The latest “Men in Black” film has taken the franchise full circle, bringing viewers back to an origin of sorts.
The third installment has Agents Kay and Jay going back in time to find reasons why the present world is what it is, and how their roles in it came to be.
They are pulled back in time by an alien maximum-prison escapee wanting to undo certain matters which, unfortunately, include our favorite guys in the dark tailored suits. The heroes go back to the past to stop the alien bad guy from changing history, all the while discovering where they came from.
That may sound like tired and run-of-the-mill, but, “Men in Black” is one of the more successful movie franchises, patronized by an entirely new generation of believers. “MIB III” alone has brought in more than $200 million, bringing the franchise’s total earnings to over a billion US dollars.
Back to 1990
It may be surprising to learn that the origin of the film series is a little-known comic book released by Aircel Comics with concept by writer Lowell Cunningham. That was way back in 1990, when today’s young adults were mere microcosmic matters.
The concept, however, was different from the interstellar scum-blasting duo we have come to love, because Cunningham intended a grittier bureau, with more unsentimental agents.
Comic book Kay is ruthless and all about getting the job done, no matter the cost, whether extraterrestrial or human. Jay is the new recruit who has a hard time following the program, as in the movie, but his misgivings regarding the organization and his partner are more serious than just the overuse of neurolizers.
A former drug enforcement agent, he comes into the black suit more by force than by recruitment, and is always morally disturbed by Kay’s “Shoot now, ask questions later” style.
The “MIB” control or dispatcher is an agent named Zed.
The only “light” aspect, similar to the film, is the reference to unexplained real-world events or strange behavior by known personalities as being, literally, out of this world. Cunningham’s attempt at humor is poorly executed.
The road to Hollywood
Two other issues came after its January 1990 debut. Malibu Comics acquired Aircel, taking care of the rest of the second trilogy.
Malibu Comics would in turn be acquired by Marvel, and by August 1997, a movie version was announced with the last preadaptation comic, a reboot of the “MIB” story, but still edgier than the movie a month later.
Barry Sonnenfeld would be the director for all three films. In the 1997 release, screenplay writer Ed Solomon paid tribute to Lowell Cunningham’s “MIB” No. 1 by adopting much of the material.
Unlike the comic, where the MIB deal not only with the extraterrestrial, but even with rogue agents as well as all things supernatural and paranormal, the filmmakers decided it would be more marketable if the franchise stuck to ETs. That was a good call.
To the benefit of moviegoers, the pair was more successful with humor, pitting Tommy Lee Jones’ stonecast expression against the talents and charm of “Bad Boys” star Will Smith. The film would seal Smith’s reliability as a bankable actor.
After the 1997 film, Marvel would release only two more comic books, which would now adapt and proceed from Solomon’s screenplay.
In the films as well as in the comics, Kay is the senior agent, who appears to have been with the organization since the first contacts. The first film tried to retire him, but because of his status and role in the bureau, Jay reinstalls his memory in “MIB II” when they need Kay to remember a protection agreement with an alien race.
In “MIB III,” Jay continues to learn about the organization’s past, including why Kay is the stoic and trigger-happy partner whose expressions and manners range only from tight to sour.
In interviews, Sonnenfeld and the lead actors would joke about a possible fourth movie, but in the context of saying they are already familiar with the material and the work, so there should be no problem.
The “MIB” franchise is like the “Ocean’s 11” series, where the latest is very much dependent on who did what in the last, and unlike the Bond films where each is a story that can stand on its own. Thus, any follow-up to “MIB III” would be too much of a stretch. Not that we won’t welcome another good blasting from the dapper pair.
It was a good run, though. Or has been, so far.