The original Men In Black was a divinely weird piece of cinema, a film that takes inspiration from the world’s most outrageous tabloids (the bat boy ones, not the celebrity rags)—but can you sustain that particular brand of magic over 20 years? With each sequel, the attempts to franchise-ify the series never quite passed muster.
But adding Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth to the mix sure doesn’t hurt.
Men In Black: International suffers from many of the same problems that burden all of the MIB sequels—an over-reliance on CGI, a paper thin plot, and too-obvious twists. The original was fresh and delightful because it was a boots-on-the-ground kind of story, one where world peril came almost as a wonderful afterthought instead of the raison d’être. Practical effects mingled with digital ones, making the world grosser and stranger. There was nothing sleek about the original, nothing shiny and new. People love to praise films like Star Wars for their “lived-in” quality, but MIB took that sensibility to a far grander and more personal conclusion. It pointed at the inherent strangeness of the mundane in such a pointed way.
Once you’ve established a successful idea, however, the goal will always be to replicate it. The need for discovery is lost and the desire to make everything “feel” unified becomes paramount. You can see the excited designer pitching concepts to a conference room of powerful people: “I really wanted to make sure these looked like Men In Black aliens,” the designer says, and everyone around the table nods and hums and adds notes. But once you’ve defined what a “Men In Black alien” looks like, you’ve lost that oddball little spark that made it great to begin with. Defining something too carefully can turn it into a paint-by-numbers exercise, a list of boring rules that stand in the way of innovation and creativity. Unfortunately, the design of Men In Black: International feels precisely this way from the top down, and it contributes to all the places where the film drags.
There is one thing that the movie knows how to make the most of, and that’s its stars. Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth are charming as hell as Agents M and H, with M playing the part of the new recruit who actually knows about physics and astronomy and all the things that make the universe tick, and H taking up space as the chaotic pansexual who hasn’t managed to get his life back together after a messy breakup. Emma Thompson is polish personified as the (tragically underused) Agent O, who is now heading the US branch in Zed’s place. Kumail Nanjiani adds his unmistakable tenor to M and H’s new alien pal dubbed “Pawny”, in the sort of part that makes or breaks a film like this—but Nanjiani keeps the character equal parts silly, endearing, and genuinely helpful, so he’s always a welcome addition to the group.
Agent M herself (actual name Molly) feels like a gift to the sort of fan who grew up on the MIB films; twenty years earlier, as a little girl who loved science and space, she got a visit from an alien and saw the Men In Black come to handle the problem—and her parents. Having spent years trying to find them, she finally locates MIB HQ and tries to infiltrate the organization. This is what she’s been living for, and she’s a prodigy in more ways than one, making her a fun and unique type of straight-laced foil to Agent H and his general disaster aesthetic. The movie tries to have a more global reach (that’s why it’s subtitled “International” after all), but never manages the kind of deep knowledge and sense of place that made the original New York location so believable, so the idea never totally sells itself. If Men In Black wants to go all James Bond, it’s going to need to work harder in the future.
The reveals in the film are the sort that you can see coming from miles away, and that does take quite a bit of the fun out of the exercise. On the other hand, the film is not particularly interested in hiding said reveals, which makes it seem like someone gave up halfway through writing the script. It does know exactly what the audience wants from its leads, however—at a certain point, we get a costume change that sees Hemsworth being hapless in pink trousers and loafers while Thompson is sporting black spy gear and free-climbing a cliffside. That doesn’t prevent certain weird gaps in timing, where characters seem to leap from one scenario to another without indication of how they arrived there, but c’est la vie. (Sorry, part of the film takes place in Paris and it seems to have switched on the part of my brain that remembers high school French.)
But perhaps my greatest disappointment with the film comes from one of Hollywood’s favorite give-ins: There’s an extremely awkward crush that the movie attempts to sell between Agents M and H. Seeing Thompson and Hemsworth flirt is always a pleasure—they have great chemistry and they’re both endless fun to watch—but the fact that the film felt it had to make the relationship into something more in such a short span of time, and then use it as fodder to rib Agent M about the “vocation versus love” decision that women in fiction have been called on to make constantly feels forced at best. Films always seem to forget that you can be friends who flirt sometimes. Or friends who want to have a fling, but remain friends. Or you can just be friends and have a great working partnership. This wouldn’t be as big of the deal, but it genuinely makes the film’s ending something of a muddled confusion, and makes the set up for a potential sequel even more befuddling.
Men In Black: International may not have the verve of the original—perhaps nothing can—but it doesn’t make me want them to stop creating Men In Black films. Because there’s a weirder corner of the universe out there, and every time the MIB is back, we get a chance to peek in on it. That’s reason enough for me to want a second outing from the International crew.