by D.W. Lundberg

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Question: How many people actually realize that 1997's Men In Black is based on a comic book? No doubt you saw the commercials and you bought your ticket and laughed at all the jokes and the witty special effects, and you probably own the VHS or the DVD or the Blu-Ray, but did you ever stop to think that you were, in fact, watching a Comic Book Movie?

Maybe, maybe not. Originally published by Marvel/ Aircel Comics as a three-issue mini-series in 1990, Lowell Cunningham's The Men In Black was optioned by producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald in 1992. The project went through various incarnations (and a director or two) before finally settling at Columbia Pictures, under the tutelage of Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family, Get Shorty) and executive producer Steven Spielberg. When it opened on July 2nd, 1997, MIB was met with all the fanfare and fervor of your typical summer blockbuster. It grossed $587 million in theaters worldwide (Columbia's highest-grossing movie up to that point), and cemented Will Smith's reputation as a bona fide box office star. 

Yet rarely, if ever, will you find MIB counted among the most successful Comic Book Movies ever made. Why is this? Perhaps because of the way it was marketed – as the Next Will Smith-Versus-Aliens Summer Blockbuster (after Independence Day). Or perhaps in the wake of Batman & Robin (released to critical and commercial disdain just two weeks earlier), the filmmakers thought it best to distance themselves from their genre roots as far as possible.

Whatever the case, I think most of us can agree that Men In Black made the jump to big-screen glory with relative ease. There are a few marked differences between the movie and its source material, however. Sonnenfeld's MIB is a colorful tongue-in-cheek twist on the usual aliens-are- among-us scenario. Our heroes, gruff Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) and his rookie partner Jay (Smith) use a variety of ultra-cool government-sanctioned gadgets to police extraterrestrial activity on Earth. Cunningham's MIB, on the other hand, is drawn in stark black-and-white, is virtually humorless, and its protagonists often resort to violence and murder to maintain the status quo.

In the comics, Jay and Kay are also both Caucasian, while in the movie they most definitely are not. You think this would have lent itself to some obvious jokes about race relations in America (between blacks and whites, or blacks and whites and aliens, or whatever), but the screenplay by Ed Solomon mostly shies away from this sort of thing, save for a running gag in which Kay deliberately misidentifies Jay to witnesses (he calls him "Mr. Black" or "Mr. White").

Instead, Sonnenfeld, Spielberg and company have simpler ideas in mind. Both comic book and movie are essentially Buddy Comedies in disguise - the story of Two Polar Opposites Who Learn To Trust Each Other As Equals. You know the drill: pair two leads, make one of them a by-the-book no-nonsense type, and the other a wet-behind-the-ears, over- confident sort, and bang - instant fireworks. And like any Romantic Buddy Comedy, it isn't so much the destination but the journey it takes to get there: Here, all the usual genre trappings are gussied up with fantastical CGI and crowd-pleasing belly laughs - 48HRS. and Lethal Weapon meet Ghostbusters.

To a comic book fan, Men In Black also works as an origin story - explains how our protagonist comes to possess his "superpowers" and finds his place in society. The funniest sequence comes early in the movie, when NYC cop Jay and six uniformed military officers are subjected to a series of psychological tests to determine their employment with the MIB. First, they're seated in egg-shaped chairs and asked to fill out test packets (in pencil) with no flat surface to set them on. (Jay's solution: grab a heavy table from the middle of the tile floor and drag it, screeching, all the way back to his seat.) Then they're escorted into a separate room for target practice, to shoot at crude cardboard cutouts of alien creatures - but Jay only gets off one shot. (His explanation to MIB chief Zed [Rip Torn]: "First, I was going to pop this guy hanging from the streetlight... but I realized he's just working out. How'd I feel if somebody busted me in my a-- while I'm on the treadmill? Then I saw this snarling beast guy, and I noticed he had a tissue in his hand and realized... he's not snarling. He's sneezing. Ain't no real threat there. Then I saw Tiffany. I'm thinking, eight-year-old white girl, middle of the ghetto, with quantum physics books? She's about to start some s---, Zed.")

This hilarious, outside-the-box type of logic runs all through the movie, so much that it's almost a disappointment when the plot takes over – something about a giant bug/arch-villain (the great Vincent D'Onofrio) bent on triggering an interstellar war. (In MIB's original cut, the plot was even more involved, until preview screenings convinced the filmmakers to tidy things up a bit.) It's comedy borne from character – a quality missing from most of today's blockbusters, which depend too much on crass one-liners or gross-out gags for mass audience appeal.

And at the center of it all stand Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, whose snappy verbal exchanges and star power alone would have been worth the price of a ticket - even without ILM's exemplary FX work or Rick Baker's Oscar-winning makeup designs to back them up. Jones is so dry, and Smith so brash and impulsive, that they complement each other perfectly; even the climax at the New York State Pavillion makes pitch-perfect note of this, with Jay and Kay each solving the movie's central crisis in typical characteristic fashion.

That chemistry, in fact, is all that saves 2002's Men In Black II from total ruin. It's another case of diminishing returns, I'm afraid – the players may be the same, but their hearts just don't seem to be in it, as if they'd been contracted to rehash the same thrills but none of the ingenuity. Still, that does nothing to diminish MIB1 as a singular entertainment experience: its pleasures are so great, it hardly matters that everything you're watching comes from a comic book.


The Original: Men In Black (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997)

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub

Plot: A brash NYC detective is recruited by a covert government agency, assigned to monitor extraterrestrial activity on Earth.

How It Set The Tone: A laugh-a-minute, tongue-in- cheek spoof on everything from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to Independence Day and all other aliens-among-us extravaganzas in between, plus a wicked spin on the Buddy Cop Comedy formula to boot. Even the most ardent fans of the movie fail to realize that it's based on a comic book, but the snappy dialogue exchanges and nonstop running gags are so entertaining (Look! An entire wall of celebrities who are actually aliens in disguise!) that it hardly matters. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are a comedy dream team: Jones's straight-man demeanor is so mockingly dry his skin almost peels, while Smith more than fulfills his promise as a movie star - funny, confident, a wiz with the wisecracks, but never to the point of obnoxiousness. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who brings his Addams Family- style irreverence to a premise already ripe for send up, and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, who knows a thing or two about aliens (and Hollywood blockbusters).

Room For Improvement: Most of the supporting cast reacts with such indifference to the plot's end-of-the-world scenario that it drains the suspense right out of the movie; this may be a conscious comic choice on the filmmakers' part, but it's also dramatically inert. Plus, the jokes come so fast for so long that the monster bug/alien galaxy subplot just gets in the way.

Grade: B+

Sequel: Men In Black II (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2002)

Returning Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub

New Cast: Rosario Dawson, Lara Flynn Boyle, Johnny Knoxville

Plot: The MIB are forced to bring Agent K out of retirement, when a bloodthirsty alien plant creature threatens to take over the Earth.

How It Compares: Will Smith gets the three best lines in the movie: "That's the problem with all y'all New Yorkers! 'Oh no, we've seen it all! Oh no, a 600 foot worm! Save us, Mr. Black Man!'," and "Back when you was an agent, you used to love gettin' flushed. Every Saturday night, you'd be like, 'Flush me, J! Flush me!' And I'd be like, 'Naw...'," and "Actually it came with a black dude, but he kept getting pulled over." Other than that, MIB2 comes close to sucking the life right out of the franchise. The humor is shrill, the villain is depressingly lightweight (both literally and figuratively: Lara Flynn Boyle looks like she weighs about the same as a cardboard cutout of herself), and the entire movie feels rushed - crassly manufactured at 88 minutes (including credits!) to fit in an extra showing at theaters per day. (And what's the deal with those creepy  bug-eyed thingies which populate the lockers at Grand Central Station?) Jones and Smith are still fun, but it's too little, too late: at least the first MIB had some quality laughs to back them up.

Grade: D+

Sequel: Men In Black 3 (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012)

Returning Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones

New Cast: Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emma Thompson, Alice Eve, Bill Hader, Nicole Scherzinger

Plot: When an alien threat wipes Agent Kay from existence, Agent Jay travels back to 1969 to rescue him - and the Earth - from a fate worse than death.

How It Compares: Well, it's not an embarrassment - that much is the good news. And it goes a long way toward neuralyzing any and all memories of its perfunctory predecessor, which should reaffirm some of your faith in the franchise. What you won't find is an over-abundance of jokes - as if, knowing full well they could never reach the same sci-fi/comic highs of the original, the filmmakers decided to ramp up on the plot instead. This is actually a blessing in disguise: there's more room for character here, less room for obtrusive cameos (Frank the Pug and the Worm Guys get minor shout-outs), and the retro-60's setting adds some much- needed sentiment to the MIB mythos. Great to see Will Smith back on screen (the last time we saw him, believe it or not, he committed suicide by jellyfish in 2008's Seven Pounds), and his banter with the eternally grumpy Tommy Lee Jones is just as acerbic as ever. It's Josh Brolin, though, as a young(ish), pre-cantankerous version of Jones's Agent Kay, who's the real reason to see the movie. Brolin mimics the elder actor's laconic deadpan Texas mannerisms so well, you have to hear it to believe it. Ditto Men In Black 3, which makes those awkward years in between sequels seem almost worth the wait.

Grade: B-

More To Come?: You guessed it. MIB3's stellar $621 million global box office proved there's life in the once-flailing franchise yet. Columbia Pictures chief Doug Belgrad tells The Hollywood Reporter here that a fourth Men In Black is currently in the works.


Part 3 of my "Buddy Cop" retrospective. For Parts 1 and 2, click here and here. For non-Buddy Franchise Face-Offs, click here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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