Men In Black has been a tough franchise to pin down. After the universally beloved original film starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, the producers could never quite figure out where they wanted to take franchise next. This has resulted in some truly lumpy sequels and a severe drop in cultural influence as time has gone on. Will Smith seems to view the franchise as his safety net, returning to it whenever his career takes a wrong turn. Unsurprisingly, that kind of motivation has not resulted in great films.
Smith, Jones, and most of the supporting cast from the first three films have been jettisoned for the new spinoff, Men In Black International. Despite a great cast and solid talent behind the camera, this fourth film was met with the franchise's worst ever reviews, and early indications suggest it's going to be the first true box office bomb in Men In Black's cinematic history, again proving that capturing the magic of the original is a taller task than most realize.
But that doesn't mean all the sequels are worthless, or even the same degree of bad. The majority of the films feature something of value, even if it's a fleeting reminder of how great the original was. In honor of the franchise's latest entry, we're ranking all four Men In Black films, from worst to best.
4. Men In Black II
It's hard to articulate just how popular Men In Black was after the release of the first movie in the summer of 1997. There were toys, music videos, even an Emmy award winning animated series that ran for four years. However, a sequel to the original film was in development for an unusually long amount of time for what everyone perceived to be a new franchise. Will Smith suffered a string of box office failures in the late 90s and early 00s; Wild Wild West and The Legend of Bagger Vance were well-documented, oft-ridiculed bombs. And while Ali was a well reviewed showcase for Smith's dramatic acting chops, it was a box office failure. So, facing a mild career slump, Smith returned to the world of sunglasses and neuralizers with 2002's Men In Black II.
But the sequel would not turn out to be the boost Smith probably though it would be. Men In Black II was met with harsh reviews and a largely apathetic audience. The film's plot has no real purpose other than to reunite Smith's Agent J with Tommy Lee Jones' delightfully cranky Agent K, who went back to his civilian life after he trained J to replace him at the end of the original movie. J's new partner at the end of the first movie, Linda Fiorentino's Agent L, is nowhere to be found. The lead female character in the sequel is Laura Vasquez, played by Rosario Dawson, who is barely a character and much more a breathing plot device. Lara Flynn Boyle's irritating CGI villain is best left unexamined. There's even a truly unfortunate Michael Jackson cameo that has aged just about how you would expect it to in 2019.
Men In Black II is obsessed with reenacting scenes from the original, every one of them less funny and exciting than in the first film. The chemistry between Smith and Jones is still intoxicating, but K's self-imposed amnesia means it takes until the third act of the movie before we get back to the dynamic we fell in love with. It's possible there are technically worse movies in this franchise, but Men In Black II was not only lousy, it sank Men In Black as an active franchise for a decade. Instead of becoming a property where audiences get excited for sequels, like Star Wars or Avengers, Men In Black became the sort of property where fans simply hoped the sequels wouldn't tarnish their love of the original, like Ghostbusters or Highlander. That legacy - which the franchise is yet to shake - can be laid completely at the feet of the abysmal Men In Black II. The magic, truly, was gone.
3. Men In Black International
This should have been a slam dunk. The spinoff - with no involvement from Smith, Jones, or any of the previous writers - brought in F. Gary Gray, one of the most consistently solid directors of the last two decades. And while it couldn't lean on Smith's A-list box office power anymore, it did have Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson - Agent H and Agent M, respectively - whose Thor: Ragnarok chemistry is still very much intact here. Men In Black had been dormant for seven years by the time this film was released, so it felt like enough time had passed to try a new angle on the property.
But nothing here is new. Everything we know about the world of the MIB is blandly reintroduced, there are surprisingly few laughs, and if you pay attention for about the first ten minutes of the movie, you can probably guess every plot twist. Liam Neeson sleepwalks through his role as Agent T, the head of the MIB's UK branch, and it's hard to blame him. Hemsworth and Thompson do what they can with the limp material, but even the God of Thunder and a Valkyrie can't overcome a plot this thin. Bizarrely, the film was made on the relative cheap; its budget is more or less the same as the original's, which was made 20 years earlier, and it shows. The location shooting mostly looks like it was done on standing sets, and there are a few genuinely embarrassing effects shots along the way; a lot of the CGI effects are of lesser quality than on modern genre TV shows like Star Trek: Discovery and Doctor Who.
The only reason this isn't the worst film in the franchise comes down to a pair of lovely supporting turns. One is Kumail Nanjiani, who voices the tiny CGI character Pawny, a pocket-sized alien who becomes H and M's ally about midway through the film. Pawny gets maybe 90% of the film's laugh lines, and it's largely due to Nanjiani's impeccable delivery. The other is Emma Thompson, who reprises her role as the head of MIB's American branch from Men In Black III. Thompson's screen time is somewhere around 5 minutes, but she breathes life into every scene she's in. Her first scene with Agent M is the only moment in the film where the wily spirit of the original movie shines through. Men In Black: International could have used a lot more of her. It also could have used a compelling reason to exist.
2. Men In Black III
This may sound familiar. Will Smith's career rebounded in a big way after Men In Black II. But after starring in 2008's widely reviled Seven Pounds, Smith took an extended hiatus from movie stardom. It would be four years before he made another film, and what better way to jumpstart his career again than yet another Men In Black sequel?
There's actually plenty of good stuff in Men In Black III. Smith's action and comedic chops are as sharp as ever, and there are some lovely supporting turns from Michael Stuhlbarg and the previously mentioned Emma Thompson. The time travel plot is at least something the franchise hadn't really done before, and Josh Brolin is a lot of fun as the younger version of Agent K. Bill Hader's Agent W is just icing on the cake.
But Men In Black III always feels like a table missing a leg. The nature of the time travel plot means Tommy Lee Jones is barely in this thing, and without the chemistry of the franchise's two leads, it just feels off. The film got decent reviews and was a box office success, but Smith's career wouldn't get up off the mat again until he made Suicide Squad a few years later. Realizing the franchise was running on fumes, Sony chose to move away from Smith and Jones for the fourth film, meaning this is likely the last time we'll see the iconic duo of Agents J and K. It's a passable farewell, but they deserved better.
1. Men In Black
It's hard to recall a movie that so thoroughly flooded pop culture overnight like Men In Black. After Bad Boys and Independence Day, Will Smith was poised to enter a different level of superstardom, and he chose his breakout film wisely. Men In Black is, essentially, a note perfect movie. Every joke lands, every alien is cool looking, Danny Elfman's score was immediately iconic - they're still using it two decades later in Men In Black International. Director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Ed Solomon manage to craft a fully realized, lived in world, making life in the MIB seem both exhilarating and coldly routine. The only other comedic genre movie to hit every note like this is probably the original Ghostbusters, which is truly rarified air.
But the reason Men In Black works so well and has endured for so long - the reason we're still talking about this franchise at all - is the dynamic between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. The young rookie trained by the grizzled veteran is a tried and true cop movie trope, but we'd never seen it play out like this before. It would be difficult to think of two actors less alike than Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, but their distinct styles mix in an unexpectedly delightful way, enhancing each other's performances; Men In Black was cinematic salted caramel before that became cool.
Men In Black has an unusual legacy. It's a 21 year old movie that still airs regularly on cable and solidified the career of a Hollywood A-lister who's only gotten more popular over time. It's generally recognized as an all time classic. And yet - with the exception of the animated series - nothing has really come close to recapturing its weird, manic energy, and writers have struggled to find interesting stories to keep telling in this world. Men In Black is powerhouse of a film that has earned its place in the canon - maybe one day we'll get a sequel that lives up to it.