Men in Black is 20 years old
Men in Black, a smart and engaging comedy based on Lowell Cunningham’s comic books starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, was released in the US on 2 July, 1997. The film was a hit with audiences young and old, further demonstrating Smith wasn’t just the Fresh Prince, and that Jones could actually be quite funny. It was followed by an animated series that lasted for four seasons, and two sequels in 2002 and 2012, neither of which succeeded at replicating the original’s dark, dry and offbeat wit.
Men in Black was my generation’s Ghostbusters: as a child I became obsessed with the notion that there were aliens among us, and that I could be entrusted with keeping that secret. It seemed a lot easier than becoming Batman, and I was young enough not to care about having to sacrifice personal identity or life. Since seeing the film, one scene always stayed in my head, namely when Agent K (Jones) explains to James Darrell Edwards III (Smith) why they keep alien presence on Earth a secret:
“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. 1500 years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”
The film ends with an extraordinary reveal that the universe exists inside a marble, a reminder we’re not the centre of creation and it’s no big deal humans don’t know about it. It was a Swiftian reminder to the audience of how pointless and insignificant they really are. As K says, there’s always an Arquillian battle cruiser, an Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague ready to wipe out all life on Earth.
Unfortunately, that jadedness would affect the sequels: if the world’s always in danger, why care? Looking back, it’s unfortunate how J adopted the cynical worldview of K, which was necessary to speed along the first film’s origin story, but was counterintuitive to telling a fresh story in the sequels.
Sony has considered continuing the series with a crossover in 23 Jump Street. The notion of spoofing the shared universe popularised by Marvel Studios is an intriguing one, but one more beneficial to prolonging the Jump Street reboot, which thoroughly mocked the idea of more sequels during the second film’s spectacular end credits.
A live-action Men in Black TV show can tell smaller, funnier, more intimate stories about immigration and integration. Legally, to what extent do human rights laws apply to aliens? How much do the MIB have to respect their privacy? How do interspecies relationships work? (Men in Black II implied K had been in one.) And at what point does brainwashing the whole populace to be oblivious become untenable, especially in the age of fake news? Is it ethical to withold scientific theories and inventions from our researchers too?
America has many paranormal myths and legends, all of which could be incorporated into a series with the underlying explanation of aliens. Ghosts, cryptids and demonic possession could all be fodder for episodes, alongside UFO sightings and alien abductions. 2016 saw ongoing reports of creepy clown sightings: could it all have been a scientific survey or religious ceremony that drew a little too much attention?
Of course, aliens may not want to live in America: what do the MIB do then? These are all examples of the boundless potential of a Men in Black series, which could be a magical show in the right hands. Here’s to the next twenty years of Men in Black, whatever they may hold: