Study Guide

Men in Black

Men in Black Introduction


Release Year: 1997

Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Sci-Fi

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

Writer: Ed Solomon and Lowell Cunningham (comic)

Stars: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones


We've all heard about "them." You know who we're talking about. A bunch of men at the head of a covert organization that have the money, knowledge, and political clout to run the world from behind the closed doors. They control the affairs of humanity and keep the truth of the world hidden by manipulating our memories with false information to further their dark, secretive agendas.

No we aren't talking about Reddit.

We're talking about the Men in Black.

Based on the Marvel comic of the same name, Men in Black is about the secret agency of, well, the Men in Black, whose job is to manage all the intergalactic aliens living here on Earth, and to keep their existence a secret from the rest of us. The film's running joke is that just about anyone could be an alien—they're walking among us and we don't even know it. (We've all wondered about Ryan Seacrest, though…)

After losing his partner on their last mission, MiB Agent K recruits NYPD Detective James Darrell Edwards III, who becomes Agent J. During Jay's first day on the job, Earth becomes entangled in the crossfire between two warring alien species, and Kay and Jay must protect an entire Galaxy to save the Earth.

So no pressure.

Men in Black was 1997's summer hit. Blending those newfangled computer graphics with excellent practical effects, the film created a crazy, kinetic, and fun world for audiences and critics to inhabit. Moviegoers welcomed the invite, resulting in the film grossing roughly $250 million domestic.

  

Even the critics enjoyed themselves. Decades later, the film still maintains a 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with a consensus that it has "a smart script" and "charismatic performances from its leads," resulting in a "satisfying summer blockbuster." In other words, this shines as one of the least embarrassing pop culture moments to hail from the late '90s. Those of you who lived through those years know the unholy depths of which we speak.

As always happens when Hollywood smells money, Men in Black became a franchise. It spawned one meh sequel and one pretty good one. It had a Saturday morning cartoon show for the kiddos and a line of toys, not to mention video games, board games, and a theme park ride. It even had its own theme songs, which didn't ask you who you were gonna call but simply said here they come.

Hollywood never left the Men in Black franchise to sit idly on the shelf to collect dust, but it hasn't kept it a focal point of our cultural consciousness, either—the gap between the second and third movie was 10 years.

So before the inevitable reboot, let's take a look at this classic science-fiction, buddy-cop comedy and see what we can find.

What is Men in Black About and Why Should I Care?

Every summer, the movie lineup contains more and more spectacle-driven films about tight-clad super-humans walloping each other over magical MacGuffins or silly misunderstandings. And there's no sign the trend will be slowing down anytime soon. The Marvel and D.C. cinematic universes line up super hero films five years at a time.

Will either of these universes have a major metropolitan area left when they're all done? They make Godzilla look like a paragon of self-restraint in the city-leveling department.

Men in Black was released during an interesting time in the history of comic book movies. As M. Keith Booker points out, in the late '90s "the strongest trend in graphic cinema […] had been toward darker and darker depictions of troubled superheroes in morally ambiguous situations." Grim and gritty examples? Tim Burton's Batman films, The Crow, and Dark Man, for starters.

MiB pulled a trendsetting 180 and served up a light-hearted action comedy, similar to pre-Batman superhero films like Superman. MiB's good guys are virtuous and heroic while the bad guys are bad and, technically speaking, not even guys. The film was also very colorful with a procession of charming alien designs courtesy of Rick Baker. About the only thing it has in common with Tim Burton's Batman films is its comic book origins and a cool car.

Also counter to the '80s and early '90s trend, Men in Black was a huge success, and the highest grossing Marvel comic adaptation at that time. And so an old trend reemerged as the new thing. After MiB, superhero films became light-hearted, colorful affairs again, like Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and Bryan Singer's X-Men.

Today, we have an embarrassment of riches, and both trends peacefully coexist in the superhero genre. Audiences wanting a fun adventurous romp can enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy, while those who want more neck-snapping depression in their films can wallow through Snyder's Man of Steel. Captain America: Civil War mind-melds both trends by providing a morally ambiguous conflict between two fan-favorite superheroes while also allowing Iron-Man and Spider-man the chance to clown around.

That's why this movie, crazy as it seems, was—yes, we'll say it— historic. Men in Black found itself at a fulcrum point between two trends, and its success helped ensure that heavy and light stuff survived the modern movie era.

Trivia

In the film's overseas releases, the celebrity that Will Smith names as an alien was changed from Dennis Rodman to Michael Jackson because Rodman wasn't as well known in countries like France and Spain. We'd explain Rodman for our overseas Shmoopers, but that would require us to dredge up memories of Simon Sez, and we just don't have the mental courage. (Source)

Men in Black starts right away with the paranormal conspiracy theory shout-outs. The van smuggling the undocumented immigrants drives along Highway 375, a reference to Nevada State Road 375, known as the "Extraterrestrial Highway" due to its proximity to alleged UFO crash site Area 51. Rick's excuse to the INS officer that he was "fishing in Cuernavaca" is a nod to UFOlogist Gordon Creighton's theory that a UFO crash landed near there in 1951. And, oh yeah, Paul is dead, which is obvious to anyone who's ever played "A Day in the Life" backwards. (Source)

Director Barry Sonnenfeld said he chose designer Isaac Mizrahi to be on the alien Big Board because he looked like one the of the Blue Meanies from the "Yellow Submarine" video. We report, you decide. (Source)

The film's credits changed the "No Animals Were Harmed" disclaimer in the credits to read, "The animals and aliens used in this film were in no way mistreated and all scenes in which they appeared were under strict supervision with the utmost concern for their handling." Because the last thing you want as a science fiction filmmaker is for the Alien Actors Guild to lawyer up on you. (Source)

Men in Black Resources

WEBSITES

Tag, You're It
AMC lists the great taglines of films. Men in Black earns a spot with its tagline but doesn't beat Titantic, a film that earns not one, not two, but three separate entries on the list.

The "Real" Men in Black
UFO Evidence has collected a series of articles discussing the real Men in Black phenomenon. Although in this case, we use the term "real" to mean something people can believe but have never proven, so… not real.

BOOK OR TV ADAPTATIONS

Adaptive Traits
The novelization of Men in Black was written by Steve Perry, who's also written novels for the Star Wars, Alien, and Indiana Jones as well as the novelization of Titan A.E.. Remember Titan A.E…. no?

Men in Black and White
MTV looks back at the comics the films were based on—although the films have as much in common with the comic books as Call of Duty has in common with actual warfare.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Jolly Roger
In this review, legendary film critic Roger Ebert loves the Men in Black's willingness to be equal parts self-aware and absurd. Zac Snyder take note.

Astronomy 101
Bad Astronomy is a website that grades a film's scientific accuracy: Think Cinema Sins with an advanced degree. Does Men in Black pass the test? Check it out.

Films Don't Repeat Themselves
But they do rhyme. TCM's wonderful introduction to Men in Black does a great job of putting the film in the context of cinematic history.

It's Alive
Dr. Frankenstein ain't got nothin' on this guy. Entertainment Weekly talks with monster maker and mad scientist Rick Baker on the set of Men in Black.

No Strings on Me
PC World chats with master puppeteer Mark Setrakian, whose works include Hellboy, The Tick, and, you guessed it, Men in Black.

VIDEO

Trailer Voice
Why hire the trailer-voiceover guy when you have Tommy Lee Jones at your disposal?

Two Thumbs Up
Siskel and Ebert both give Men in Black the thumbs up on At the Movies, meaning it gets to live… we guess.

Monster Mash
Rick Baker, creature designer on numerous films including Men in Black, plays museum docent and guides us through his warehouse of mechanical monstrosities. The place is like a retirement community for nightmares.

Skipping Ahead
If you just want the Men in Black part of the tour, use this link.

The (Un)History Channel
Two documentaries detailing supposed sightings of real life Men in Black. Side note: Does anyone else remember when the History Channel had programming about history? Good times.

No Introduction Needed
If you were a child of the late 90s, that is. For everyone else, we introduce the opening to the Men in Black animated television series

AUDIO

Gettin' Jiggy With It
If you click on this link, you will never get the Will Smith Men in Black rap out of your skull. Ever. So be ready for that earworm.

The Black Album
The original soundtrack is properly quirky from a score courtesy of Danny Elfman, the only man Tim Burton trusts with his films' scores.

IMAGES

BFG Edition
The original movie poster sports Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones posing with the Nerf guns of your dreams

Are You Feeling Lucky, Punk?
Agent K puts on his best Clint Eastwood impression before shooting Mikey to bits.

Boom Goes the Cricket
Agent J takes aim with the Noisy Cricket, the gun that makes TF2 rocket jumpers green with envy.

Calamari Cutie
Reggie's alien squid baby is the most adorable eight-tentacle creature with demon horns we've ever seen.

Day of the Living Edgar
The bug's Edgar suit is in full-on decomposition mode in this still shot from the film. Wonderfully gross.

Slackers
Come to think of it, the 2002 teen comedy Slackers would have been a way better movie had it featured MiB's worm aliens.