*. 1997! That surprised me. I seemed to remember this as coming out much earlier, sometime in the late ’80s perhaps. It feels so long ago now. Chalk another one up to the parallax of aging: objects in the mirror seeming closer or further away depending on how my memory is functioning.
*. When it came out I think most people recognized it as being the heir to Ghostbusters, with its team of well-armed alien hunters taking on various monsters. It was based on a short-lived comic book serial that came out in the early ’90s, coincidentally just a year or so before Mike Mignola’s Hellboy launched, which had a very similar premise (with the B.P.R.D. being like the special branch of the F.B.I. here).
*. I won’t go over the similarities between the two movies, but instead point to another interesting correspondence. Ghostbusters is a great movie that, somewhat surprisingly, has held up very well over the years. It was not, however, a successful franchise, only spinning off a bunch of disappointing sequels and resets. That’s why I think of Men in Black as its true follow-up, though in much the same way this movie also failed to launch as a franchise. The next Men in Black movies were far inferior and the attempted relaunch Men in Black: International in 2019 was very poorly received. I might go even further and draw in Hellboy here as well, another action-comedy with a similar theme that had a great launch and then fizzled out right away. In every case what we got was a one-off.
*. Why? Perhaps the basic premise was incapable of further elaboration. Successful, long-running franchises have been based on far less. If anything, Ghostbusters, Men in Black, and Hellboy had too much to work with. In each instance the first film was just a case of catching lightning in a bottle with a weird concept. I don’t know. That’s one attempt at an explanation. But back to Men in Black.
*. It really couldn’t miss. Loads of money. Steven Spielberg producing. Will Smith (acting like he’s trying to channel a bit of Axel Foley) and Tommy Lee Jones (channeling himself) both at or near the apex of their celebrity. Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Rip Torn all providing first-rate back-up. Rick Baker doing the monster effects.
*. All of this helps disguise the fact that there’s nothing much going on here aside from the initial concept itself. The plot is actually quite stupid and there are few jokes. Still, watching it again twenty years later I was surprised at how well it played. I don’t think it’s held up as well as Ghostbusters, but it’s still pretty good. I can’t say nearly as much for what was to come.