Note: contains minor spoilers for the Men in Black trilogy
Men In Black: International opens this week. Now is as good a time as any to revisit the series and examine it. What makes these films so successful? What is their secret? Let’s take a look at the original trilogy to find out.
Men In Black
Surprisingly, most of the elements that make the MIB films tick are present in the first act of the first film (roughly the first 22 minutes). The blueprint for the series’ success is set up at the beginning of the very first film.
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One of the most important elements of the MIB series are the memorable creatures. From the pawn shop dealer Jack Jeebs, to the sarcastic worms who love caffeine and cigarettes, to the baby alien J helps deliver to Geoff the giant subway worm, and to Frank the Pug, the Men in Black movies always have memorable aliens. This is thanks in large part to the legendary make up artist Rick Baker, who won an Oscar for his work on the first MIB.
The first film opens with Agent K busting a space alien named Mikey posing as an illegal alien crossing the border. K shoots him when he tries to run…which brings us to another element that makes these movies tick.
Guns. Noisy cricket. Neuralizers. Monocycles. Jetpacks. What is a Men in Black film without some high-tech fun? We get our first taste of this when K shoots the alien Mikey with his futuristic-looking sidearm. Then K uses a neuralyzer on the border patrol agents to erase their memories. The neuralyzer — or “flashy thingy” as Agent J calls it — is perhaps the most useful (or at least) piece of MIB equipment. There is even one in the Statue of Liberty’s torch for city-wide emergencies.
After neuralyzing the border patrol agents, Agent K gets his first memorable line. “I’m just a figment of your imagination,” he says in response to someone asking who he is. The Men in Black movies are known for slick dialogue, but the first film is probably the most quotable. Especially Agent J’s line, “I make this look good.” Later in the film, Zed describes MIB agents, saying, “”You are a rumor disguised as deja vu.” And, of course, near the end K explains, “Elvis is not dead. He just went home.”
Comedy is another essential ingredient to the MIB movies. After the introduction to K, the audience gets to meet Will Smith’s character, the soon-to-be Agent J. He gets one of my favorite Will Smith moments of all time. He’s a cop. While chasing a suspect, he jumps off a bridge onto a double decker tour bus. He says, “It just be raining black people in New York,” and keeps going. It’s hilarious.
Later in the film, the audience finds out Sylvester Stallone and other famous people are aliens. This gag gets even better as the series goes on. The twist with Andy Warhol in Part 3 is the best!
Agent J also gets the other piece of dialogue that always makes me laugh from the original. He’s trying to tell Gladys to create a better life for herself after neuralyzing her. “…And hire a decorator to come in here quick ’cause damn.” (You have to hear him say it.)
MIB 3 introduces a quirky comic role who is one of my favorite movie characters of all time. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Griffin, a being that can see all future timelines at the same time. Stuhlbarg’s manner — how he is friendly and frantic — reminds me of a young Robin Williams.
A Good Villain
Each of the MIB movies has a strong villain. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Edgar is a tough act to follow, with his odd speech and mannerisms. It’s a performance that sticks with you. However, Lara Flynn Boyle as Sarleena and Jemaine Clement as Boris the Animal are pretty scary in their own right. In the original, the audience gets to meet Edgar the man, who is a monster even before an alien force takes over his body.
The chemistry between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones (and later with Josh Brolin) has been essential to the success of the franchise. Act one of the first film ends with Agent K taking Will Smith’s character to the pawn shop to see if he can identify an alien weapon. Even though Smith is not K’s partner yet, he and K easily fall into a good-cop-bad-cop routine as soon as they walk into the store. The two agents have a great partnership throughout the series, and they feed each other great dialogue even when K doesn’t recognize J due to amnesia or time travel.
So how much of this formula will the new Men in Black movie adhere to? The film has new creatures. Kumail Nanjani voices a small alien called Pawny in the trailer that provides some comic relief. The bad news is that Rick Baker retired some time after the third film and was not available to lend his talents to this film. There is also some new technology, including a new car with different features, and a powerful weapon the agents try out in the desert.
The trailers are lacking in smooth or memorable dialogue and the comedy is a little corny. The Thor reference has been the best joke so far. Rebecca Ferguson’s character Riza seems to be the main villain, but we’ve only gotten glimpses of her in the trailers. It’s hard to tell if she’ll be as menacing as Edgar or Boris. As far as chemistry goes, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson have worked together as Thor and Valkyrie on Marvel films. Hopefully some of the chemistry from those films will translate here. They seem to work okay together in the trailers, but there isn’t much to go on.
The Men in Black universe is a lot of fun. It would be nice if this turns out to be a way to keep it going.
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What Makes Men In Black Tick? Looking Back on the MIB Series and Why It Works
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Golden Man loves comedies, romantic films, superhero movies, and awards bait. He blogs about the Oscar race all year long at www.etchedingold.ninja