Men in Black: International has clearly made the same mistake as 2016's Independence Day: Resurgence, which is making a sequel without Will Smith. Like the Independence Day sequel, the fourth film in the Men in Black franchise suffers from several major issues, not the least of which is the lack of Smith's defining charisma and magnetic talent.
Independence Day: Resurgence famously bombed in 2016, pulling in barely half of what the original movie did 20 years earlier in 1996. Critics responded in kind, widely panning it. Smith also wasn't the only confusing casting choice - Maika Monroe played Patricia Whitmore instead of Mae Whitman, who starred in the first film. Public backlash against the casting decision included harsh words from several industry professionals as well as biting think pieces calling out the inherent misogyny at work. That particular PR disaster reached its zenith weeks before the film release, clearly not easing fears that the sequel would be an embarrassing follow-up to a summer blockbuster that's arguably genre-defining.
Men in Black: International hasn't suffered from quite the same early disdain and/or concern, but it's still a lackluster addition to a previously proven franchise. The idea of introducing a female agent as some kind of certificate of progressiveness feels condescending, especially when considering Linda Fiorentino's refreshingly three-dimensional arc in the first film. Even Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson's obvious chemistry seen in Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok isn't compelling, despite them both turning in solid performances. We can't say that Will Smith could've saved either film, but we can say that the odds were always low that either of those two sequels succeeding or even adding something worthwhile to their legacy without Smith.
Independence Day: Resurgence Killed Will Smith Off-Screen
Part of what makes the failure of Razzie-nominated Independence Day: Resurgence really sting is the idea that Will Smith could have been in it. According an EW interview with Roland Emmerich, the original script featured a father/son story starring Smith and his adopted son, by Vivia A. Fox's character. And considering Fox, Jeff Goldblum, and Judd Hirsch had all also agreed to appear, if Smith had joined, Independence Day: Resurgence probably could've succeeded riding on nostalgia alone. But even with that script, Smith's dance card was full when Resurgence was in development, and given the choice, he went with Suicide Squad instead of the sci-fi sequel.
According to Emmerich, Smith balked at the idea that he could do four sci-fi films in a row (originally Emmerich had planned to shoot two Independence Day films back-to-back and Smith had just recently worked on Men In Black 3 and After Earth). For his part, Smith has also pointed out that he was feeling his own version of franchise fatigue when trying to decide which project to go with. Ultimately the prospect of treading new ground with Suicide Squad was more tempting than reviving a decades-old franchise. So the decision was made to kill Captain Steve Killer off-screen - with him dying in 2007 during a "test flight of the ESD's first functional Hybrid Fighter" - and double down on the younger generation takes up the mantle angle. It didn't pay off.
Men In Black: International Has Will Smith "Cameo" In A Painting
Will Smith's lack of appearance in Men in Black: International stings a little less because it doesn't come down to scheduling. By all accounts, everyone involved with the Men in Black franchise agreed that Agent J's story ended in the third film after he found out the identity of his father. Producer Laurie MacDonald is on record as early back as 2015 saying to THR that there was no intention of following Men in Black 3 to revive the character, and she repeated the sentiment to the outlet in a statement given on the red carpet at the Men in Black: International premiere (via Variety).
In that same statement, she addressed the choice not to include a cameo from either Smith or Tommy Lee Jones beyond the painting seen in High T's (Liam Neeson) office of Agents K and J fighting the Bug (Vincent D'Onofrio) at the World's Fair in the first film. "They both loom so large," she pointed out, "It didn't feel right. It seemed like it might be that taste that made you think, 'Why aren't they here?'" She's not wrong, but there was still a void to fill without either of the original stars, and Hemsworth and Thompson hanging out in the desert simply weren't enough to do that.
Both Will Smith Franchises Forgot They Were Will Smith Franchises
Men in Black: International bombed at the domestic box office in its opening weekend, so it's clear the film isn't going to replicate the success of its predecessors. The MIB: International reviews aren't as damning as those Resurgence received, but they're not good enough to convince skeptical fans that the film will deliver a different, but worthwhile experience compared to the other three. What both Men in Black: International and Independence Day: Resurgence establish - albeit by different routes - is that Will Smith was such a huge portion of both franchise's appeal that eliminating him proved too big a hurdle to overcome. He's just too ingrained in the public memory as the star of Independence Day and the Men in Black series, not only because he was integral to their success, but they were integral to his as well.
Smith had acted in feature films before his turn in Independence Day in 1996, but he was still best known for Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which ended the same year the movie came out. Independence Day's massive success marked one of the most explosive and successful transitions from television to film in history and Smith followed it up with win after win. Men in Black premiered the very next year in 1997 and was also a megahit; it even featured a number one single performed by Smith to boot. With the "Men in Black" song, Smith launched a revived music career to accompany his work in film, and soon he emerged as one of the most omnipresent pop stars of his generation. The incredible popularity of Men in Black and Independence Day was a cornerstone in Will Smith's stratospheric Hollywood rise, and as such, ensures the three entities are even more inextricably linked with their star.
None of this is to say that Smith was the only reason Independence Day and Men in Black did as well as they did. Both were new(er) stories that didn't have to contend with franchise fatigue and/or coming relatively late to this era of nostalgia, and both sported star-studded ensembles and groundbreaking visual effects. But while Smith wasn't the only popular actor in Independence Day, he was its hero and arguably better comic relief than either Randy Quaid or Goldblum. Men in Black: International addressed Smith's void in an impressive and timely fashion, betting on the incredible popularity of Thomspon and Hemsworth.
Ironically, they suffer from the same problem Smith faced in his recent turn as the Genie in Disney's Aladdin. Smith is immeasurably talented, but even he couldn't escape the shadow of Robin Williams' career-defining performance. Similarly, Hemsworth and Thompson never recreate the crackle of Smith and Jones' repartée and neither creates a character as compelling as Agent J. Maybe it's time to start making new stuff again - or at least to stop remaking anything involving Will Smith... without involving Will Smith.