With ‘Men in Black: International’ Around the Corner, Does the ‘Men in Black’ Series Hold Up?
As of the writing of this post, Men in Black: International is heading for a $40 million opening weekend in North America, which is pretty solid for an early June release but cannot help but pale in comparison to some of the biggest hits of 2019 so far. With a reported budget of $110 million, the fourth installment in this series, and the first without the original central duo, has a lot riding on its shoulders. For Sony Pictures, this could be a major new franchise to help them keep up with the other big brand names, one to bolster their blockbuster numbers alongside the surprise success of Venom.
The Men in Black series has never been omnipresent in the cultural conversation, but it hasn’t exactly gone away either. Based on a comic book written and created by Lowell Cunningham, the first film came out 22 years ago and was followed by two sequels, an animated series, multiple games, some very catchy songs, and a very fun dark shooter ride at Universal Studios. It’s a franchise people seem to generally like but don’t have a massive amount of feelings on it all. Sure, you’re always up for a Friday night lounge on the couch whenever you see the first film playing on TV, but you’re probably not overwhelmed by nostalgic twinges for it, nor are you necessarily hungering for more beyond the need to sate your thirst for Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth (we’ve all been there). So, does the series hold up, and does it warrant this sort of big-budget reboot, with all the long-term franchise building expectations that entails?
It’s easy to downplay the impact the first Men in Black film had, as well as how earth-shakingly powerful Will Smith was as an actor in the mid- to late-90s. The movie was the third highest grossing title of 1997, making more money than the Bond film of that year, Tomorrow Never Dies, thus ensuring Smith’s status as perhaps the great leading man of that brief era. Helmed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the cinematographer turned director of the first two Addams Family films and Get Shorty, Men in Black is a tightrope act of blockbuster film-making that blends together everything he does best: The genre mish-mash of sci-Ii, action and comedy, mixed in with the esoteric and proudly grotesque visuals, with alien design courtesy of Rick Baker. It’s a story that plays into every tinhat conspiracy theory that pollutes the internet - yes, there is a shady organization hiding aliens from you! - but totally punctures any delusions of grandeur that may have. These are people who genuinely love their ridiculous job and get to look amazing while doing it, and at the centre of this madness are Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, perfecting the odd couple procedural dynamic by playing to each of their strengths: Jones’s perpetual grumpiness (alleviated with some great one-liners) and Smith’s bombastic charisma. The stars were aligned for this one and everything worked, surpassing the minor expectations many had for the film.
Of course, then the sequel happened. They made over $590 million with that first one so of course a follow-up was guaranteed, but how could you do that without retconning everything that made that conclusion so effective? The short answer is that you can’t. Well, maybe you can, but Men in Black II certainly didn’t bother to try. The film is essentially a step-by-step retread of its predecessor. The conflict is near identical to the first film, but now there’s a depressingly ill-developed romantic subplot and a villain who’s nowhere near as weird or interesting as Vincent D’Onofrio’s disgustingly committed performance that is somehow as hysterical as it is chilling. Lara Flynn Boyle is tasked with being the weird but sexy antagonist but the film is clearly more interested in one side of that equation than the other. It’s like the producers had a checklist of things people liked from the first film that this one had to call back to or simply duplicate, from the talking pug to the throwaway celebrity cameos to the climax ending at a major New York landmark. It’s film-making by committee, the worst elements of blockbuster cinema that tend to give the entire genre a sloppy name.
But the main problem with the movie is the central dynamic. All that amazing chemistry Jones and Smith had is gone because they’re simply recreating the first movie’s arc with the parts reversed. All the dry humour that made Jones such a joy has evaporated and the actor clearly could not care less about this part, leaving Smith to do all the heavy lifting in the charm department. Even the end credit song isn’t as good. Still, the film did make money, albeit less than the first one, so another sequel wasn’t unimaginable. Thankfully, they waited a while to do it and made a key change. Bye, Tommy Lee Jones (mostly), and hello Josh Brolin.
Men in Black III is way better than you may remember it being, but it still feels like a step down from the inimitable spark of that first film. It benefits from a high-concept plot - now with time travel! - and having a narrative that doesn’t exist simply to retell what we already know. The villain is funnier - bless Jemaine Clement for committing hard to that Tim Curry impression - the visuals and setting feel fresher, Michael Stuhlbarg is a scene stealer, and crucially, Josh Brolin captures the core of that J/K dynamic. It helps that his Jones impression is stellar. It doesn’t reach the heights of that first film, but it still hits its desired targets as a fun blockbuster for your couch viewing needs.
But really, the Men in Black franchise has primarily existed to be one thing: The perfect star vehicle for Will Smith. I would argue that his greatest performance and the most perfect exemplification of his A-List magnetism comes in that first film. Smith is at his peak when he’s balancing that blend of seemingly effortless cool and goofball flailing. He’s got a one-liner for every situation but is still completely baffled by every vaguely odd thing that passes his way. He’ll punch that alien but he also wants everyone to know that it’s WEIRD that there’s even an alien here. Smith, with the right material, always strikes that balance between aspirational and relatable: He’s who you want to be when danger calls but he’s also reacting a little to closely to how we all would when confronted with intergalactic chaos. As cool as he’s always been, what makes Smith so appealing is his irrepressible dorkiness, the aspect that’s been at the core of his persona since his Fresh Prince days. In Men in Black, he blends those shades of dork-cool with such ease. In that aspect, Chris Hemsworth actually feels like the legitimate heir to Smith’s throne, at least in terms of that highly specific blockbuster star persona.
Swapping out one major star for another, plus another franchise favourite with her own array of scene stealing credits to her name, is one way to balance out the equation of this soft franchise reboot for Men in Black. The question remains, however, as to whether this is a series people want more from. Then again, that could be applied to a hell of a lot of franchises these days, as fatigue hit audiences pretty hard for stuff that isn’t the MCU or The Fast and the Furious. Men in Black is a great concept for a franchise that hasn’t lived up to its potential in execution, with a lot of its unique verve disappearing once it became clear how little Tommy Lee Jones cared to continue. Men in Black: International can at least benefit from a proven dynamic duo, and perhaps that alone is enough to sustain Sony’s hopes. For now, we have one great movie, a pretty good one, and at least one amazing end credits rap song.
Header Image Source: Sony Pictures
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