It was the biggest hit in the summer of 1997. Cool, funny, and sometimes deeply weird, it was not quite like anything audiences had ever seen, even as it once again starred Will Smith opposite alien invaders a year after Independence Day. It was a crowd-pleaser that, as Agent J might say, made itself look good. In other words, Men in Black appeared destined to launch countless sequels.
Nearly 25 years later, there have been three follow-ups if you count 2019’s failed attempt at a semi-reboot within the Men in Black franchise. There’ve also been action figures, video games, a cartoon series, and a theme park ride at Universal Studios. And yet, to date there has never been a Men in Black adventure to capture the charm and ingenuity of that first movie. Sure, Men in Black II made money, but a quick perusal of its Rotten Tomatoes score—currently at 39 percent while the original sits at 92 percent—tells you how it was received, critically. And, honestly, by audiences too.
There’s a reason we’ve yet to see a serious concerted effort at building an MIB shared universe.
All of this was on our minds when our culture editor Tony Sokol sat down with screenwriter Ed Solomon. Now happily working in niche crime thrillers and medium-pushing concepts with director Steven Soderbergh, Solomon is a long ways off from Men in Black headquarters. In fact, he hasn’t worked on a single word in that franchise since penning the story and screenplay of the original film—back when it wasn’t so uncommon for a blockbuster to have only one attributed scribe in the credits.
Yet Solomon is no stranger to keeping a franchise going—having recently co-written another successful Bill & Ted odyssey after creating those characters with writher Chris Matheson when they were both in their 20s. So when we brought up Men in Black with the writer during our interview, he had some passing thoughts about why, at least for many folks, those sequels never lived up to the original film.
“I always felt like the secret to Men in Black was not the sunglasses and the big guns and the coolness, and the other surface level coolness of it,” Solomon says. “I always thought the secret of Men in Black was the generosity of spirit… It was the attitude of the film and its relationship to the audience, which was more of a ‘Hey, everyone check this out, come join us on this journey. Take a look into this world that other people don’t know exists. Let’s go in it together.”
For Solomon, the heart of the movie’s appeal is the relationship between Smith’s young hotshot Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones’ weathered Agent K. However, it isn’t just the buddy cop dynamic of the funny guy/straight man dynamic that made it work; it was the dawning sense of humility in J as he finds the perspective to fully appreciate his place in the universe.
“It seems to me like the sequels weren’t dealing with the humanity of the [first] movie,” Solomon says. “The other thing that I really loved in writing the first Men in Black was that it really was about how we humans think we’re so important, but in fact we don’t know anything that’s really going on. And so that was a very human experience, and to me, the story of Men in Black was about a cocky human being who gets humbled and realizes that he ain’t even close to the center of the universe. In fact, the universe, the world, what’s important, is nothing that he ever thought about. Reality isn’t anything like he ever thought. It’s a humbling blow. It’s a very human experience.”
Solomon continues, “So I just don’t know. I didn’t get that experience watching the sequels. I think their priorities were slightly different and, I’m not an expert on why a movie works or doesn’t. Sometimes, I’ll think something’s going to be a giant hit and it isn’t, and vice versa. I can’t say for sure, all I can say is that during my own personal experience of writing [Men in Black] that was what was important, and I didn’t get those elements as much from the other movies. That was my own takeaway from being the writer of the first and an audience member of the others.”
Still, he’s quick to add that even if he didn’t think the sequels worked as a whole, there were still things to like.
“I enjoyed parts of all of them. They just weren’t the way I would have done it, but I didn’t have the opportunity because I wasn’t working on them.” That might be so, but if and when someone else takes a crack at MIB, perhaps these are insights worth sitting on a park bench and appreciating here.