The crippling ennui of ‘Men in Black: International’

They’re so pretty! Images courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

1/10 In 2016, Sony rebooted Ghostbusters, a beloved comedy franchise that’s actually just one good movie and a bunch of other media that everyone forgot about. It lost $70 million.

Now it’s three years later, and Sony has rebooted Men in Black, a beloved comedy franchise that’s actually just one good movie and a bunch of other media that everyone forgot about. The break-even point is $300 million worldwide, and it’s probably not going to get there.

After witnessing the Men in Black as a child, Molly (Tessa Thompson) spends her life seeking the department. After finding the agency on her own terms, Molly, now Agent M, is deployed to the London bureau, where Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) – pronounced “Hache” – reluctantly partners with her on some such mission to save the world form somewhere, I really don’t know. Men in Black: International is the kind of movie you forget as soon as you leave the theater.

The Transformers series is the dominant example of movies that you don’t remember having watched. While they create that feeling through an astonishing amount of visual noiseMen in Black: International creates it in almost every other conceivable way. There’s too many plot points that come too fast, and particularly the kind of plot points that deny the audience its grounding – changes in location, changes in power dynamics, plot revelations that don’t feel important because they’re modifying things that already didn’t feel important.

Things that should make this movie stand out just don’t. After so many superhero movies, even cutting-edge special effects feel old. Entire gimmicks feel worn out. One of the few plot points I actually remember, mostly because it was in the trailer, is M and H discovering the mystery macguffin they’re carrying is a planet-destroying weapon – just like in Guardians of the Galaxy. Men in Black: International is the third movie this year, and at the time of release was the second movie in as many weeks, to feature shape-shifting aliens as the main villains.

Men in Black: International is the feature-length version of that advert that conspicuously pops up on your phone after you mention a product within earshot. It’s not a matter of overbearing product placement – though Sony has developed a nasty reputation for that, and Lexus definitely got its money’s worth here – it’s something more insidious. Men in Black: International aspires to be helpful. Don’t connect with the intense bisexual energy of Hemsworth and Thompson? Here’s Kumail Nanjiani as toy-sized, wise-cracking goober, and a chess metaphor so he’ll seem intellectual. Do you not like this Lexus? Well, maybe you’ll enjoy this non-branded hoverbike H rides around on later.

Here’s a classic call-to-adventure story about M finding her way into the MIB. Not for you? Well, here’s a cloak-and-dagger intrigue story about a mole in the organization. Would you like more popcorn? Have some gaudy CGI action and gun porn, but also a subplot about how arms dealers are bad. Don’t forget to mention that you saw this movie at the office and on social media. Please, try my product. Please clap.

This is probably my favorite and most weirdly bad scene- in their first encounter with the hive villains, H and M have an extended shootout using advanced alien weaponry hidden in compartments in their Black 2020 Lexus RC F. Their weapons keep being ineffective, and H keeps pulling out progressively bigger ones for more firepower, and this happens like five times. There’s guns in the door, the wheel hubs are a clip in this image, the exhaust pipe is a longarm, it looks like the car is more than 50% gun by mass. It is absolutely ridiculous, and it’s not meant to be at all.

Looking at the clown story behind the scenes, Men in Black: International becomes even worse. The script that attracted Hemsworth and Thompson featured a villain based on The Beatles and tackled the immigration debate – though if that’s the case, it was sure to have been dated at the time of release by some recent crimes against humanity – but that script was more or less scrapped at the behest of series producer Walter F. Parkes, who reportedly overrode director F. Gary Gray. Hemsworth and Thompson ended up receiving new scripts every day, and they quickly hired their own script doctors to go over their lines and make sure they didn’t get stuck with a “handsome honka honka” moment.

What’s notable about it as a narrative work is how empty this process has left the character arcs. M is set up wonderfully as an audience-surrogate and protagonist. She doesn’t know anything about the MIB, only that she wants in. In a properly handled story, her enthusiasm for the franchise she’s forced her way into would transfer to the audience, and her orientation and training would provide a great, plot-driven introduction to key mechanics and material for future sequels, but in Men in Black: International, her arc is simply dropped halfway through and then picked up again at the end.

H has a redemption arc, but it doesn’t carry any weight because of some utterly negligent omissions – we never see him before his fall from grace or after his redemption. We’re told repeatedly that his character isn’t what he used to be, and he’s implied to be back again at the end of the runtime, but he never actually makes a substantial change onscreen.

Pawny (Nanjiani) is completely useless and clearly only there to sell toys.

This isn’t just a cashgrab. This is a horrifying patchwork chimera of different ideas and motives, brought together into a single runtime and pushed through theaters. Usually, even the most stifling commercial efforts need to have some kind of artistic motive to get across the finish line, but Men in Black: International seems to have gotten there without one.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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