Barring Disney movies, the box office this summer (so far) has been kind of miserable. Audiences are not feeling all the sequels, but they’re not turning out for original movies, like Booksmart, The Longshot, and Late Night, either. This was another dismal weekend, with every new movie under-performing, including Men in Black: International, which opened with $28 million, even less than yikes-bomb Dark Phoenix. The lure of Thor and Valkyrie re-teaming was not enough to get people into theaters, and Chris Hemsworth, despite finding his comedy groove, continues to struggle to open a movie outside Marvel. This also might be the final nail in the MiB coffin, as maybe people just aren’t nostalgic for the other 90s Will Smith alien movie, especially when there is no Will Smith in the new movie. Men in Black: International acts as a kind of soft reboot, extending the world of MiB in new directions while recycling much of the formula of the original movie. It’s a totally forgettable, mostly harmless studio comedy that suffers from a lot of the problems common to modern studio comedies.
One of the biggest problems for International is that there is no straight man. Hemsworth plays Agent H, an agent in the London office with a reputation for being the best but who is also wildly off-book in his dealings with aliens. Hemsworth is basically playing a live-action take on Sterling Archer, and it’s not bad, but he has no straight man comedy partner. Because Tessa Thompson, playing a newbie probationary agent, is also doing a by-the-seat-of-her-pants thing with her character, Agent M. They’re joined by wacky alien sidekick Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), so we have a trio of characters playing some degree of wacky with nothing to ground them. In the original MiB, Tommy Lee Jones was the straight man to Will Smith’s wide-eyed, incredulous Agent J. That dynamic works because you have a character taking the world of MiB seriously, giving a stable center to all the wackiness around them. International has no stable center, and you can feel it in all the jokes that don’t quite land.
And International needs that stable center, because there isn’t much to cling to in this movie, which gently retreads the original, sort of how Star Wars: The Force Awakens redid Star Wars. There are two MiB agents travelling around, talking to their alien sources, trying to find a super-weapon Macguffin that was in plain view the whole time. What International is missing—besides a straight man—is a dominant villain. The original MiB remains the best largely because of Vincent D’Onofrio’s gross, rotting, cockroach-man-alien. That movie had a single bad guy for the action to focus on, but International’s bad guy is an amorphous threat called “the Hive”. They’re body-snatchers who infiltrate and replace the societies they conquer, and they never really come into focus as anything other than a vague “this is bad” threat.
Men in Black: International is written by Matt Holloway & Art Marcum (the writing team behind Iron Man but also Transformers: The Last Knight) with no sense of purpose or direction. It recycles plot points from the original with less focus and no real identity beyond “remember this schtick?”. You know things are not going well when Hemsworth and Thompson can’t muster up their usual chemistry—they both seem kind of lost in this script. Simply having Thompson play Agent M straight, as a by-the-book rookie, probably would have fixed a lot of their problems. It might not have saved the movie, but it could have salvaged Hemsworth and Thompson as actors in the movie, at least.
As it is, Men in Black: International is okay. Ten year olds might like it for the goofy alien bits. And F. Gary Gray’s direction is decent, so the various chase sequences and glamorous locales look cool, if nothing else. But it’s a huge problem that virtually none of the comedy works, to the extent that Hemsworth and Thompson, two people with real, palpable screen chemistry, can’t find their groove together. That flattens the movie, and wastes a lot of good casting (Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Liam Neeson, and Emma Thompson do what they can). It also makes International completely forgettable. I can’t remember any particular joke or stand-out bit. There is nothing as distinctive as Vincent D’Onofrio’s bug-man, or the running bit about Agent K neuralyzing Agent J. There is instead a series of chases and wacky sidekicks all of it playing in the key of confused. We know what Hemsworth and Thompson can do together on screen, but in Men in Black: International, you’d think they had never met before. It’s a total waste.
Attached - Tessa Thompson at the MTV Movie Awards on the weekend.