There’s not much to like about Men in Black: International, the latest entry in the franchise originally built upon the comedic chops of Will Smith and the beyond-deadpan of Tommy Lee Jones. While the new leads, Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, are bonafide movie stars, the film chugs along at reduced speeds, offering us a generic rehash of alien invasion plots with a few not-terrible jokes along the way. And this underperformance by some of our favorite actors would be frustrating enough if it was not for another thing: in its reexamination of how the men in black use the amnesia-inducing “neuralyzers” to rewrite people’s memories, Men in Black: International almost (almost) stumbled upon one of the more important lessons in trauma of the summer season.
Hemsworth’s character is, of course, the second person struggling with a trauma that the actor has played this summer. While Thor’s battle with depression in Avengers: Endgame set the stage for some frustrating fat jokes, the film’s ultimate path for the character — that he was someone seeking an internal transformation, not an external one — helped make his the most poignant arc in a crowded lineup. “Trauma is a part of you, but it doesn’t own you, and it doesn’t have to dictate your future,” wrote Nerdist’s Lindsey Romain on the movie. “Thor is a sigil of hope for those who live with the pain of the past. His scars only make him stronger.” Hemsworth’s willingness to explore trauma with one of his most beloved characters opened the door for Agent H to take a similar journey.
Even beyond the charisma of Hemsworth as an actor, there’s a lot in common between Thor and Agent H. While H is introduced to the audience as a bit of an intergalactic loose cannon — he doesn’t always play by the rules, but goddamn, he gets results! — it isn’t until the film starts pointing to a secret memory wipe that we recognize the warning signs of repressed trauma. In one key sequence, the extraplanetary visitor H should be protecting decides he cannot trust the agent because there’s something different about him, an accusation that H drunkenly (and regretfully) shakes off. Meanwhile, Liam Neeson‘s High T complains more than once that H is no longer the agent he once was, even pointing to a portrait of the two of them fighting the Hive as proof of the agent he seems to have lost.
And it’s not just Hemsworth. Thompson’s Agent M is also a victim of trauma, only one that sees her struggling to be believed in a world that has been altered around her. M’s emotional development has effectively been on pause since the moment she saw her parents’ memories erased; a lifetime of having her truth rebuffed by the people she loved the most has taught her to be mistrusting and suspicious of those around her. When Agent H and Agent M join forces in Men in Black: International, it’s as two people whose entire place in the universe has been dictated by a sense of otherness they could neither describe nor entirely remember. This makes the two of them walking, talking collateral damage for one of the most powerful secret organizations on the face of the planet.
Their shared trauma is rooted in the memory loss that affects them. In 2015, researchers at Northwestern published a study that suggested it was possible for some memories to render themselves inaccessible to the conscious mind. “Eventually those suppressed memories can cause debilitating psychological problems,” noted the Northwestern press release, “such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or dissociative disorders.” Unfortunately, as an offshoot of the #MeToo movement, we’ve also been treated to countless explorations — some scientific, some not — of the links between memory and trauma. This sets the stage for a film that is willing to explore, even at the symbolic level, the relationship between trauma and repression, and the neuralyzer becomes the perfect stand-in for childhood (Agent M) or repressed (Agent H) trauma.
It’s clear that the creative team recognized the potential for the neuralzyer to be more than just a series of running gags. In an interview with CinemaBlend, series producer Walter F. Parkes admits that there was a more compelling narrative to be had around the tool. “You know the thing about the neuralyzer, it’s a very interesting prop in the Men in Black universe,” he explains, “and the idea of taking people’s memories away and putting in false memories, which we’ve used but sort of around the kind of periphery of our plots, might have a little more central role in this one.” This speaks to one of the odder things about the movies: for as much as the Men in Black series has drawn on paranoia-based science fiction of the previous decades, it seems unwilling to come to terms with its most recognizable tool. At last count, more than 100 film critics used some form of a neuralyzer gag in their review of the film. This is the movie’s cultural footprint.
And it should’ve been its guiding light. The film’s depiction of trauma — of the pain caused by the continual memory erasure — offers a clear path forward for the franchise, one that taps into some pretty fertile thematic territory. As long as we’ve had Men in Black films, we’ve had jokes at the expense of people who have been neuralyzed. Our first introduction to the technology inspires Tommy Lee Jones to grouse about the primitive nature of humanity; as the franchise moves forward, these erasures are either played for comedy or, in more serious moments, treated as a melancholic burden carried by these brave government soldiers. The idea that these erasures have profound, lasting implications for both the neuralyzed and their loved ones would upset the entire franchise as we know it while fitting neatly within the boundaries of science fiction as a genre (“Man Plays With a Technology He Cannot Understand”).
That’s the movie Men in Black: International sometimes hints it could become, and that’s the movie I desperately wish I could’ve seen. Whatever insights the film may have offered into trauma and repression are quickly cast aside in favor of spectacle and half-written comedy bits; before long, we realize that neither Hemsworth nor Thompson — funny as they are — have enough jokes in their back pockets to compensate for the fact that the movie has nothing to add to the conversation. If this franchise ever does climb its way out of the deep hole it has found itself in, I hope that the producers recognize they have an opportunity to make something with a little bit of staying power this time.