the same well-worn tropes being released almost every year. Spy comedies offer a lighthearted approach to the narratives of world destruction and nuclear weaponry that so many spy dramas center upon, bringing humor, exaggeration, and levity to serious and threatening situations. Regardless of the political climate and cultural trends, these films are shaped by, spy comedies remain beloved by audiences thanks to their perfect blend of well-choreographed action, perfectly timed silliness and comedic takes on the most serious top-secret missions.

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Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.