Re-Mystifying the Men in Black

Author’s Note: This is a repost from an earlier version of Dunebat Country on 08 November 2022. Special thanks to The Nerd Party‘s ever-awesome Tristan Riddell for editing this missive.

I refused to see Men in Black when it first hit theaters. At some point in 1997, I stumbled upon Ann Jablonicky’s 1988 paranoid article “Men in Black: The UFO Terrorists”,1 which led me to search for other Men in Black sightings online.2 By the time the film made it to theaters, I hated the Men in Black.3

I firmly believed they were real,4 and, hapless conspiracy nerd that I was back in high school, I honestly thought that the film was part of a propaganda campaign meant to lull humanity into compliance with adverse entities who were part of the grand UFO cover-up. I vividly recall the anger I felt when I heard that Men in Black had won the 1998 Academy Award for Best Makeup.5

When a childhood friend brought a VHS copy of Men in Black over to my place sometime later, a new realm of creativity was opened up for me by this simple sci-fi comedy film.

Then the sequel came out in 2002, and my disappointment was palpable.6 That same feeling of extreme disappointment would happen again seven years later when Men in Black: International was released.

Part of the problem is that the Men in Black franchise tried way too hard to give us more of the same with the second film. The Men in Black creative team had hit upon a beautiful comedic pairing with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and they had firmed up their neat Dragnet meets Ghostbusters-style formula with the spin-off cartoon that expanded upon the film’s story in interesting ways. The Men in Black had found their audience and solidified their storytelling formula.

Source: Rotten Tomatoes

Men in Black II hewed far too close to the established formula. Just like the first film, the sequel had: Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones paired together with one as the veteran agent and the other as the novice agent; an alien threat that wants to steal some powerful McGuffin hidden on Earth; the ever-awesome Tony Shalhoub as alien pawn shop owner Jack Jeebs; the worm aliens and Frank the pug; it even has a tie-in rap song by Will Smith. Even with its noteworthy differences from the first movie, it’s still far too much like the first film to set itself apart, let alone guarantee longevity for the franchise.

Men in Black 3 was forced, by necessity, to shake up the formula. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith weren’t getting any younger, and Will Smith’s star was rising since co-starring in the original Men in Black with Jones and in Independence Day with Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum. For all the film’s similarities to Men in Black II,7 it had enough praiseworthy differences from both Men in Black and Men in Black II — including the trippy 1960s time travel shenanigans, the dramatic and beautiful retconning of Agent Kay’s and Jay’s past, the inclusion of an alien-as-celebrity (Bill Hader as Andy Warhol) instead of just a mention (Men in Black) or a cameo (the controversial Michael Jackson bit from Men in Black II), and the versatile Josh Brolin’s stellar portrayal of a younger Agent Kay — that Men in Black 3 recovered some of the audience it had lost ten years earlier thanks to Men in Black II.8

Spurred on by their success from experimenting with the formula and hoping to grab a larger audience, Sony Pictures ditched director Barry Sonnenfeld for F. Gary Gray. Also, they replaced Smith and Jones with Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson (both actors pinched from Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok), expanded the mythos beyond America’s shores by introducing some exotic foreign locations, and leaned a little more into the “conspiracy thriller” aspect of the Men in Black story than the “comedy” angle with Men in Black: International.

Critics hated it, but the audience seemed to be okay with it. If we can trust the Rotten Tomato scores,9 the audience for Men in Black: International barely enjoyed the film as much as they enjoyed Men in Black 3.

Source: Wikipedia

The box office take for Men in Black: International was even more abysmal, both domestic and worldwide. In North America alone, Men in Black: International boasted a budget of $20 million larger than that of the original Men in Black. Yet, the original film made $170,688,732 more than Men in Black: International, which was supposed to shake up the formula and reinvigorate the series.

That is why you don’t stray too far from a winning formula.

How do we fix this problem? The Men in Black franchise is still a viable franchise with untapped potential, but the last cinematic outing buried the franchise so far into the dirt that the prospects for resurrecting the franchise seem slim.

I think the only way to revitalize the Men in Black franchise is to take it back to formula.

But not in the way you might think!

The Men in Black #1 (1990)

The United States saw several noteworthy UFO sightings after the end of World War II in 1945 but before the infamous Roswell incident in 1947. The first historic American UFO sighting in the late 1940s was the Maury Island sighting in Puget Sound.10 According to eyewitness Harold Dahl — a local harbor patrolman from Tacoma, Washington — six “doughnut-shaped” UFOs passed overhead. One craft appeared to have a mechanical failure and began emitting an enormous amount of slag in the form of white, lightweight pieces of metal. Dahl’s superior officer, Fred Crisman, later investigated and allegedly recovered a quantity of slag that the UFO had dropped.

A short time later, Dahl — one of the very first people to witness a UFO since the “Foo Fighters” of World War II — was contacted by a mysterious man in a dark suit, who instructed Dahl to stay silent about the UFO sighting.11

This tale, if true, is the first Man in Black sighting in the United States, and it occurred only days after the first post-war UFO sighting in the nation.

Men in Black would appear sporadically in UFO reports throughout the following years, though not enough to garner national attention. It wasn’t until horror nerd Gray Barker published his 1956 book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers that he would introduce the nation to the concept of the Men in Black. Counterculture journalist and Barker buddy John Alva Keel later published his own related works — especially the seminal The Mothman Prophecies — that introduced the Men in Black into the mainstream.

Decades later, a Tennessee library employee was driving with a friend when a black van passed them. The library employee’s friend would mention that the van looked like the kind of car the Men in Black would drive. The library employee asked his friend about the Men in Black. That librarian — Lowell Cunningham — would write a comic called The Men in Black for independent comics publisher Aircel in 1990. One of the producers of the original Men in Black film found some of The Men in Black comics in the discount bin at his local comics shop; he optioned the rights to make a film based on the comic in 1992, and the rest, as they say, is history.

To revitalize the Men in Black franchise, it must return to its original comic book roots.

The Men in Black #1 (1990)

You must first understand that the Men in Black from the comics are not heroes.

While the comics originate the quirky humor and bizarre settings that the films are known for,12 Cunningham’s original The Men in Black was much darker in tone than the films have been to date.13

The Men in Black in the comics protect the Earth from UFOs, like the original legends and the films. However, they also defend Earth from other paranormal threats, like magic users, super-powered vigilantes, out-of-control psychic phenomena, and demonic entities. They differ from the cinematic Men in Black in the following ways as well:

  • The Men in Black do not merely defend the Earth. Their primary goal is maintaining order on Earth by maintaining the status quo.
  • Agents of the Men in Black can use memory erasure to cover up their activities, but they are more than willing to kill witnesses to achieve the same goals. The agency only cares that missions are successful.
  • Agent Kay is a much grimmer character in the comics than in the films. Cinematic Agent Kay is a grizzled old mentor figure with a heart of gold; comics Agent Kay is a cold-blooded killer ready and willing to use deadly force to eliminate threats or accomplish the mission, warranted or not. One could easily see how cinematic Agent Kay could become Agent Kay from the comics, though, under the wrong circumstances. Comics Agent Kay is considered a model agent.
  • Comics Agent Jay (a white guy) is a highly ethical government agent hoping to reform the Men in Black from the inside. Unfortunately, the agency would rather mold him into someone more like his partner.

While this version may be remarkably different from the Men in Black viewers are used to from the first film, I think it might be different enough from the original Men in Black film to bring something new to audiences while still being somewhat nostalgic.

Here are my proposed changes and adherences to the comic’s formula, to streamline the concept and make it more palatable to filmgoing audiences.

  • Like the original film trilogy, future films based on the original comic stories should focus more on policing extraterrestrial phenomena than other paranormal phenomena. (However, the filmmakers should incorporate other related conspiracy theories into the story, as the comics did.)
  • Barry Sonnenfeld’s peculiar, quirky humor made the Men in Black franchise funny in the first place; lacking that essential humor will kill the franchise deader than Elvis14 and potentially make it impossible to revitalize it again. The filmmakers at Sony should attempt to retain or even improve upon the original kooky humor from the first three Men in Black films. I recommend bringing back director Barry Sonnenfeld or a director of Sonnenfeld’s choosing who possesses a similar sense of humor.
  • Retain the film’s version of the neuralizer; the device has become far too iconic since its successful inclusion in the first film. However, add limitations to their use that make killing some witnesses a viable (and tempting) option. Also: restore the nifty red light the original neuralizers had in the first Men in Black film: the red light made them look almost sinister, while the blue lights employed by neuralizers in later films seemed far too comforting by comparison.15 The neuralizer should also retain its original cinematic shape, too. The neuralizer from the comics looked far too much like an ordinary flashlight.
  • Bring Marvel Studios on to produce the films. Marvel Comics owns the property, and Marvel/Disney might have input that could make the films more profitable again. The last Sony/Marvel collaboration, Spider-Man: No Way Home, went incredibly well,16 so a partnership on the Men in Black franchise might also be as successful.17

The original legend of the Men in Black terrified me. Strange individuals — either hostile extraterrestrial/extradimensional entities or human government agents — in intimidating black suits threatening UFO witnesses is a terrifying evergreen concept that possesses tremendous potential if used properly. If Sony Pictures or Marvel Comics could bring that fear to bear, they could successfully revitalize the Men in Black brand and get it back to profitability.

  1. Jablonicky’s article was first featured in UFO Universe, Vol. 1, No. 3, November 1988. This article has been reprinted via the community, the Paranormal & Ghost Society, and other places online. I may reprint it here at some point since everyone else interested in the Men in Black seems to be doing so as well.[]
  2. I think I’d also seen a rerun of The X-Files episode “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” by then.[]
  3. Men in Black were fairly ubiquitous in the media by then as well, and I was sick of hearing about the film.[]
  4. I really don’t know if the Men in Black are real or not now. Much of the early evidence of their existence that came from Gray Barker and John Keel was likely faked. I may go into this in a later post.[]
  5. I also thought it was laughable that James Cameron’s romantic epic Titanic was pitted against Men in Black for the Best Makeup category. You’re gonna pit basic corpse make-up against imaginative alien creatures overseen by Stephen Spielberg? Good luck![]
  6. I had already seen The Mothman Prophecies by then and found it to be the far superior film. I’d also read the novel The Mothman Prophecies, which was a far better story involving the Men in Black than anything that has been put to celluloid outside of “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” to date.[]
  7. Both Men in Black II and Men in Black 3 feature Smith and Jones trading roles — the veteran agent becomes the novice and the novice agent becomes the veteran — and both films involve a secret villain from Agent Kay’s past threatening the present.[]
  8. The time difference between Men in Black II and Men in Black 3 likely helped as well. One decade is enough time to turn a good film like the original Men in Black into a classic film people will get nostalgic for.[]
  9. Given all the shady nonsense that takes place at the Rotten Tomatoes website — critics getting paid to write good reviews and hackers spamming the site with negative reviews for films they hate to drive down the audience scores — I don’t think any of the scores at Rotten Tomatoes can ever be fully trusted.[]
  10. The first reported sighting was Kenneth Arnold’s sighting, which occurred three days later. Arnold later interviewed Harold Dahl, who informed him about the Maury Island sighting.[]
  11. As with most Men in Black encounters, when the Men in Black demand that a witness remain silent about their UFO experiences, the witnesses almost always do the exact opposite. Some have theorized that this is the Men in Black’s actual intent: to use intimidation and reverse psychology to make people spread the word about UFOs.[]
  12. Indeed, the films borrow characters and settings from multiple issues of the comics.[]
  13. The noteworthy exception is Men in Black: International, whose story verges far more into the conspiracy thriller nature of the original The Men in Black comics than the previous three films did.[]
  14. I am aware that Elvis is not dead. He just went home.[]
  15. The red/blue light difference is all due to Hollywood color-coding: blue is for good guys, red is for bad guys. While we typically see this technique employed by science fiction filmmakers — its earliest modern use was in the Star Wars films, where the good Jedi used blue lightsabers and the evil Sith used red lightsabers — we see this color distinction used most commonly in modern video games.[]
  16. According to the Internet rumor mill, this was largely due to Sony’s input, so I may be way off here.[]
  17. That, and such a collaboration might finally spur Marvel Comics into doing something with the Men in Black comics franchise. They’ve owned the property since they bought out Malibu/Aircel in the early 1990s, but they’ve yet to do much with it since obtaining it. It’s like they only own the franchise to draw royalty paychecks off it… Then again, Marvel’s comics have been so abysmal lately — outside of the Krakoan Era of X-Men comics, that is — that maybe their inactivity with the Men in Black comics is a blessing in disguise.[]

About Dunebat

Sole specimen: Desmodus desertus. Judeo-Christian anchorite/scribe/scribbler. Lover of nerds, Goths, creatives, & outcasts.

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