Was 'Men in Black' the Last Movie of Its Kind?

The 1997 Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones film was a comic book adapation back when actors, not IP, were the stars of a film.
Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in 1997's 'Men in Black'   |   Courtesy of Photofest
The 1997 Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones film was a comic book adapation back when actors, not IP, were the stars of a film.

Twenty two years ago, Men in Black was the last gasp of a kind of filmmaking, a comic book movie that didn't publicize the fact that it was a comic book movie. Director Barry Sonnenfeld’s summer blockbuster felt like an “original idea," even though it was an adaptation. Back then, the IP wasn’t the star — the actual stars were.

1997 was peak Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and their dynamic — Smith’s effortless charisma juxtaposed with Jones’ deadpan everything — was enough to put butts in seats. Pairing the two as secret agents charged with policing our world for otherworldly threats — and having them team up to stop an alien “bug” wearing an Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio) suit — is as popcorn friendly of a concept as one needs. And it’s refreshing how easily-digestible the story's concepts are when compared to other recent comic book movies. There’s no alternate dimensions, no Thanos-level “snaps.” No bloated three-hour run time. There’s just 98 minutes of good guys trying to stop some very gross baddies from damaging the universe’s calm. That’s less than two hours for Men in Black to build a world, craft character arcs, show us inventive set pieces, and deliver subtle satire.

The fact that this all goes down feeling as effortless as it does entertaining is a testament to Ed Solomon’s script. His work here is scary-underrated; the screenplay’s structure — all the beats — they click like safe tumblers. More importantly, Solomon grounds all the extraordinary — think “Noisy Cricket” ray guns and aliens wearing humans as suits — on the backs of the very relatable and engaging characters of Agents J and K. The fact that such a brisk script also makes room for, and effectively pulls off, genuine emotional beats in that executive producer Steven Spielberg/Amblin mold (the movie is an official Amblin production, after all) adds more evidence to the argument that more credit should be given to MiB for pioneering how to adapt a comic for the big screen.

The alien villain’s plot comes with stakes that are simultaneously considerable and at scale. The final confrontation — thankfully realized with miniature effects that hold up much better than the late ‘90s CG — boils down to our two heroes shooting down a UFO before combatting the alien once its free from “Eggar’s” skin. No more, no less. And, more than two decades later, the finale still plays like gangbusters.

Men In Black pulled off in 1997 that which Christopher Nolan would in 2005 with his Batman films, and what Marvel Studios has been doing since 2008. Free from the pressures and trappings of its comic book source material — thanks to that IP being more niche than Marvel or DC — Sonnenfeld, Solomon and the film’s creative team were able to tell the best story possible and service it well. Subsequent MiB sequels, along with this weekend’s Men In Black: International spinoff, reek of studio fingerprints and “too many cooks” trying to over-think and outgame the mega-blockbuster industrial complex. They lack the heart and the simplicity of the original; in their stead is an overabundance of complicated plots and numbing CG spectacle.

Despite its success — and that Smith’s catchy AF end titles songMen In Black feels like a distant blip on pop culture’s radar. If International succeeds at anything, hopefully it is to inspire audiences to revisit the movie that started it all. To appreciate the much louder impact it truly had on the genre that film history has seemingly tuned out.

  • Phil Pirrello