The Men in Black and Ghostbusters sequels have largely failed by consciously attempting to be something they’re not.
Men in Black: International, as you know, is a really bad film. OK, based on the box office receipts, you probably don’t know as you didn’t see it but likely inferred that fact from every scrap of pre-release marketing. Trust me, it is really bad. Lethargically paced, thematically empty, utterly lacking in character and chemistry – the latter of which is especially baffling since stars Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth displayed electric chemistry in Thor: Ragnarok, the movie which most obviously inspired the existence of International in the first place – cheap-feeling in every possible outlet, and very blatantly attempting to retrofit the Men in Black aesthetic onto a piss-poor off-brand Marvel movie like so many other blockbuster movies are nowadays because the American film industry is shitting its britches over its future – or, rather, its potential non-future. This and Dark Phoenix released on consecutive weekends and I can think of no finer illustration of the hubris of this year’s blockbuster scene: empty uninspired generic bores expecting riches and applause for merely showing up.
But of those many complaints, the “off-brand Marvel” one was what stuck out most as I was watching International. See, although I may have trash-talked the entire franchise in my Summer Movie Guide for the year, I did actually revisit the first Men in Black a few days before seeing International and I was astonished at just how well that 1997 film held up. Barry Sonnenfeld’s original film is a weird, low-key movie in spite of its blockbuster status, mega movie stars, high-concept premise and inescapable theme song. More metaphor and character piece than massive action spectacle, it’s very much a relic from a time where off-beat movies such as Men in Black – an easy-going buddy-cop movie about aliens and government conspiracies (the film being released at the height of X-Files fever) as metaphor for immigration and border authorities, more concerned with the induction process and day-to-day activities of such things than fate-of-the-world nonsense – could effectively be willed into tentpole blockbuster status entirely thanks to the right marketing push and groundbreaking special effects advances.
In fact, what rewatching Men in Black most put me in mind of was 1984’s similarly unlikely mega-blockbuster Ghostbusters, mainly because they’re the same proudly uncinematic movie in different skins. By which I mean, whilst they both may have sold themselves on the wonder and spectacle of outstanding special effects designed to realise the fantastical and they do have a sense of zany discovery to their first halves, the films themselves actively work to undercut that kind of showy eye-catching wonder. That’s entirely by design, too, since both films are metaphors and tributes to blue-collar workers and thankless bureaucrats.
“Duh,” right? Look at that super-obvious reading damn-near everybody who watches and is a fan of these movies already got and didn’t need explaining to them. Next I’ll be telling you that the King Arthur brand hasn’t been a financially viable property in over 30 years so maybe don’t get spending $175 million and drafting up “Cinematic Universe” plans trying to force it into a loud uninspired Game of Thrones knock-off. But not only do the folks with the money and the creative direction of these franchises very evidently need reminding of this, I think a lot of people underestimate just how important both films’ commitments to that metaphor and tone are for their overall power.
Men in Black, in particular, staunchly refuses to distract itself with a complex plot, extraneous characters, superfluous action scenes, Chosen One guff, or any of the other detritus that cluttered up both late 90s and more modern blockbusters. If that film were made today, then we’d have been “gifted” extended flashbacks to Agent K’s years rising up through the MIB, a lengthy prologue offering up plainly spelled-out and Chekov’s Gun-y reasons as to why Agent J would want to join the MIB, the villain would have been in some way connected to one of our leads or the MIB itself as justification for their big take over the world plan, maybe another handful of action sequences on more spruced-up and cinematic locales than a morgue and a scuzzy pawn shop in a random New York side-street, constant attempts to outdo the spectacle and wonder with even bigger action scenes and even more elaborate CG-abetted creature designs, and so on and so forth.
By comparison to the movies it could have been (and the franchise it eventually became), the first Men in Black is positively modest. Likewise with Ghostbusters, a film which concerns itself more with the nuts-and-bolts of how these three (eventually four) wisecracking nerds would go about busting ghosts and having their core well-rounded characters snark at such things as if they were exterminating a cockroach infestation rather than devoting much time to the giant end-of-the-world mega-demon Gozer and its plan to bring about said apocalypse. In both films, Ed the Bug and Gozer the Destructor sort of just operate within their respective movie’s margins until it’s time for the perfunctory climax. Gozer is given a brief info-dump during a late-night drive in the dying minutes of the second act, but that’s meant more as a brief spotlight scene for poor underserved Winston and an indication of the non-shiny research that goes into a Ghostbusters job. Whilst Ed is simply a terrorist. No agenda, no motive, no pattern of behaviour, just gets off on causing chaos and if that involves eating galaxies the size of marbles and having worlds disintegrated in his wake then that’s no skin off his pincers.
In both films, the end of the world stakes that are stapled onto the third act feel almost passé, expected yet ultimately non-threatening. Men in Black’s even has an arbitrary one-hour countdown to planetary disintegration with only newbie Agent J responding with even a slight hint of panic whilst everyone else is completely non-plussed. Rather than being a failure of filmmaking skills, however, in both films this is the point and the joke. End of the world stakes stop being tense, unique and worrying occurrences when they are your day-to-day job. In these professions, one day you might be recovering stolen galaxies for vindictive alien races willing to destroy the world or crossing dangerous streams of unrefined nuclear reactor proton beams to cause a catastrophic explosion which closes a portal between demonic dimensions… the next you’ll be helping a squid alien in labour give painful birth in the backseat of their car off the New Jersey turnpike or ridding a high-class hotel of a nuisance slime ghost pest. Both become indistinguishable from one another, equally as worthy of tossed-off asides in conversation rather than commendation because it’s your job.
Anything wonderous or fantastical becomes routine when you deal with it in all of its permutations day after day. World’s under threat from a giant alien force? As Agent K points out, world’s always under threat from something or other. In these lines of work, you don’t ever hear about all the many times everyone almost died because they happen so often that it only becomes something of note when the threat slips through and actually does occur. That’s border security, that’s immigration policing, that’s governmental spy-work (to a lesser extent since the original MiB is more localised in scope and an unapologetic New York movie) and it’s the same whether you’re dealing with fantastical aliens from distant galaxies or human migrants from nearby countries. At the risk of sounding like a broken record: with both of these films, that’s the joke, that’s the point, that’s the appeal.
But because both films became massive culturally-dominant blockbusters, Columbia Pictures and the various writers and directors it’s sicced on the properties have never seemed to quite recognise that fact. The first Men in Black sequels adamantly refused to move away from the comfort-blanket of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones – correctly recognising that another big reason why the first film became a smash success was the lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry between the two stars, yet failing to recognise that K’s arc was firmly completed at the movie’s end and so bringing him back in any way undermines its emotional impact – and so had to contrive personal stakes and lore-heavy backstory reveals in order to keep J and K at the franchise’s centre in manners which ran counterintuitive to the values of the ’97 original. Ghostbusters II retread the prior ground but BIGGER and BADDER, particularly with its goofy Statue of Liberty setpiece, in a manner which reflects its preordained nature as a major Summer tentpole and therefore antithetical to the grimy blue-collar appeal of the ’84 original.
International going for a soft-reboot approach that ditches J and K whilst opening up the scope of the organisation is theoretically the right way to go for other Men in Black movies, but then immediately sinks that potential by throwing in every modern tentpole blockbuster cliché in the book – personal stakes, giant setpieces which stretch the credulity of the whole secretive-force thing, backstories which equate to a character being destined for this line of work, attempting to sell the end of the world as a real scary threat resulting from a grand conspiracy. All of which are the exact opposite of the original MiB’s ethos in a manner which has the film feeling like a totally generic Hollywood blockbuster with the MiB logo and iconography slapped everywhere.
Honestly, for all of its undeserved hate and “meh”ness on a critical level, I think Paul Feig’s 2016 Ghostbusters reboot comes closest out of both series’ various continuations to understanding and recapturing the ethos of the original. Throughout its first two-thirds, Feig’s film is a very small-scale and offbeat studio comedy that is more focussed on the interplay between its cast and the process of capturing just one pest-y ghost at a time in the face of scepticism and incredulity from the non-experts surrounding them. Much like the original Ghostbusters and MiB, there’s a villain running around the edges, but his motives are beside the point and he only makes it personal once the Ghostbusters start thwarting him (enhanced by his latent misogyny), and the initial “HOLY CRAP, GHOSTS ARE REAL!” shock soon gives way to a slight jadedness and cavalier attitude towards these dangerous spectres in a manner rather reflective of people who deal with this shit for a living – admittedly with a heavily-compressed timescale due to not featuring a good times montage like the original. Even if you don’t find the movie very funny or an absolute hatchet-job narratively (those ones are admittedly personal preference), I’d argue it’s hard to claim that Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold didn’t at least understand the spirit of their charge – which is why that third-act comes out of nowhere and, much as I still pop for many a segment in it, is an absolute mess that misses the point entirely. It reeks of studio mandates and designated Big Franchise Starting Summer Tentpole.
Whilst I hopefully doubt that it will feature any giant sky beams like Men in Black III and Ghostbusters 2016 and arguably even MiB: International do, this is why I remain sceptical beyond belief at Jason Reitman’s inbound Teen Ghostbusters take for 2020. Everything about it – from the casting of Stranger Things kids, to the iconography-heavy marketing, to the repeated insistence that this one is “what the fans have been looking for” and how it’s going to “hand Ghostbusters back to the fans” – screams studio executives trying to reverse-engineer a franchise-restarting blockbuster in the skin of Ghostbusters rather than something which truly understands one of the core reasons why the original worked so well. Much like how International was way more a lame Marvel knock-off than a Men in Black movie.
Perhaps both of these movies are just fundamentally unfranchise-able? At least as the blockbuster tentpoles Sony is relentlessly pushing them as. I’ve not seen either of the cartoon spin-offs both films received in the 80s or 90s, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s the best medium for continuing these series without sacrificing the blue-collar metaphor that’s integral to both works’ spirits. Low-key, case-of-the-week, episodic TV shows which focus more on the mundanity of clocking in and out day after day to deal with the supernatural or extra-terrestrial without having to force in the expensive spectacle and scale that’s required of tentpole blockbusters but antithetical to the central metaphors of Men in Black and Ghostbusters. Or maybe it just requires more effort than badly xeroxing whatever other franchise is making the most Internet buzz right now and slapping the requisite branding onto the dismal result three years later to complete critical and public indifference regardless of whether it makes any sense or not.
Callie Petch has been the same since Game Boys and stick fights.