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19th Jun 2019

How come there haven’t actually been any genuinely good Men In Black movies?

Wil Jones

Everyone loves the idea of Men In Black – so how come the movies always end up being so forgettable?

Continuing what was already a disappointing summer for the major studios, Men In Black: International looks set to crash and burn at the box office, taking just $28.5 million domestically in its opening weekend.

Which is not surprising, as the MIB spin-off is a crushingly average and boring film. On paper, all the pieces are there. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are two incredibly watchable stars, and they had great chemistry together in Thor: Ragnarok. Back them up with the likes of Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson and Kumail Nanjiani, throw them into a fun universe full of gadgets and aliens, and it all should result in a big, energetic summer romp. You can’t fuck that up, right?

Instead, Men In Black: International is a movie going through the motions with literally no imagination or ideas. The cast bring the minimum effort to placeholder dialogue that never had the jokes punched up, and the perfectly adequate action scenes never threaten to raise the pulse. It is the worst kind of Hollywood blockbuster – not bad enough to be weird or interesting like Dark Phoenix or Suicide Squad; instead, it just… is, provoking no reaction at all, apart from mild boredom.

Seeing such a beloved franchise burn out so listlessly can’t help but be a bummer. But is it actually any different to any of the other Men In Black movies?

It is hard to think of a movie series as generally loved as MIB that has such a poor ‘cultural imprint’ to ‘actually good movies’ ratio.

Looking back, it is shocking how slight a movie the original 1997 Men In Black is – especially for a film where many elements became pop culture touchstones. Running a scant 98 minutes – practically a short compared to today’s bloated blockbusters – we remember all the window dressing: the suits, the Ray-Bans, the mind-wiping device, the theme song, and Will Smith at the height of his movie star powers. But can you recall anything that actually happens? What the actual plot is?

It is not a bad film by any means, just not one that lingers in the memory long. Looking at it objectively, almost everything we love about the concept is actually included in the music video for the theme song – it is that track that hits the nostalgic pleasure receptors and brings 1997 flooding back, not anything from the film itself. It is pretty possible to imagine a world where Will Smith only released that four minutes of footage, and Men In Black would basically have had the same impact.

Despite this, the film made nearly $600 million worldwide, which meant we got inevitable Men In Black II in 2002 – a film that I definitely have seen, but I recall so little of it that it is completely possible that what actually happened was that Will Smith zapped be with the Neuralyzer, and told me “You saw MIB II. It was perfectly fine”.

The film had a troubled production – shooting took place in summer 2001, and the finale was supposed to take place at the World Trade Centre in New York. Of course, the events of 11 September that year changed all that, and hasty reshoots took place to get the film finished on time. And it shows – running 10 minutes shorter than its predecessor, Men In Black II is a movie that feels like they got just enough in the can to be coherent and get it out the door.

Even the Will Smith theme song was barely a banger.

A decade later, when it seemed like everyone had forgotten about MIB, we got the third movie. MIB III seems like it only exists because someone noticed Josh Brolin really looks like a younger Tommy Lee Jones, and a needless addition of time travel to the franchise saw Will Smith travel back to 1969. Again, it was a film that made over half a million dollars but had absolutely no lasting impact. Pitbull replaces Smith on rapping duties. That says it all.

It has now emerged that Men In Black: International had a troubled production as well, which is probably the source of its blandness. A crossover with the 21 Jump Street movies was the original plan, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, early drafts of the script were “edgier and more timely, tying the story to the current debate surrounding immigration”.

THR goes on to say that new script pages were delivered to the set daily, and Thompson and Hemsworth ended up hiring their own dialogue writers. If that’s all true, it’s a miracle the movie is as coherent as it is.

The Men In Black concept is great. Aliens and government cover-ups have always fascinated us. There are outlandish gadgets and crazy creatures, and the idea of these people and things hiding in plain sight has so much comedy potential. Plus who hasn’t, at one time or another, secretly fantasised about being recruited by some cool, secret organisation, to escape your humdrum 9 to 5 and go on adventures to save the world?

So why have none of the movies ever reached a level above ‘blandly enjoyable’?

After Men In Black: International‘s failure, it doesn’t look like there will be any more MIB films coming soon. A move to a TV or Netflix series wouldn’t be a complete surprise, and might actually be a better fit.

In the meantime, we can always enjoy three minutes and 53 seconds of Will Smith rapping perfection.