4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“You really think a black suit is going to solve all your problems?” — Men in Black International

While 2012’s Men in Black 3 was a bigger success than 2002’s Men in Black II, the notion of continuing the series was hindered by the aging process. Tommy Lee Jones is in his seventies now, and Will Smith is in his fifties. Plus both are high-profile actors whose schedules are ever-difficult to coordinate.

So Sony hit on the notion of introducing a pair of younger agents to anchor a possible ongoing series, and hit comedy gold with the already-established team of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who co-starred in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame to good effect.

Though he served as an executive producer, this was the first MIB film not to be directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, with F. Gary Gray instead sitting in the director’s chair. The script was by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, whose writing has previously been seen in this rewatch in Iron Man and Punisher: War Zone.

In addition to Hemsworth and Thompson, who play, respectively, Agents H and M, Liam Neeson plays High T (yes, really), the head of the London branch of MIB, and Rafe Spall as Agent C. The various aliens include Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois, a.k.a. the dancers Les Twins, as the energy creatures known simply as the Twins, as well as Rebecca Ferguson as Riza, Kumail Nanjiani as Pawny, a tiny alien who decides that Agent M is his queen, and Kayvan Novak, who provides voice and motion capture for Vungus the Ugly, the voice for the CGI alien Bassam, and also plays the alien Nasr, in whose beard Bassam lives.

Back from Men in Black 3 are Emma Thompson as Agent O, head of the New York division. Back from Men in Black II are Tim Blaney as Frank the Pug and the worm guys, voiced this go-round by Thom Fountain and Drew Massey.

Reportedly, producer Walter F. Parkes clashed with Gray and rewrote Marcum and Holloway’s script, removing a lot of subversive elements from the script. Hemsworth and Thompson apparently hired their own people to rewrite some of their own dialogue after Parkes’s rewrites. Both Parkes and Gray edited the film, with Sony choosing Parkes’s over Gray’s.

The film got a lackluster reception both critically and financially. Despite the whole point of the exercise being to enable the series to continue with Hemsworth and Thompson, there appears to be no current development of a sequel.

 

“We are the Men in Black…”

Men in Black International
Written by Matt Holloway & Art Marcum
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Produced by Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald
Original release date: June 11, 2019

Screenshot: Sony Pictures

We open three years ago at the Eiffel Tower. Agents H and High T are there to confront the Hive, an alien species that is using the Tower—which is a terminus for a wormhole used by some aliens to travel to Earth—to attempt an invasion. The agents have to neuralyze a couple who snuck to the top of the tower (the man was about to propose when the MIBs show up), and then they fend off the Hive.

Twenty years ago in New York, two MIB agents find a baby alien creature in an apartment rented by a husband and wife and their young daughter. The agents neuralyze the parents after they assure the agents that their daughter is asleep. But Molly isn’t asleep, and she helps the baby alien escape MIB custody after watching her parents get neuralyzed.

Molly spends the rest of her life trying to find out who those agents worked for. She applies to the FBI, CIA, and other agencies saying she wants to work for the division that deals with aliens. They all reject her for being psychologically unsound. She does, however, develop mad computer skillz, and manages to hack into the Hubbell Telescope while working a customer service IT job.

She tracks a spaceship to a location in Brooklyn and manages to penetrate a holographic camouflage that two MIB agents put up while dealing with a couple of aliens. She changes into an MIB-style suit and follows the agents to the Battery Tunnel ventilation structure and thinks she bluffs her way into MIB HQ. In fact, they cotton to her right off, and she’s detained and brought to Agent O, who is about to neuralyze her when she tells them about what happened when she was a kid and how she managed to find them, even though it took twenty-three years. She has no family or connections, she’s perfect for the job, and she’s been trying to find it all her life.

O decides to make her a probationary member and sends her to the London office, where there are some problems, and she wants the newly christened Agent M to find out what they are.

We catch up with Agent H, who deals with an alien threat in Marrakesh, though he has to sleep with a female alien in order to win the day.

High T greets M upon her arrival in London (on a train that goes at supersonic speeds under the Atlantic), and she also meets Agents H and C. C doesn’t like H very much, and thinks he’s been coasting on his reputation since the Eiffel Tower incident.

Two energy creatures arrive on Earth in Marrakesh and kill a human, both taking on his form. They then interrogate an alien queen who looks like a piece on a chess set.

H is assigned to hang out with Vungus the Ugly on his latest visit to Earth. Vungus and H are old friends, and Vungus is a member of a royal family, so they need to treat him well. H is looking forward to partying with his buddy, and he invites M along as well. M thinks that H is giving her a chance to get field experience, but the truth is that Vungus likes women, and H figures he’ll find M attractive. M isn’t thrilled with this, and she also notices the twins moving in on Vungus. Meanwhile, Vungus is trying to tell H something, but he’s not really listening.

The twins attack as Vungus drives away, and it’s a brutal confrontation. H and M manage to drive the twins off, but Vungus is killed. Right before he dies, he gives M a crystal, tells her that something’s wrong with H (he’s not the same as he was) and that there’s a mole in MIB.

M and H are brought before High T, who is not only going to neuralyze them, but turn them over to Vungus’s people, who demand the death penalty. But M points out that the only people who knew where Vungus would be were in the room when H got the assignment. There has to be a mole. High T assigns H and M to find the mole. High T also says that the twins have DNA traces of the Hive.

H invites M to come with him to Marrakesh to follow up on a lead. They find the queen from the chess set dead, as are all her pawns save one. The pawn tells them about the twins killing them all, and is about to commit suicide, but H convinces him to pledge his loyalty to a new queen—say, M. “Pawny” does so, to M’s chagrin.

C gets traffic cam footage showing Vungus handing M the crystal, and now he’s convinced that she’s the mole. He sends agents to bring M and H in.

H and M escape the agents sent to capture them, and discover that the crystal is a compressed version of a powerful weapon powered by a blue giant star. They escape their pursuers into the desert, with the help of an alien contact of H’s named Bassam, but by the time they return to Marrakesh, Bassam steals the crystal and brings it to Riza, an alien crimelord whom H used to date.

H, M, and Pawny go to the island off Naples where Riza is headquartered. H pretends that he’s been kicked out of MIB and wants to rekindle their relationship while Panwy and M get the crystal. That doesn’t work, but Riza’s head of security is the grown-up version of the alien baby M rescued when she was a little girl, and out of gratitude, the alien gets the crystal back and keeps Riza at bay while they try to escape.

And then High T shows up to rescue them from the rest of Riza’s people. All is seemingly forgiven, but when H and M and C all look at the evidence, they realize that the twins weren’t with the Hive, they wanted the weapon to use against the Hive. Also the evidence in the case was never checked as High T said it was, and the file has been erased.

M and H head to the Eiffel Tower, where High T has gone, ostensibly to greet alien arrivals. While they’re en route, M realizes that H describes his and High T’s fight against the Hive three years earlier exactly the same way every time. H is shocked to discover he was neuralyzed. High T was assimilated by the Hive three years previous and neuralyzed H to cover his tracks. It’s why H has been such a lousy agent since then.

They confront High T, who is about to open a wormhole to let the Hive invade Earth. H, M, and Pawny manage to stop him and destroy the wormhole.

O arrives in Paris to make M a full agent and put H in charge of London branch.

 

“…the Men and Women in Black!”

Screenshot: Sony Pictures

One of the reasons why the first three MIB movies were so appealing—especially the first one—was the macabre goofiness that Barry Sonnenfeld brought to them. (It’s also why his two Addams Family movies were so glorious.)

F. Gary Gray is not the same kind of director, and while he’s superlative at action, generally, and particularly good at movies with strong dialogue and intense verbal confrontations to go with the action, it’s always been pretty straightforward. This is fine for most of his oeuvreBe Cool, The Fate of the Furious, The Italian Job, The Negotiator, etc.—but doesn’t quite fit the gonzo mentality of MIB. To use a comics analogy, Gray is more Jack Kirby or John Byrne when the MIB films need to be more Steve Ditko or Gahan Wilson.

And Gray’s usual action chops are not really in evidence here, as the film is remarkably limp and poorly paced. Everything just seems so perfunctory, there because it’s the next part in the script, not because anything on screen actually dictates that we go there. There’s nothing particularly exciting about the action sequences.

It isn’t aided by a storyline that, as filmed, doesn’t seem to care all that much. It’s not at all clear how dangerous the Hive is—we’re told it, but never shown it—it’s not at all clear why the Hive is waiting three years to invade again. Plus, the dialogue has no spark to it at all. There are very few memorable lines, very few particularly funny bits, it just sort of sits there, limply. All the best bits were in the trailers, which is never good. Hell, one bit was actually funnier in the trailers, when M announces that she’ll drive and gets in the left-hand side of the car, forgetting that they drive on the other side in the UK—except she’d previously been in a UK car on UK roads in the movie, so the joke makes no sense in context.

There are also two attempts to lampshade the fact that it’s called “Men in Black” when there are women who work there, too. One works—Agent O’s plaintive, “Don’t get me started” when M asks about it, as it’s a battle she’s tired of fighting—and the other really doesn’t—H adding “and women!” unconvincingly while giving M a solidarity thumbs-up. (I used it for the subheads for this rewatch anyhow because there was a paucity of good lines to use for that, a major indictment of the script. Sigh.)

And the story beats are all irritatingly familiar. We’re four movies in, and every single time, we’ve had some kind of variation on “new person has to have the realities of the crazinesss explained to them.” It was J in the first one, the neuralyzed K in the second, the younger K in the third (in this case, having the future explained to him, kinda), and M here. I’m glad they at least made an effort to differentiate H and M from K and J—H is more Tony Stark than Joe Friday, and M bullies her way into it instead of being recruited—and Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson continue the excellent chemistry they’ve displayed in their Marvel movies together, but it still feels like a pale copy of the chemistry Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones had. Speaking of pale copies, we also have Pawny. I hasten to add that this is not Kumail Nanjiani’s fault—he’s delightful as Pawny’s voice—but the character himself is such an obvious attempt to do Frank the Pug again and it’s wearying.

It’s not a complete disaster. Actually, it isn’t a disaster at all, it’s just dull. But Les Twins are superb as the twin energy beings, using their dancing skills to create magnificently alien body language. But it’s really the only memorable part of a movie that wastes a setup, a setting, and several great actors in a movie that just sits dolefully on the screen.

 

Next week, the final film in the current cycle of X-Men team movies, as they take a second shot at Dark Phoenix.

Keith R.A. DeCandido can’t believe it’s 2020 and there are no actual flying cars like the ones MIB have. What the hell, reality?

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