Unless you were old enough to remember the summer of 1997, it’s kind of hard to describe the phenomenon the first film created. Whether we’re talking about its 589,390,539 worldwide gross at the box office, the cartoon and film sequels, Will Smith’s Grammy winning Men in Black theme song, or the simple fact that Ray-Ban’s now iconic Predator shades got a huge sales increase. You know how kids used to pretend and play cowboys and Indians, Ghostbusters, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? I remember for a short time where all the kids at my school yard aspired to be Agent (insert letter). Not to mention it made for an easy and cool Halloween costume.
But what made Men in Black so successful? Was it the hot soundtrack, groundbreaking special effects, or the awesome product placements? You might think that I’d say that it’s the story, but it’s not even that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very well written script, but it’s not like it’s a deep, emotionally engaging story. What makes Men in Black work is what made many of the best 90s films work. Pure, showstopping entertainment. Which is to say, all of the sums working together to make a popcorn flick worth watching again and again.
Product placement done right.
Even then, it’s hard to pinpoint what made Men in Black so entertaining compared to other blockbusters, which had the same ingredients. However, I believe there’s three main ingredients that make summer blockbuster films like MIB so popular.
- Original Plot: Although Hollywood is often derided as being unoriginal, MIB is as original as you can get. Not just because of its unique premise of secret agents going around and saving the galaxy. It’s not a matter of what’s written as much as how it’s written. MIB had a quirky sense of humor and a style (mainly thanks to Danny Elfman’s score) that cannot be imitated, much in the same way films such as Back to the Future, The Goonies, or Jurassic Park are original, memorable, and inimitable.
- Cast: You know you have a good cast when you can’t think of an actor who could replace them. One of the reasons why MIB was a smash success was because of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. While Will Smith is still big now, back in the 90s he was untouchable. He had hit after hit with films such as Independence Day and The Fresh Prince of Bell Air (not to mention that he was constantly on the radio with Mr. DJ Jazzy Jeff). Tommy Lee Jones also had quite a success back in the 90s, winning a best supporting Oscar for The Fugitive, and appearing in blockbusters such as Batman Forever. But it wasn’t just another typical Hollywood case of hiring big names with bigger box-office draws. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were perfect for their respective roles, and even better, Smith’s humor and Jones’s dry no-nonsense chemistry worked perfectly together.
But that's not all! Hire Will Smith and get a top 10 theme song!
- Action/SFX: This might not be the most popular thing to say, but when it comes to big blockbusters, action and special effects are important. When they’re done right and implemented into the story, that is, and MIB accomplishes this perfectly. A great film with good action and special effects is the reason why people purchase a ticket rather than wait for it to come out on Netflix.
Of course, if it was a simple matter of putting those elements together, almost every film Hollywood put out would be a hit. However, that’s certainly not the case and Men in Black II is a prime example.
From a logical perspective, MIBII has all of the ingredients necessary for a hit. They got the cast back, another hit song, and plenty of popcorn material. And pragmatically, MIBII was a success with the box office gross at $441,818,803 worldwide. But somehow, it just didn’t click together. It wasn’t a “Sure it’s not as good as the first one but it’s still entertaining,” or a “it’s an entertaining film if you just look at it as entertainment” sequel because it lacked the entertainment. Perhaps it was the forced humor, lackluster special effects and action, or substandard plot.
And if we’re on the topic of ranting about Men in Black II, why did they not have Linda Fiorentino back as Agent L? Just because Agent K was back didn’t mean they had to write her off. Plus, I think Fiorentino’s chemistry worked great with Smith and Lee, and it would’ve been hilarious to see what lines she would’ve said to Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle).
But it’s not just the films that were a success. There was also the cartoon Men in Black: The Series, which ran for four years. And you know what? It was pretty damn good. Going back to the original plot idea, Men in Black‘s galaxy’s defenders idea and the wide variety of aliens, technology, and galactic threats made for a goldmine of stories. Oh, and they actually had Agent L (voiced by Jennifer Lien and Jennifer Martin).
GTFO! This is the MIB not the WIB.
There’s also The Men in Black, the comic book that started it all. There’s a lot of differences between the comic books and the films/show, but there are two key differences between them. One of the things is that TMIB has them trying to control the galaxy, not protect it. And you know those memory erasers in the films? In the comic books, they just killed any witnesses on sight. This is one of those instances where making the tone lighter and more humorous than the source was a very smart move. Also, it’s interesting to note that the comic books themselves aren’t really well known. The Mask was collected into an omnibus and is one of Dark Horse’s heavy hitters, The Crow had an underground following before the film and certainly became more famous after it was released, but The Men in Black stayed in the shadows. Do you or anyone you know read the comic books? Neither do I.
Guns: The best way of dealing with witnesses.
Then after a ten year hiatus, Men in Black III came out. While it may not be the best film, it’s great to see a solid sequel that will probably revive the franchise.
So where does Men in Black go next. Well, there’s probably going to be a sequel, seeing that MIBIII is proving to be a success . But it would be fun to get another comic book run, whether the original series or the film universe (not to mention a The Men in Black omnibus). And since there’s Transformers Prime and Thundercats out, maybe there’s a chance of a new Men in Black: The Series. Hell, why not a live action Men in Black series starring different agents? And while we’re at it, someone needs to make a (good) Men in Black video game that fans have been waiting for all these years.
Regardless of where the franchise will or won’t go, it’s been an amazing run so far. Men in Black has been extremely successful, whether it’s the films, the show, or even the toys, and for the most part, all deservedly so. Now, if you’ll all stop what you’re doing and take a look at this for a second….