This might be a hard concept for the film industry to grasp, but sometimes a big blockbuster movie doesn’t warrant sequels. If ever there was a perfect example, it’s Men in Black. Barry Sonnenfeld’s original film juxtaposed classic alien invasion storylines with unconventionally wry storytelling, showcasing protagonists to whom even the most fantastic ideas are mundane. The first movie excelled because Will Smith’s character was introduced to the humdrum world of “MIB” and actually responded to the sci-fi conceits the way that the audience would, but in the years that followed he too would obviously develop the same mechanical reactions to every crazy plot point. There’s no hope for dramatic escalation in the world of Men in Black, and no real potential for character growth since the heroes exist in a social vacuum. Yeah, let’s turn that into a franchise.
Men in Black 3 is far more watchable than the second film in the series, but it’s also more forgettable. At least Men in Black II was awful enough to make an impression. Barry Sonnenfeld’s third Men in Black film coasts on charm, a few nifty ideas and Josh Brolin’s spot-on Tommy Lee Jones impersonation, but it never feels like it was necessary. The plot hinges on an old nemesis of Agent K, who is played briefly by Tommy Lee Jones, breaking out of prison and traveling back in time to kill K in the 1960s, forcing Agent J, played by Will Smith, to go back in time and stop him, teaming up with young Agent K, played by the always reliable Josh Brolin, in the process. The story, that thing that’s supposed move the characters forward in a dramatic arc, is about J discovering what made his partner kind of dull.
Let that sink in. Men in Black 3 exists only to explain why Tommy Lee Jones’s character isn’t chatty. (Yes, and to make millions of dollars at the box office, but don’t get sidetracked.) While not quite as ill conceived as the Star Wars prequels, which arguably tainted the good films that preceded it, the third film in the Men in Black franchise intentionally avoids character development for the sake of justifying the heroes’ status quo. You could argue that Josh Brolin’s journey to becoming the Agent K we all know and love qualifies as a story arc, but that development is reserved for a climactic twist, and frankly, he’s already 4/5’s of the way there when we meet him. Nothing moves forward, and the trip to back the past only offers half-funny gags about antiquated technologies and Andy Warhol, played by a reasonably comical Bill Hader.
What does this mean for a summer blockbuster, intended primarily to distract audiences from the frustration of daily life? It means that Men in Black 3, while at times a funny movie, won’t stick with you. It won’t thrill or engage or evoke any kind of emotional response beyond mild amusement. You might not regret paying for your ticket, but I suspect that at some point in the future, probably not more than a couple of weeks, you’ll realize that you barely remember seeing it. It’s the cinematic equivalent of staying at home and watching TV. Maybe you needed the diversion that day, but on your deathbed, you’ll regret not doing something more productive with your time. Like seeing The Avengers again.