Men in Black: International is what happens when a series becomes too over sanitized to appeal to wider audiences.
The very first Men in Black came out 22 years ago- well before the age of franchises and connected universes. That is not to say that there weren’t franchises in the 90’s (the fourth Batman film came out the same year), but they were nowhere near the dominant forces in mass entertainment media they way they are today. Plus, there was nowhere near the desire to make the film as palatable to international audiences. As a result, the first film in the series was allowed to be something that this fourth installation is not: weird.
The first film is characterized almost primarily through its weirdness. The opening score hits you with strange and bizarre patterns leading the audience into a dragonfly as it dodges traffic in the desert. It’s 2019 counterpart, by comparison, though it features the same ground work, doesn’t have that same weirdness to it, as all the added effects and production make it sound more robotic than alien. This theme of weirdness continues to permeate throughout, and influence the entire film. The creature design, the characters, the situations and even the comedy all draw form the essence of weirdness.
International, is far too clean and tidy. The alien designs in particular suffer from its cleanliness. Gone are the things that look truly out of this world, and instead we simply get a lady with a third arm. There is a large blue alien with a more animal-like face, but its body is just that of a guy’s; there was no effort put in to make the character structurally alien rather than just having a different face. The antagonists through part of the film steal the likeness of a human, but they end up just looking like a couple of dudes then entire film. Contrast this with the first film, where the bug masqueraded around in the Edgar suit which looked grotesque at its best, and continued to deteriorate and look increasingly in shambles as the film went one. What other aliens which are present in International also bear little of the bizarre charm which mad the first film in the series so successful.
The other major aspect of the first film in the series is the dichotomy between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. The stark contrast between the two characters and their abilities to play off each other is one of the strengths of the entire series (with Josh Brolin admirably standing in for Jones during much of the third film). Once again, International gives us a duo of leads to follow throughout the film. The major issue here is that there is no dichotomy between our new leads. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson play nearly identical characters, and there is no way for their differences to play off each other as there are no differences.
Hemsworth’s character in particular is troublesome, as it is one we have seen several time before. One of the few supposed benefits from the failed Ghostbusters reboot was the apparent revelation that Hemsworth can apparently be funny. This was used in the Thor and Avengers films that followed, and now here in Men in Black: International. Sure he can be funny, but it is beginning to become clear that he can only be funny in one way- or at least he is only allowed to be funny in one way. That one way means that, while he supposed to be this ace agent who is the very best in the London Branch, he comes off as more of a bumbling buffoon throughout most of the film. We never really get a glimpse of him being secretly cunning or skilled in a non-traditional sense. He just manages to fail up throughout most of the film culminating into a leadership position over the entire branch.
Our other lead is Tessa Thompson who is something of a Mary Sue. The film opens with her witnessing alien activity while avoiding the MiB neuralyzer. Afterward, she spends her entire life searching for the organization. Along the way, she apparently became the most capable person on the planet. She easily passes entry into the FBI and CIA in search of the MiB while also working in a call center and hacking NASA satellites. She walks into MiB headquarters and promptly gets a gig. She rarely faces any hurdles or challenges, as a result, we get very little character development.
The first film didn’t see Smith’s agent J actually suit up until about 40 minutes in. Before that, we see him in action chasing down an alien as a police officer before going through the agent application process. These were not only character development moments, but also functioned to set up the world the film was set in. It has been 20 years since this type of scene has been shown, seven years since the last MiB film, and this is the first one set in a different country; some introductory scenes getting both the character and the audience acclimated to this new setting and up to date on changes in the world of MiB could’ve been vital. Instead, she can do everything which deprives us of all chances to see her grow and change as a character.
The final issue which completes this films transformation into bland mush is its over-reliance on dialogue for all of its comedy. This is not a phenomenon which is unique to this film, as the many modern comedies don’t make full use of the tools at their disposal. There is little to no use of the camera, editing or other visual gags to add to the humor. This is not inherently bad, as dialogue is crucial to modern comedies, and there are modern comedies which rely on dialogue which are terrific. It doesn’t however work for this film, and the absence of other comedic styles makes for a more diluted experience.
Overall, what we are left with is a film which has lost most of the charm which made put the series on the map. Weird and bizarre characters and concepts, dynamic and different leads and a more diverse comedic structure have given way to a package which is watered down and diluted to the point of becoming shockingly plain. In a setting which has the potential to be so vivid and colorful, Men in Black: International choses to be beige.