How Men in Black subverted blockbuster tropes to become box office gold

On paper, and especially in hindsight, 1997’s Men in Black reads as slam-dunk a blockbuster pitch as a lucky studio exec could ever hope to get. Two proven big-name stars riding then-career highs: Tommy Lee Jones, fresh off of Batman Forever, and Will Smith, who had just toplined the biggest film of 1996 Independence Day. A highly-successful director in Barry Sonnenfeld who made two hits out of The Addams Family and received critical bona fides for Get Shorty.

An easily-marketable premise, secret government alien police/immigration force, hitting at the moment where the alien conspiracy craze was cresting in peak popularity (partly thanks to The X-Files). Groundbreaking special effects and make-up work led by industry legend Rick Baker. A certified bop of a theme song to dominate the pop charts. Nowadays, you could even lean on the source material’s comic book origins as (technically) a Marvel property.

In practice, though, Men in Black doesn’t function like one would expect a typical Hollywood blockbuster to, even when taking the other major hits of 1997 into account. Sonnenfeld’s film takes that high-concept premise – one ripe with potential for spectacle and wonder and outsized action – and deliberately goes for a deadpan, almost mundane approach to the material. Men in Black belongs to the lineage of the original Ghostbusters, a blockbuster committed more towards fully exploring an idea rather than traditional pulse-pounding excitement. And, just like Ghostbusters, that lower-key approach is in service of the movie’s central joke: demonstrating how utterly humdrum dealing with the otherworldly can be when it’s your 9-to-5 job.

Most obviously, this dichotomy plays out via the buddy-cop dynamic of Jones’ and Smith’s Agents K and J. J is the fresh-faced street-smart recruit thrown for a loop regarding this strange new world he’s been thrust into (accordingly the audience POV), while his partner K is the jaded seen-it-all veteran for whom precious little fazes.

Neither man is presented as a uniquely brilliant virtuous hero with prior personal connections to the supernatural goings on, destined to become an MIB agent. K effectively lucked into the gig by being in the wrong place at the wrong time decades prior. J, meanwhile, is an eager NYPD officer scouted for his above-average physical prowess and slightly unorthodox approach to problem solving – traits which are common in most high-level law-enforcement jobs.

As playful as Sonnenfeld’s direction may be, that stripping of the glamour and thrill in dealing with aliens both passive and threatening is as core to Men in Black’s identity as the city of pre-gentrification New York (another cinematic lineage that the movie slots into). You can see that ethos reflected in the production and set design. Sequences are set in scuzzy pawn shops, on grungy street corners with shifty shop vendors, and in dimly-lit morgues, whilst the MIB offices resemble airport security stations with their regimented open-plan desk layouts and unassuming sterile colour scheme.

Rather than engage in pitched gun fights with loads of chaotic destruction, much of the investigation to trail Edgar the Bug frequently involves J and K merely talking to the aliens-of-interest since, as K points out early on, most residing on Earth just want to live a peaceful existence without making trouble. After all, not every day as a government agent involves life-or-death struggles with a terrorist or shaking down perps for street gossip. Some days, you just gotta help somebody’s wife deliver their baby in the backseat of a car… even if said baby is an uninhibited squid-being with powerful tentacles.

Speaking of Edgar – the film’s primary antagonist – it’s random terrorist with no major complex motives or prior connection to our protagonists. Just a bug that literally feeds on causing chaos and the destruction of other species it considers lower. Not a grand genius, in fact it’s almost comically inept a lot of the time – something enhanced by Vincent D’Onofrio’s contorting physical performance – and prone to impulsive acts of violence. Accordingly, nobody but Agent J ever ends up more than mildly concerned about the threat this bug provides even when an alien race is prepared to vaporise the entire planet in response, an act which the Men in Black are so blasé about that they have a literal countdown timer ready to go.

The stakes are so perfunctory because, as K earlier notes, “world’s always under threat from something, kid.” At a certain point, and after so many foilings of such threats, it just becomes the daily grind. You don’t hear about the hundreds of times a terror attack almost happened. K’s unflappable world-weariness drives home that central joke which underpins all of these creative decisions: a 9-to-5 job under capitalism will eventually suck the wonder out of everything, no matter how extraordinary it may all seem when first starting out.

You’ll go from marveling at the majesty of the stars to not blinking twice when an alien’s head regrows after being blasted clean off its shoulders. As Ghostbusters took the glamour out of interacting with the supernatural when viewed through the lens of blue-collar pest control work, Men in Black manages the same for aliens when working within the government bureaucracy. It’s foundational to the film’s deadpan comic tone and unique charm.

It’s also antithetical to how Hollywood usually envisions their blockbusters – full of wonder, spectacle, ever-increasing stakes, personal connections and high drama. As with Ghostbusters, nearly every attempt since the original Men in Black to return to the franchise has failed spectacularly because the studio and creatives in charge keep forgetting the central joke. The second you start treating Men in Black like a conventional blockbuster, you’ve got the foundations critically wrong. Men in Black II opens on a wildly destructive subway chase bigger in scale than anything seen in the original; 3 retconned K and J’s first encounter to K being accidentally responsible for the death of J’s father as a kid; International (very badly) tried to synthesise a Marvel/Bond hybrid and ended with a fashionable-at-the-time sky beam of death.

More than all bar 3 being terrible films, they all miss the joke which underpinned the original and gave it its character. Trying to craft an approach any further visits to the Men in Black universe like a conventional blockbuster is a folly because the concept as so memorably presented in 1997 is inherently unfit to support it. In the meantime, the original Men in Black remains such a fun achievement in blockbuster filmmaking a quarter-century on, largely by being so antithetical to the conventional blockbuster format.

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