12:30pm PT by Richard Newby
'Men in Black International' Aims to Revamp the Series
Here come the Men in Black. They won’t let you remember. And if the trailer for the latest installment is any indication, they won’t let you forget, either. Men in Black felt like one of those franchises that had simply run its course. Men in Black 3 (2012) ended the series on a strong note, even if its $624 million global summer box office haul was overshadowed by the likes of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. While looked at fondly, no one was exactly clamoring for another installment. But Sony’s trailer for the F. Gary Gray-directed Men in Black International promises a must-see film that we didn’t know we wanted by reminding us that in 1997, there was nothing cooler than Men in Black.
The trailer taps into our nostalgia for the series, particularly Barry Sonnenfeld’s first movie, in a unique way. While we get a few bars of Danny Elfman’s familiar score, the trailer doesn’t use Will Smith’s iconic rap song, or even make mention of Agents J or K, though we do see a portrait of them fighting Edgar the Bug on the HQ walls. Instead of revisiting familiar beats, the trailer taps into the feeling we got when we were introduced to this world the first time. We’ve got new characters, Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) and Agent M (Tessa Thompson), new weapons and vehicles, and new aliens. The trailer suggests a reboot, while Emma Thompson’s presence as Agent O and the insect-like, coffee-loving aliens assures us that we’re in the same the same world as the first three films. As a result, the trailer makes a statement that this pic is both a throwback to what audiences loved about the original and an expansion that will cover new ground.
There’s a sense of history here, though only shown briefly, that makes us excited to be introduced to these new characters, something Sony’s Ghostbusters (2016) didn’t manage to accomplish but its 21 Jump Street (2012) reboot did so confidently. Men in Black International seems to recognize that audiences are more likely to embrace new franchise iterations when they are given the gratifying experience of returning to worlds that are already lived in, as opposed to the clean slate approach. Because no matter how appealing a film’s leads are, and Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson certainly fit that bill, a sense of forward motion is necessary. So as much as MIB: International seeks to remind us of the past by utilizing nostalgia as a feeling rather than an aesthetic, it also suggests a future different, and possibility more exciting than the three movies we’ve seen before.
Another interesting aspect to the trailer is that it keeps the film’s aliens secret for the most part. While this could be attributed to unfinished effects work — there’s nothing more damaging to blockbuster buzz than a trailer that shows unfinished creature works too early — it also suggests a mystery-box approach. Just as the original MIB trailer saved its best surprises for the film, MIB: International appears to be taking the same route, including setting up a mystery behind the identity of Thompson’s Agent M. Because we don’t see much of the aliens, the film gets to show off what really makes this iteration different from what’s come before: action sequences.
While Sonnenfeld’s films were filled with impressive visual effects work (well, 2002's MIB 2 was kind of dodgy), in terms of action they don’t really compare to the fight scenes and stunt work we see in today’s blockbuster landscape. But Gray, fresh off of The Fate of the Furious (2017), looks to be providing a slick new stylization to alien law enforcement. The original Men in Black pics utilized the buddy-cop angle of police procedurals, while Men in Black International looks like it’s taking a page from Mission: Impossible in order to expand the mission of protecting the Earth into new territory. The shift not only reflects our changing world dynamics, but also creates a larger playing field. The emphasis on a global mission, and the idea the MIB is a global front, is the boost the series needs to ensure the possibility of multiples films with different star groupings, should this installment prove successful.
Men in Black, produced by Amblin Entertainment, carried much of Steven Spielberg’s spirit with its blend of sci-fi and Americana. Although Amblin is also behind the new film, there’s an awareness that modern blockbuster filmmaking has as much to learn and borrow from J.J. Abrams as it did from Spielberg. Mysterious identities and a globe-trotting, espionage-centric plot feel like direct references to Abrams’ works, and that’s not a bad influence from which to draw. While not expected to lead the way in terms of the stylistic evolution of blockbuster genre films, Men in Black International looks to utilize what has worked so well for other franchises to regain its place in the conversation and deliver a satisfying next step for a series we didn’t realize how much we missed until today.