'Men in Black' and When Spectacle Isn't Enough

Men in Black International-Publicity Still 9-H 2019
Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures
Effects that were impressive a decade ago are no longer enough to draw an audience.

[This story contains spoilers for Men in Black: International]

When the movie camera was first invented, the novelty of a moving image was enough to keep an audience enthralled. But after a little while, that novelty wore off and movies had to do more. They had to tell stories. To become bigger, longer, more complex. Each had to do things that other films hadn’t done before, to seem new enough that audiences weren’t left feeling like they paid for something they had already bought.

The Men in Black films, like most major action movies, have never been known for innovative storytelling or brilliant dialogue. But the previous installments have done well at the box office anyway. International did not, earning just $28 million domestically. There was plenty of behind-the-scenes drama that led to a final product that didn't click with audiences.There are arguments to be made that a bland storyline is to blame, or perhaps it's franchise fatigue. 

There’s another potential explanation as to why Men in Black: International has failed to click with audiences, and it has to do with spectacle. Spectacle has long been a key part of the draw of big-budget Hollywood films. And for a long time, spectacle in terms of what films were using the most cutting-edge technology — had the most lifelike monsters, the most extensive battle sequences and so on — quite often corresponded with what films did well.

Think of a film like Avatar (2009). No one was writing home about the story. In spite of the various box office records it broke, the actual content of the film has left little lasting impression on popular culture in comparison to other comparable box office successes. While Jaws lives on in references like, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” and the characters of the Star Wars films or the Marvel Cinematic Universe are household names, a lot of people would have a far more difficult time recalling any characters or lines of dialogue from Avatar. And this is because Avatar is the sort of film that reached the heights it did by merit of technical spectacle — immersing the audience in what, for many, was a compellingly photorealistic alien world.

When it comes to the visual effects in terms of sheer verisimilitude, 2019 audiences have grown so accustomed to what was deemed extraordinary just a decade ago that it’s now much more likely to see a film prominently criticized for uncompelling CGI than admired for the photorealism of its VFX. What was once exceptional is now standard, and, because of that, what would wow audiences even 10 years ago is now taken for granted as standard operating procedure. Audiences in this day and age know they can’t believe their eyes — they’re not instantly wowed by the “unbelievable” the way they once were. And for films like the Men in Black franchise that’s an ominous prospect.

There are numerous scenes in MIB: International that are intended to entertain by merit of spectacle. Scenes where the newly hired Agent M (Tessa Thompson) looks on in wonder at a many-legged alien or watches what first appears to be a dingy city subway car transform into a futuristic, luxuriously furnished high-speed rail.

The problem is that eclectic alien critters and metamorphosing trains just don’t cut it on their own merits any more. Not in a world where audiences have already seen six Transformers films and watched epic zombie versus dragon battles in a television show.

The current state of technological advancements means that far more is possible than ever before, but it also means that audiences are harder to impress than ever before. For several years now, there’s been a steady stream of narratively bland, generally generic blockbusters that have tried to coast along by merit of CGI wizardry — and it hasn't worked. For those big-budget action-adventure films that have done well as of late, there’s usually at least one other selling point. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for instance, has its beloved cast of characters and a massive fan base significantly invested in them, while the John Wick franchise has innovative, over-the-top fight scenes.

Even at the concept level, Men in Black: International runs into the basic issue of not having any particular angle or selling point that isn’t covered by another ongoing franchise. Star Wars and Star Trek both have aliens, Harry Potter has a special world carefully hidden from normal people, James Bond has secret agents. It’s not just that International lacks any unique appeal, but also that it’s hard to even imagine where such an appeal might even be found.

Audiences evolve, and not all concepts have the same ability to change with them, no matter how hard studios may try. Perhaps, for the Men in Black franchise, that means it’s time to retire.