As we get ever closer to the release date of Men in Black 3 on Blu-Ray and DVD on November 30th, I have been considering the threads that hold all three movies together as a complete narrative. I believe that the films can be thematically split into three different basic questions, and also that answering each of these questions is vital to the enjoyment of each of the films.
Men in Black 3 wasn’t just one of my favorite movies from this summer, but it was something I really didn’t expect–a good second sequel.
Part One: What?
Writing and producing the first Men in Black (1997) must have been quite challenging. Balancing the comedic pathos of a procedural sort of story with the darker, more ominous qualities of a shadowy government organization may have seemed relatively simple and straightforward in the two sequels, but for the first entry into the series, a completely new trail had to be forged. The core of MIB has never really been the alien creatures that the protagonists Agent J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) encounter, or the wicked cool weaponry that they wield when carrying out their missions (although one would be hard pressed to find a person who wouldn’t find a neuralizer useful in everyday situations), but rather the simple fact that this group of extraordinarily talented individuals exists, in New York of all places, and that, despite their incredible secrecy, these secret government agents really do have the best interests of not only Americans, but the entire human race in mind. As Smith’s James Edwards learns about the secret history and purpose of MIB, so does the audience.
Despite the best efforts of MIB, no one has forgotten the fun, quirky sci-fi adventure that was Men in Black (1997).
Part Two: Why?
With the relationship between J and K established as well as the general universe of MIB put into a particular perspective, it was now the job of the 2002 sequel to give the audience what they enjoyed about the first film while offering something new. I find an interesting meditation about what our identities enable us to accomplish through our actions in the main plot of MIB II; as shown by K’s return to form as an agent and Laura Vasquez’s (Rosario Dawson) acceptance of her destiny. The scene that really strikes me is during the film’s climactic battle with Laura Flynn Boyle’s Sirleena (the plant-like alien that has returned to Earth to find the elusive Light of Zartha), when K is trying to convince Laura that she should board the spacecraft so that she can leave Earth. He says, “We are who we are, even if we sometimes forget it.” This is why K has really been compelled to follow J on this odd journey that has reunited him with MIB and his past, and also why J is able to put his emotions for Laura aside to save the planet. It is something that is almost instinctive, primal–and without acting upon the desire to complete this quest, K’s life without MIB–without a mission–is in vain, especially after his wife, who was referenced in the first film, leaves him.
Laura Vasquez contemplates her fate in Men in Black II (2002).
Part Three: Who?
So the boys are back on the beat, and everything seems to be hunky-dory again, based on the ending of MIB II. Just as in the case of the earlier sequel, MIB III took place after a progression of real time–and the ten years between 2002 and 2012 have both strengthened and weakened the relationship between Agents J and K. Both of them have become fully immersed in their roles as agents of a secret organization that licenses and monitors extraterrestrial activity on the planet Earth. J is no longer the new kid on the block, but he still knows next to nothing about his old dog of a partner. Traveling back in time to prevent K’s death at the hands of Boris the Animal in 1969, J not only learns about K, but also about his own motivations behind joining MIB. The heroic death of J’s father is what first causes K to take notice of young James Edwards, as well as what eventually motivates him to recruit him into the agency. With this latest chapter in the saga, these characters are now fleshed out in a way that makes the viewing experience of all three films just a little richer. It’s also interesting to look at them in the context of when they were made and what the films tell us individually about ourselves as an audience.
What’s old feels new again, especially since we now understand what has brought these characters together and keeps them that way.