Believe it or not, it’s been 22 years since Men in Black transitioned from the page of Lowell Cunningham’s comic series to the silver screen with its improbable pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Once upon a time, it charmed us out of our seats with a new brand of imaginative alien hijinks, but three sequels later the franchise has lost steam. The trajectory from Men in Black to Men in Black II to Men in Black 3 to F. Gary Gray’s Men in Black: International has followed a gradual decline of originality and screenwriting quality that’s culminated in sigh-inducing mediocrity, despite the new installment having a $110 million budget to wow us with.
You don’t need to have seen the previous MIB sequel — or any of them for that matter — to follow the newest chapter. It nods to Smith and Jones and there are little references here and there to past installments (a cameo from our Remoolian friend Frank the Pug, a painting of the first film’s world-saving climax, the existence of the London branch), but none are integral to the plot of MIB: International, and, for the most part, the new film operates as a spinoff.
Flashing back 20 years, Molly (Mandeiya Flory) is a little girl in Brooklyn thought to be asleep upstairs when her family is visited by the Men in Black after a confusing alien encounter. She meets and befriends the little extraterrestrial while the MIB agents inform her parents of what happened and proceed to erase their memories with neuralyzers. Believing Molly is asleep, the agents don’t see the need to wipe her memory, and they leave, unknowingly setting a little girl’s hopes on one dream and one dream only: becoming an MIB agent.
Fast forward to today as the prodigiously brilliant twentysomething Molly (Tessa Thompson) is wasting away at a dead-end call center job in New York City. After a clever and well-prepared series of tricks, she finally finds herself inside MIB headquarters in front of Agent O (Emma Thompson). The Thompson/Thompson encounter is short-lived yet arguably the best part of the movie, save for its pandering exchange about the title. “Men in black?” presses Molly. “Don’t start. I’ve had the conversation,” Agent O says, rolling her eyes much like those of us in the audience. After the testy encounter, Molly officially becomes probationary Agent M.
She’s transferred to the London branch where she works her way into the company of the hunky, amusing, once-heroic Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), who has slogged into a “vaguely inept, arrogant, and reckless” (description courtesy of M) livelihood as a result of his fame within the agency, which he attained after saving the world from a parasitic alien group called The Hive in 2016 alongside Head of London branch, Agent High T (Liam Neeson). H sleeps with alien enemies, parties when he should be working, and generally reflects a parallel universe iteration of Hemsworth’s washed up Thor character in Avengers: Endgame.
After Thor: Ragnarok and Endgame, MIB: International marks the third collaboration between Thompson and Hemsworth. And while you can feel their comfort and chemistry with one another, the movie is too pervasively dull for mere synergy to make it worth watching. Once the two are linked up as partners, they travel from London to Paris to Marrakesh to Italy (this is how the movie gets its name, I guess) chasing clues to uncover why The Hive wants a particular spikey purple rock that harbors unknown significance.
They’re chased by shifty, angry-looking alien twins that resemble literal human-shaped galaxies (Larry and Laurent Bourgeois, aka Les Twins). And they meet a little blue fellow about the size of their hand named Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani) who pledges to protect M, occasionally provides the only genuinely funny material in the movie, and comes across as a direct, less amusing ideological ripoff of Korg (Taika Waititi) from Ragnarok. M and H soon figure out the purple rock is a weapon powered by the immense energy of a blue dwarf star, i.e. it can destroy planets. Naturally, they must protect it. That leads them to H’s alien ex-girlfriend Riza, a feisty three-armed woman (Rebecca Ferguson) sporting a late Agnes Varda-inspired do. From there, the movie plods forward into humdrum action and half-baked plot twists that generate little-to-no emotion or surprise.
In one sense, the film feels like a stretch from the get-go. Popular and critical reactions have waned over the course of the franchise, and the demand for a fourth installment seemed non-existent. But whether the mass interest was there or not, they pulled a terrific casting move hiring Tessa Thompson for the lead role. She’s genuinely one of the best actresses alive, and her inclusion as a woman of color in a film with “men” in the title certainly got people talking. Likewise, Nanjiani, Ferguson, Thompson, and Neeson were all solid casting choices, but no cast could’ve diverted attention from how aggressively the series has abandoned its edge.
No matter how attractive our two leads are, looks are never enough to constitute a great movie, and MIB: International seems indifferent toward that truth. Screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum certainly reject it. Their script is void of anything worth thinking or talking about post-screening. It’s listless and limp to the core, evidenced well enough by its attempt to discuss gender. MIB: International is the second blockbuster in consecutive weeks to approach its titular “men” problem through a lazy, overt quip in the middle of the movie opposed to having the gall to address what it pretends to critique (the X-Men sequel Dark Phoenix being the other). These very subpar summer sequels are not actually confronting gender issues in Hollywood in depth or with any semblance of meaning. They just want us to know that the middle-aged men who wrote the screenplays thought about it for a passing moment.
Of course, it’s not every movie’s job to take on mass injustice and misrepresentation — God knows it’s definitely not MIB: International’s — but that doesn’t mean the topic is off limits. After all, they got themselves into this mess, though it’s not like changing the title to “People in Black” would’ve been any better. The banner disappointment is the light, riskless humor it employs to address an issue that deserves sincere gravity or intelligent, comedic commentary that makes us think. That’s not asking too much. We should expect more from our blockbusters.
Until a movie of this stature takes the risk of addressing gender issues in depth, we’ll continue to trudge our way through unimpressive dad jokes on the topic, which are far from “problematic,” or “toxic,” or threatening to a healthy, productive conversation around gender, but are simply indolent and unenjoyable. Similarly, most of the creative decisions in the movie embody low-hanging fruit. The new space alien creatures are seemingly ripped straight from the Harry Potter universe. The comedy is thin and bland. Several moments elicit a faint chuckle, like H saying an alien gambling dungeon resembles Eyes Wide Shut or M’s meta-joke about Donald Glover obviously being an alien undercover. Most laughs are a product of the tiny, sassy, and lovable Pawny. But breathy, exhausted chortling is about the height of it.
When M is initially integrated into MIB, there’s a training montage overlaid with narration about detaching from the “system.” M is no longer a part of the fold. She’s off the grid. The rules no longer apply. The world is no longer what it seemed. Welcome to a wild and wonderful new universe. There’s no doubt the meta-narration is written for us as much as it is for M. It’s supposed to get the audience hyped. It claims to be preparing us for the same wilderness. It claims to be taking us on this unforgettable journey with her. But there’s a grand irony in this meta-commentary about breaking from the system. MIB: International is as formulaic and systematic as films get. In no way whatsoever does it breach the cinematic unknown. It doesn’t even breach the cinematically interesting.
If we want great (or are even willing to settle for good) summer blockbusters, we need to call the bad ones bad. Studios make the lion’s share of creative decisions for these movies through endless market research in which they ask test audiences what they prefer. In other words, they’re listening to us. They want to make what we want. Yes, that’s a backward way of crafting art and it will always be suffocating to a degree, but that’s the world we live in. And if we show them we’re not satisfied with torpid, risk-averse movies, maybe we’ll get something a little more creative, at the very least. Maybe we’ll start getting original summer movies again.
Just imagine what they could’ve done with this exact same cast if they’d given Gray creative control over his direction and a screenplay from women of color who knew how to write a compelling, complex, and comical version of Tessa Thompson’s character. She deserves better. Instead, we get a bottom-feeding attempt at a thinly-veiled crowd pleaser with shallow hot leads, plodding comedy, completely undeveloped villains, shoddy green screen set pieces, a carbon copy climactic showdown at a major landmark, and ultimately, two thoroughly prosaic hours of nonstop tedium.