It used to be, movies were star-driven. If you liked John Wayne or Steve McQueen, you’d check out whatever film they were in. But with the rise of superhero cinema and endless reboots and remakes, we’re now oriented toward iconic characters and recognizable titles. Actors are still somewhat important, but only if they’re attached to intellectual property we know and, in theory, love.
This development isn’t all bad. You have the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Mission: Impossible and the Pixar films: critically acclaimed and massively popular properties that are, for the most part, a pleasure to keep watching. But then you’ve got those other franchises — the ones that won’t die, no matter how much we’d like to kill them off. I think of them as zombie franchises — unloved, pitiful creatures cursed to spend the rest of their days haunting half-empty movie theaters. Nobody was asking for another installment of these series, but too bad, you’re getting one anyway. These movies aren’t just woeful — they’re actively heartbreaking in their pointlessness.
The latest example is Men in Black: International, which hits theaters 22 years after the original film — and seven years since the most recent chapter, Men in Black 3. Presumably, if you had any interest in seeing this movie, it was because you really enjoyed Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the first three films. Well, I’ve got bad news for you: They’re not in this one. So why would you bother? Sony is hoping you will because you simply like the idea of supporting something that contains the general elements of a Men in Black film — you know, weird aliens and people in black-and-white suits and sunglasses. Men in Black: International is like a cosplay of the original trilogy, with Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth dressing up as new characters in this familiar world. It has all the accouterments of Men in Black — including Danny Elfman’s original ooky-spooky score — without giving you anything that would make it a memorable experience.
Sony has been studiously tending to its zombie franchises in recent years. Last year, we got The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which vainly hoped to reanimate a franchise that had lain dormant since David Fincher’s 2011 American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In 2016, Sony revamped Ghostbusters — which hadn’t had a new installment since 1989 — with an all-female cast, inspiring, as you no doubt remember, universal acclaim and no controversy whatsoever. In fairness, though, Sony isn’t alone in this ghoulish, gender-switch business: In 2018, Warner Bros. sought to freshen up its Ocean’s series — which hadn’t had a new edition since 2007 — by casting Sandra Bullock and fellow A-list actresses for Ocean’s 8.
Like several of those other series, Men in Black: International hopes to prolong an outdated brand by letting a woman play in a traditional male-only franchise. Thompson stars as Agent M, who lands her dream job as a member of the Men in Black, joining forces with dashing, jerky Agent H (Hemsworth). Smith and Jones’ characters from the original trilogy are mentioned only in passing, and International makes it clear that the baton has been passed to this new cast. Studios are betting we’ll accept this arrangement: After all, It’s in their interest to keep us invested in an intellectual property rather than movie stars, who have the annoying habit of getting old, or in the case of International actor Liam Neeson, opening their mouth and saying something racist. By comparison, a brand can’t let us down — it’s merely a collection of cool elements, novel ideas and maybe a snazzy logo, all unblemished by messy human error. Seen from that perspective, Hollywood’s attempts to gender-switch its franchises is less about equality than it is about separating an audience’s connection to any particular actor, and instead, concentrating it on the brand itself.
I’m all for diversity, and some of these sequels/spinoffs to zombie franchises have been better than others. But whether it’s the Creed films or Men in Black: International, there’s something deeply depressing about studios’ belief that they can extend these storylines into perpetuity, moving from one generation to the next, confident that we’ll never jump off the bandwagon. I like Thompson and Hemsworth — they’re great together in Thor: Ragnarok — but the entirety of their appeal in International is, “Hey, here are some actors you really enjoy in a movie that’s kinda sorta like one you may have seen years ago.” This isn’t terribly dissimilar than watching Michael B. Jordan (and Thompson) in the Creed movies: “Hey, what if these engaging stars were put through the motions of a Rocky narrative?”
It’s not just the crippling déjà vu that haunts zombie franchises — it’s hard to escape the suspicion that these movies are little more than prudent business decisions. On one level, yes, every film exists to make money for corporate overlords, but at least they usually do us the courtesy of trying to entertain us. Men in Black: International, though, is merely a dreary feature-length simulation, everyone going through the motions of replicating an authentic Men in Black experience. There are sarcastic wisecracks™, jokes about weird celebrities actually being aliens™ and cool gadgets™. Emma Thompson reprises her role as Agent O, and that ugly talking dog is back, all in the name of providing some sense of continuity. But honestly, the whole movie just gave me the creeps.
In zombie lore, the only way to stop the walking dead is to take out the head. Can anything be done to defeat zombie franchises? I dunno, maybe don’t support these movies? Sometimes, that seems to work: The Girl in the Spider’s Web was a commercial dud, effectively killing any chance that we’ll see another of those Lisbeth Salander films for quite some time. Hopefully Men in Black: International will meet a similar fate. But don’t get too optimistic: The box-office disappointment of the all-female Ghostbusters did nothing to dissuade Sony, which is moving forward with a reboot that will come out next summer.
Some franchises obviously stand the test of time — people clearly want to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, even though they rejected last year’s Solo spinoff — while others are just doomed to fade into oblivion. But International’s failure is instructive because it underlines precisely what made the 1997 original so good. Sure, the aliens and special effects and jokes were fun, but so much of Men in Black’s success came from Will Smith’s star power — the charm, style and swagger that only he could provide. Hollywood wants us to pledge allegiance to perfect, compliant IP, but some franchises don’t work without the actors that made us care in the first place.
Here are three other takeaways from Men in Black: International… (Warning: There will be spoilers.)
#1. The way MIB names its agents doesn’t make any sense.
In the original movie, which was based on Lowell Cunningham’s early-1990s comic book, Will Smith’s cop character, James Darrell Edwards III, is assigned the codename Agent J. Now, presumably, that’s because the first letter of his first name is J. (Likewise, Tommy Lee Jones’ character is Agent K because his first name is Kevin.) In the new film, Thompson’s Molly becomes Agent M. Pretty straightforward, right?
Well, a colleague pointed out something to me: In these films, you always see tons of agents walking around the MIB offices. How can you possibly assign them all agent names based on the first letter of their first name? Take MEL: We have a Tierney, a Tracy, a Tasha and me. We can’t all be Agent T. So what does MIB do?
Best I can tell… nobody has any idea. The closest the movies get to acknowledging the problem is in Men in Black 3, where Will Arnett plays Agent AA, Will Smith’s partner in the altered timeline that’s created during that sequel. As someone who went to grade school with two other Tims, MIB’s naming conundrum drives me a bit crazy.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one. About four years ago, redditor SupaBloo took to the internet to post a semi-lengthy treatise on the problem. Unfortunately, he or she botched it:
“Agent K has been an agent way longer than Agent J, but J comes before K in the alphabet. So how are these letters distributed then? They go in order, but in order of availability. There are obviously a lot of agents, but there are only so many letters than can be used. In the third movie, there is an agent with the name Agent AA (Double A). This is a sign that there are so many agents they had to go into double letters to name them all.
“As for the availability thing, when an agent retires their letter goes back into the pool of optional code names. That’s why Agent K isn’t a letter before K. There were already agents with the letters A-J, so he got the next available one; K. The reason I specify retirement, and not death, as a reason for a letter to be reused is because I believe if an agent dies, their letter is retired indefinitely.”
Damn it, SupaBloo, that’s not how they dole out agent names, which someone down the thread explains. Still, though, no one there had any explanation for how MIB handles its multiple-same-first-letter issue. Seems like a pretty silly problem to have for such a top-flight operation: “Sorry, Chuck, we’d love to bring you onboard, but we already have an Agent C.”
#2. It’s pretty easy to guess who the movie’s secret bad guy is.
Men in Black: International contains a disturbing revelation: Someone within the agency is a mole. But who could it be? Agents M and H try to figure it out but, honestly, I knew before I even sat down in the theater.
It goes back to what Roger Ebert once dubbed the “Law of Economy of Characters,” which states, “Movie budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters. Therefore, all characters are necessary to the story — even those who do not seem to be.” Basically, if a big-name actor is in a movie but doesn’t seem like he has much to do, he’s probably the secret bad guy.
That person in International is so obviously Liam Neeson, who plays Agent High T, the head of the London branch of MIB. (Wait, is that how they get around the first-name problem? Or is he High T because he’s in charge? But then how come Emma Thompson’s character isn’t Agent High O? These movies make no sense.) Because Neeson is a major actor but mostly hangs out in the background of International, it’s easy to guess that he’s the mole — and sure enough, he is.
But, also, Neeson is always that guy in movies. Here’s a rule of thumb: If Liam Neeson is in a film in which he’s not the main character, he will almost always be the surprise villain. In Batman Begins, he’s revealed to be Ra’s al Ghul, the evil terrorist Bruce Wayne has been searching for all along. In Widows, his thief character isn’t dead after all, much to the shock of his wife, played by Viola Davis, who’s been mourning him the entire film. (In fact, he orchestrated his death so he could run off with his mistress.) And while it’s a bit of a stretch, you could say he serves a similar function in Martin Scorsese’s drama Silence, where he plays a Jesuit priest who has gone missing in Japan, possibly killed by local nonbelievers. Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield spend the majority of that film trying to find him — only to discover that he’s rejected his faith. Rather than being an innocent, honorable man, Neeson turns out to be a turncoat.
Bottom Line: When Neeson isn’t kicking lots of ass and showing off his particular set of skills in a movie, it’s a safe bet that his character will let everybody else down. Call it the Law of the Secretly Terrible Neeson.
#3. Here’s the Tessa Thompson movie you need to see.
In the past several years, Thompson’s star has been on a meteoric rise. Starting with 2015’s Creed, where she played Michael B. Jordan’s love interest, she’s been in a string of hits (Thor: Ragnarok), indie smashes (Sorry to Bother You) and well-regarded cult items (last year’s terrific sci-fi drama Annihilation). Men in Black: International can be seen as a further indication of her growing popularity — too bad the movie’s so awful.
But to wipe away the memory of International, why not check out one of her first film roles? If you haven’t seen Dear White People, you really should.
Released in the fall of 2014, this Sundance sensation starred Thompson as Samantha, a blunt college activist who speaks truth to power on her radio show, called “Dear White People,” in which she explains to her Caucasian classmates why they’re racist. Anticipating the growing Black Lives Matter movement, Dear White People is a potent exploration of race in America, and writer-director Justin Simien’s feature debut is an unruly but often funny and provocative look at campus life in the age of trigger warnings.
The movie might have been flawed, but it was clear that Thompson was going to be huge. She just had one of those personalities that popped — her Samantha was tough but also tender, and always vibrantly alive. After seeing Dear White People, I remember making a mental note to keep an eye out for whatever she did next. Sometimes, my gut instinct doesn’t end up being right, but with Thompson, I was dead-on. Dear White People went on to become a Netflix series, but the original movie catches the young star at an early peak. She’s just kept doing fun, smart work since — and listen, Men in Black: International is definitely not her fault.