Men in Black: International is a joyless Hollywood blockbuster

The latest, most uninspired chapter in the franchise showcases all the worst impulses of modern blockbuster filmmaking and none of its good ones.

Is it blockbuster burnout season or are the big bad blockbuster movies actually getting worse and worse? Men in Black: International is the latest soft reboot of a franchise that we probably didn’t really need. Everything is stacked in its favour: likeable cast, a playful universe and millions of dollars — and yet it’s an absolute slog. Even worse, it is not an exceptional or particularly egregious example of contemporary blockbuster failure, it’s part of the new status quo.

In Men in Black: International, a probationary agent, Agent M (Tessa Thompson) joins with the former London office’s golden boy Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) to protect intergalactic royalty. When things go extremely bad, it becomes clear that a mole has infiltrated the Men in Black organization and it is up to this odd couple to save it. There are brief references and Easter eggs to the original franchise, which starred Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, but overall there is also a distinct desire to just sever the cord on the previous franchise and start something totally new.

While the plot itself isn’t complicated, the script runs rampant with dull twist and turns. Character development is weak, so “shocking” revelations about their pasts don’t have any impact. The fact that so much of the film relies on “gotcha” deus ex machina storytelling gets very old and very fast. Since so much of the film is also more about telling rather than showing, none of the big emotional moments work.

The problem with the storytelling has strong links to problems in the film’s construction. Thompson and Hemsworth are naturally charismatic performers who fall completely flat. Not necessarily because they give bad performances, but the staging and editing do them no favours. There is an issue with pacing that makes it so that one-liners and witty repartee just fail to land. In the hyper-precision required for fast-paced dialogue, half a second too long between a cut can feel like an eternity. The dialogue, which aspires to reach screwball-level speeds, is instead sluggish and uninspired.

Only Kumail Nanjiani’s voice work elicits any sincere laughter. As Pawny, a tiny chess-piece-inspired alien, he is the only consistent source of pleasure in the film. He nails the comedy of a phrase without the requirement of a good cut or response, a credit to him more than the writing or cinematic construction. Pawny is also a pretty adorable and funny-looking alien. Up until the climactic final sequence where we confront the ultimate “big bad” alien in a sequence that is too dark and muddy, many of the alien designs remain bright and funny, which was always a part of the Men in Black appeal.

You can pick any year in the history of cinema and the vast majority of studio productions are varying shades of bad. Movies aren’t “getting worse” as a general rule, but it is undeniable that blockbuster cinema might be. There are a lot of factors, most coming down to money, but it largely has to do with the way these films are being made. Bigger has long been equated with better, and we’ve seen spectacle increase while the humanizing elements shrink and shrink. The enduring appeal of franchises like Men in Black, in theory, is not because we like the big boom explosions but because we like the characters — something that, increasingly, feels like it has fallen to the wayside.

Blockbusters have never been a place to challenge the audience or their conception of reality, but there is something so pacifying in the way these movies are now made. They don’t even feel like art, just a series of incidents meant to keep you distracted and tired. They have a numbing effect, and as quickly as they are forgotten, they worm into your brain. It feels like our defences against bullshit are being pummeled to the point where we can barely tell the difference between good and bad, right or wrong.

It is easy to look at this entire franchise and bemoan the idea that it celebrates a secret paternalistic government that is withholding the truth about our universe “for our own good.” But is it just cynicism or is it fair to be uncomfortable with that line of thinking? Especially when faced with a movie so absolutely self-serious about stealth government power, it’s difficult to completely disconnect from reality.

Men in Black: International is not exceptional in any way. It is cursed in the way that your average $100-million studio release is cursed: it appeals to the lowest-common-denominator and offers nothing new or challenging. It hopes we are too wowed by the spectacle of hover-bike chases and electricity demons to care that none of it makes sense, most of it is ugly and we’ve completely resigned to the idea that major corporations will sell us on the coolness of the military-industrial complex for funsies. ■

Men in Black International opens in theatres on Friday, June 14. Watch the trailer here: