Before Capes Were Cool #15: Men in Black (1997)

(Last of a four-part look at the 1990s’ attempt to transform niche indie comic book heroes into Hollywood blockbusters.)

I don’t remember whether, when I went to see Men in Black in theaters on its initial release, I had known it was based on a comic book. I might have picked that up in Wizard magazine, I suppose. I was definitely surprised, however, to see a credit claiming it was “Based on the Marvel Comic.” This is a sort of technicality: Lowell Cunningham’s black-and-white 1990 comic book The Men in Black was published by Aircel, which was acquired by Malibu, which in turn was acquired by Marvel. We can say that Men in Black was the first big hit Marvel movie in the way we can say Leia Organa was a Disney princess.

Anyway, the point is, Men in Black’s comic book origins were not a significant part of the marketing for the film. It’s quite likely that most people who’ve seen it weren’t and aren’t aware that it was a comic first. And, unlike the other adaptations we’ve talked about here, even I have never read the source material. Partially this is because reprints and trades of The Men in Black are not easy to come by. This is possibly because—from what I have heard—the original comic was not very good.

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In this four-part series, we’ve taken a look at how Hollywood adapted edgy indie comics for mainstream moviegoers in the ’90s, and in each of the previous three cases, there has been some attempt to maintain at least some fidelity to the source material:

  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles takes what it can from the comic book—including whole scenes and scenarios—and combines the most appealing elements of the comic with the most appealing elements of the cartoon to create a hybrid that is the best possible Turtles film.
  • Tank Girl keeps the look and tone of the comic, but sacrifices some of its spirit by welding a traditional hero narrative arc to its irreverent lead character.
  • The Mask takes the basic outline of the original story and cleans it up to give us a screwball fantasy romantic comedy instead of a gory fable about a sad sack given the power to revenge himself on the world.

Men in Black, on the other hand, takes very little from its source material. Of the four we’ve talked about in this series, this one underwent the most profound adaptation; essentially, a ground-up re-imagining. In fact, of all the movies we’ve looked at in Before Capes Were Cool, this one is up there with the late-’70s Amazing Spider-Man TV show in how it takes a couple names and a premise from the comic and makes up its own characters and world around it. The difference is, Men in Black is, by all accounts, an improvement on the source material.

From what I gather, Men in Black shares pretty much just the following with the comic: in a world where aliens are real and a top-secret organization polices their presence on Earth, grizzled veteran Agent K teams with new recruit Agent J to intervene in alien incidents and hide their presence from the general populace with memory-erasing “neuralyzers.” In the comic, however, the Men in Black’s jurisdiction extends to supernatural and paranormal incidents as well. Agent K is apparently not averse to human collateral damage in pursuit of his duties, and it later comes out that the entire organization has a sinister agenda to shape and control the world.

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But heck, it was enough to get the attention of Hollywood, and Barry Sonnenfeld, fresh off The Addams Family, was attached to direct.1 The plan to make a movie about agents investigating alien activity actually predates The X-Files, although one imagines it became an even more appealing project once the show hit it big. Sonnenfeld’s creative choices seem to have centered around making everything bigger, faster, simpler, and funnier. As late as post-production, the movie was overhauled in editing to eliminate one of three alien races involved in the plot to streamline events and make it easier to follow. The MiB were made to be genuine good guys and not a sinister secret society, Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K becomes a curmudgeon with a heart of gold instead of a grizzled hardass, and their partnership becomes less about animosity and more about two different types of people learning to work together.

In short, Sonnenfeld built a slick, high-concept buddy comedy out of the barest skeleton of the original comic. It is one of those adaptations that almost makes you wonder if at any point they considered removing any link to the source material. The Men in Black are a documented phenomenon in the real world2 so you could maybe get away with it, but I don’t know how it looks legally to start a project based on an existing property and abandon the license halfway through.

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But I think we can agree that casting Will Smith as Agent J was what really turned the movie around. Sonnenfeld might have transformed the project, but Smith energized it, infusing the movie with his charm and coolness. I mean, who was cooler than Will Smith in the mid-’90s? Even your mom liked Will Smith, even if she though that RAP is a bit more like CRAP, amirite? It’s possible that Men in Black would have still been a hit if Chris O’Donnell or David Schwimmer had accepted the part,3 but Smith pushed it over the top into a sensation. Men in Black is the epitome of the ’90s blockbuster: a multimedia campaign with a cartoon show and toys and a video game and an album with one of those hit singles where they say the name of the movie. Smith has the uncanny ability to act down-to-earth while also being stylish and cool; he is the audience stand-in, and how nifty that the audience gets to “be” Will Smith. His presence really grounds the movie and allows the aliens and special effects to be as big as they need to be.

And the special effects are really imaginative.4 Men in Black is the softest possible sci-fi, with “aliens” being just an excuse to do whatever funny sight gags come to mind, like blowing up and regrowing Tony Shaloub’s head, or clever concepts like revealing a tiny alien piloting an android human body from a cockpit in the skull.

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The plot is decent with a big but not-too-taxing twist; again, the emphasis is on gags and the characters rather than the plot, although they do go ahead and play through a basic emotional arc for the characters where Agent J comes to earn the respect of Agent K and is eventually deemed to be a worthy successor who allows Agent K to retire knowing his post is in good hands.

More engaging and clever are the jokes, but only just enough. The humor is largely observational, but gentle and broad enough to please the widest possible crowd. Aliens hide out in New York City because them New Yorkers is so wacky, who could tell the difference? Isaac Mizrahi, Danny DeVito, Sylvester Stallone, Tony Robbins and Steven Spielberg turn out to be aliens, can you believe it?5 All of our modern 1990s technology comes from aliens, and Agent K muses that he is going to have to buy the Beatles’ White Album again once the replacement for CDs comes out.

Men in Black is a lively rollercoaster of special effects given some heart and warmth by the chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. It’s an enjoyable blast from the past, but one that seems perhaps a bit too slick and simple with age. Still, it shows that straying from the source material is not necessarily a sin and that some ideas really are more valuable as a springboard than a blueprint.

HERO/ZERO/SIDEKICK/ANTIHERO:6 SIDEKICK

NEXT: I’m going to take some time off of this column for a while. A couple weeks, maybe. The kids are off on sPrInG bReAk, but mostly I have some stuff I need to do to try and get my novel published that I keep putting off, so I need to focus on that for a while. When we come back…we’ll see. Maybe Darkman? Probably Darkman.