Well, folks — we’re now batting two for two when it comes to summer comic book movies and their (wildly superficial) attempts to dismantle the patriarchy one franchise at a time.
“You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women,” Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) said in last week’s depressingly abysmal Dark Phoenix, and this week, we get Men in Black: International’s Molly, aka Agent M (Tessa Thompson), asking why the alien-hunting government organization won’t add “Women” to its title. (Easier to write lines like these, I guess, than actually hire women to write or direct your blockbuster?) But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this international mess of a reboot that quite frankly I don’t remember anyone asking for…
The original Men in Black, released in 1997, made sense: It was the height of The X-Files mania — you know, before the show went completely off the rails with all that colony stuff — and Will Smith (formerly known for The Fresh Prince) was still riding high on the popularity of his alien-hunting action-hero character in Independence Day. Men in Black was based on a comic book series, sure, and there were certainly all the crazy-looking aliens and explosions you’d expect that to entail, but at the end of the day, it was a buddy comedy, and it worked thanks to the way its script played Smith’s wisecracking loose cannon against co-star Tommy Lee Jones’ deadpan professional.
That brings us to one of the biggest problems with this reboot: While leads Tessa Thompson (as the uptight American rookie) and Chris Hemsworth (as the rule-breaking veteran based in London) are very likable and very funny together, the convoluted script never lets their characters breathe and find their rhythm. They’re kept very busy by director F. Gary Gray and screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum, who have them constantly running from aliens, blowing things up, and engaging in high-speed, heavily CGI’d chase sequences as they attempt to ferret out a mole within the Men in Black organization. (By the way, if you’ve seen more than one episode of Law and Order: SVU, you’ll probably be able to figure out who the mole is pretty quickly.)
That whole MIB mole subplot wasn’t enough for Holloway and Marcum, however. They also cram in an entire subplot that centers around a pair of shape-shifting aliens (played by twins Larry and Laurent Bourgeois) on the hunt for a deadly weapon, as well as Hemsworth’s character’s three-armed arms-dealing ex (say that three times fast) who lives on a heavily fortified Italian island. For whatever reason, there’s also a tiny little alien named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) whose only real purpose in the story is to provide a little comic relief — and probably sell a whole lot of merch down the line, if this whole thing goes the way the producers and the studio planned. He is Groot.
You know how those Chris Carter–penned mytharc episodes of The X-Files could be such a drag, the way they prioritized world-building and exposition-filled dialogue over the characters at the core of the stories? And how those Vince Gilligan (or Morgan and Wong) monster-of-the-week episodes — especially the ones that just let Mulder and Scully hang around some small town in the middle of nowhere meeting the local weirdos and cracking wise as they looked for the aliens or monsters or shape-shifters — are the ones that really stick in fans’ minds? That’s the thing the original Men in Black’s screenwriter, Ed Solomon, understood, and something studios today have forgotten in their quest to make every summer blockbuster bigger and flashier than the last.