the first men in black movie was in theaters as a fathom event for its 25th anniversary, so that felt like a good excuse to spend some time exploring the franchise!
the men in black (comic 1990) & the men in black book ii (comic 1991)
now that i’ve read these, i think it’s even more impressive that they made such a good movie out of them. i mean okay some of the core concept and even a few very fine details are here, but the tone is just so genuinely unpleasant and the characters so unlikable that i don’t really think i ever would’ve found a reason to read this if it weren’t for the movie. the only real value add here for me is that kay is apparently pretty into hypnodomming. so, the neuralyzer works way differently in the comic and it basically puts people into a trance where they can be bossed around and questioned in addition to altering their memory, and every time kay puts someone in a trance he tells them he’s their superior and they should call him “sir.” so uh yeah. even though he’s thoroughly not my type, that’s pretty freaking hot.
okay i did also enjoy that in addition to aliens the mib also deals with demons and werewolves and whatnot. i think narrowing the focus the way the movies does makes a lot of sense and lets them do a lot more detailed worldbuilding, but the idea of them being involved in more than just ufos was pretty fun. c-rank
men in black (movie 1997)
“imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”1
it was super cool seeing this in theaters for the first time since the summer of 1997! it’s one of those movies i saw multiple times in theaters, watched over and over on vhs, and got super into because it was superficially similar to everything else i was into at the time.2
and look, i’m autistic. when i get into something, i get into something. i had that really bad pc game. i didn’t get very far into it because the gameplay was pretty opaque, but i did cut up the instruction guide to get rid of all the gameplay stuff and keep the framing narrative that it was an “mib agent field guide.”3
i fucking love this movie. i love the concept. i love the execution. i love all the little jokes like describing aliens or alien technology as coming from “out of town” or “out of state.” i love little moments like pre-mib j dismissively saying that a suspect he ran down said “the world was going to end,” followed by k asking in a deadly-serious tone, “did he say when?” giving us our first glimpse into the world j is about to step into. i love tommy lee jones deadpanning shit like, “no, ma’am, we at the fbi do not have a sense of humor we’re aware of.” i love how will smith is so unbelievably likable that i’m fairly convinced he’s an alien.4 i love the fact that an adorable kitty becomes a central plot point. i yelped “kitty!” (quietly, i hope) at the screen basically every time orion popped up.
the first five minutes of this movie feature the mib agents letting a group of undocumented immigrants go, and when the cops on the scene vehemently object, agent k hits them with a line i’m absolutely using the next time i’m misgendered. “don’t ‘sir’ me, young man. you have no idea what you’re dealing with here.”
i feel a little pang that the sequels so completely failed to capitalize on the just… mind-blowingly enormous potential of this film. i actually kind of love men in black ii in spite of its shortcomings, and men in black 3 is okay, i guess.5 but there’s just something magical here, and it feels like there were so many different, better directions a series of sequels could’ve gone.
but yeah, who cares about that. this movie makes me grin and feel, for a little over an hour and a half anyway, like a child again. i fucking love this movie. s-rank
men in black (comic 1997)
the original three men in black comics were first published by aircel comics, who were bought by malibu comics. malibu published book ii before themselves being swallowed by industry behemoth marvel comics a few years later. marvel didn’t do anything with the men in black ip until it became a major summer blockbuster, at which point they published four one shots to capitalize on the success of the movie. the first of these one shots was actually just a reprint of the men in black #1, which they released under the issue’s original story title as “men in black: initiation.”
perhaps feeling a need to close the book on the previous continuity, or else as part of some misguided attempt to tie the comics continuity in with the movie, marvel next released men in black: far cry. this one shot was a loose continuation of the continuity established in the men in black and the men in black book ii, acting as a sort of bookend on the series along with the rereleased first issue. i don’t really have anything to say about it that i didn’t already cover in my review of those two books, except to say that marketing this as a prequel to the movies is just very silly. the comics and movies are just drastically different beasts, and trying to imply that tommy lee jones’ character has anything in common with the asshole in the comics, let alone is actually the same person, is just a bridge too far for me. nor do i especially appreciate the idea that the mib is actually the sinister “shooting first means you don’t have to ask questions later” organization depicted in the original comics and this continuation.
marvel’s next offering was men in black: the movie, which was as its title implies just a very straightforward adaptation of the movie. to be fully transparent i mostly just skimmed this one to get the general idea, but it follows the movie pretty closely aside from the dialogue and action being pared down to better fit a comic single.
lastly was men in black: retribution, explicitly marketed as a comic book sequel to the movie. like the actual film sequel that would come out five years later, a major plot point was the reversal of k’s neuralization. retribution is pretty easily the best mib comic i’ve read. though, that’s coming from someone who hates the rest of the comics and loves the movie, so take that for what it’s worth. i’d still only give it a b or maybe even a c, and i wouldn’t really recommend it (even for fans of the movie), but out of all of them it was the least of a chore to read.
men in black: the series (tv series 1997-2001)
i didn’t watch the whole series, just enough episodes to make sure i had a feel for it, and the halloween one because i felt like it. that episode opens with a bunch of hella queer-looking kids doing some kind of pumpkin-centric seance. i believe this fully justifies any time i might consider wasted on this pretty mediocre movie tie-in cartoon.
men in black: the green saliva blues by dean wesley smith (novel 1999) & men in black: the grazer conspiracy by dean wesley smith (novel 2000)
i like the overall idea of j’s continuing adventures with l, and i like the characterization of both of them as hotshot rookies who are kicking ass. it was also cool to see genuinely new challenges facing the mib, requiring huge teams of agents to deal with and traveling all across the country. unfortunately the writing really isn’t the best and the plots in both get a bit repetitive. there were also a lot of things about mib’s ethos in these books i thoroughly didn’t love, but it was really moreso the storytelling shortcomings that wore thin for me. c-rank
men in black: alien attack (theme park attraction 2000)
really the biggest thing this is missing is a truly pandering gift shop? like, you do absolutely exit through the gift shop, don’t get me wrong. but i wasn’t the slightest bit tempted to buy anything on offer there, and theme park gift shops are definitely a weakness of mine.
i fucking love the queue. it’s probably my favorite part of the ride? you just walk through mib headquarters, and it fucking rules. the ride itself is based on the shooting gallery j faces in his extended job interview in the movie. this makes perfect sense because that’s probably the most theme parky thing in the movie other than the ltd post-little red button depending on what kind of ride they wanted to go for, and i love dark rides so i’m glad this is what they went with.6 plus the story of the ride is that you’re an mib trainee and i love dorky shit like that.
shortly after the beginning of the ride an alien prison ship crashes in new york! and you get sent immediately into battle with your weapons switched from training mode to full-power mode! the animatronics in this portion of the ride are just fantastic. i had a blast (pun fully intended, though i think i had the lowest score in our ride vehicle).
men in black ii (movie 2002)
this is almost great, actually? i’m usually hesitant to throw around labels like “underrated” because i’m just not too sure what the general conversation about most movies are now that i’ve violently disconnected myself from the movie people hivemind,7 but my general sense is that this movie is not very well-regarded when it is indeed regarded at all, but i actually am so close to loving it? it’s a very near miss.
i just. look. what i love in this movie is the first half hour where j’s status as top dog in the agency is taken pretty seriously. z explicitly calls j his best agent. considering z’s skepticism when k was recruiting j, i just fucking loved this.
despite liking it more than i think most people do, my read on this movie used to be that it was in an awful damn hurry to reestablish the status quo, bring k back into the fold, and speedrun the first movie. and, like… that’s not entirely wrong. barry sonnenfeld has even been directly quoted as saying that there was an earlier version of the script that kept the new status quo for longer and focused on the love story between j and laura, and speculated that audiences would reject this because they “didn’t want to see will as the straight man” and “until tommy comes back into the movie, by definition will’s the straight man.”
as hesitant as i am to argue with barry “addams family and men in black” sonnenfeld about what makes a good movie, the beginning and the end were my fucking favorite parts. there was so much heart in j’s goodbye to laura, but with all the buildup to that deemphasized it feels kind of stranded, and like it would work a hell of a lot better if it did get as much focus as initially intended? but it still works great, so who knows.
also, like… what i was working my way towards this whole time is that my memories of this movie badly overestimated how desperate it is to reestablish the original dynamic between j and k. yeah, okay, there are moments here and there like k staring at j until j relents and lets him drive, and yeah the plot is largely an excuse for k to know more than j again… but that’s just what jumped out in my memory. the dynamic between the two is drastically different, and the movie doesn’t try to paint over j’s status as a top agent the way i remembered it doing. and when k and z commiserate with j after his love interest gets whisked off of earth it feels like they’re interacting with an equal in a way it never really felt in the first movie.
so, yeah. this is a pretty good sequel to a great movie, and i think the only place it really suffers is in the unavoidable comparison to its predecessor. honestly if they had really brought it home with a third movie that kept pushing the growth of the relationships and explored the world in new and interesting ways, i think we would remember this movie a lot more fondly. unfortunately that’s not what happened, but that’s a story that “never happened” from their files that “don’t exist” for another day. b-rank
men in black 3 (movie 2012)
i don’t know, man. will smith does his best to carry the movie, and he does manage to make it not a complete chore to watch, but there just really isn’t enough here. the villain is really weak and the way k is written when tommy lee jones is playing him is just beyond awful? on top of that it doesn’t really seem like jones wanted to be there. really not the sendoff i would’ve liked to see these characters get. c-rank
men in black: international (movie 2019)
it was better than men in black 3? i mean, it was just chris hemsworth being a himbo and tessa thompson being awesome and a good few action scenes strung together with an extremely okay plot. oh, and rebecca ferguson is a super dommy secondary antagonist, so that was nice.
it’s a kind of nothing movie, but i enjoyed it while i was watching it at least? c-rank
men in black: the official visual companion (book 2019)
i like books like this, but this is frankly not one of the better examples i’ve read. for one thing there are a few rather embarrassing typos that it seems like any copy editor worth their salt should have caught. most of them are probably exactly what you’d expect (it’s/its confusion, dropping a letter here or there), but one that really jumped out at me was in one of the fictional in-universe memos, z is cced after his death rather than his replacement, o. whoops. also the production details were just rather lacking compared to other books like this i’ve read recently. everything is very vague and at times kind of repetitive. it reads more like a press junket than these sorts of things usually do.
the book is at least very aesthetically pleasing, really the very model of a coffee table book. and there are some cute little surprises in the form of an alien tabloid page and a few business cards from the various movies like the one that k handed j to invite him to mib recruitment and the one for the video store in the second movie. i don’t know if they were designed to do this, but in every case they actually fell out of the book right before i got to the page they were loosely attached to and they were delightful little surprises. and even though the production details weren’t nearly as thorough as i usually look for, i did appreciate getting an overall idea of what the vibe of each movie’s set was like and some of the quotes from various cast and crew did bring a smile to my face.
these sorts of things are obviously always going to be more like a dessert than a meal unto themselves. usually if you’re watching bonus features or reading a book like this you’re just trying not to let go of the movie(s) for a little longer. it’s just that this one is less like a dessert that keeps you at the table and more like an after-dinner mint you pop in your mouth on your way out the door. c-rank
1. i really like that line, but the speech it comes from is elitist bullshit. and the examples k uses are factually incorrect.
2. “everything else” being scifi in general including star trek, but i think that was especially the heart of my x-files phase, and you can practically draw a straight line between the reasons the x-files and men in black appealed to me.
3. i think i’ve mentioned once or twice or a thousand times that i love “nonfiction”-style books from fictional universes.
4. yes, even after he punched chris rock. especially after he punched chris rock. get over it.
5. why did they switch their sequel numbering from roman numerals to arabic numerals? we may never know. it’s somehow even more infuriating than films that switch from numbered sequels to subtitled sequels, though.
6. i actually have a strong preference for traditional dark rides over interactive ones, but still.
7. and prior to doing so i knew a lot less than i thought i knew.