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Men in Black: International and Shaft show the limits of modern film franchises

Why swapping actors and shifting focus often isn’t enough to keep audiences loyal

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Photo: Warner Bros.

Conventional wisdom says that in the current Hollywood landscape, movie stars don’t matter, at least not as much as they used to. New personalities haven’t stepped up to fill the shoes of stars like Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, or Tom Hanks in their respective primes, so the job of drawing audiences out of their homes for a big opening weekend has fallen to franchises and intellectual property. (“IP,” as the executives and even the fans call it.)

So what happens when a movie franchise built on specific movie stars tries to continue without them? Men in Black: International and Shaft spent their dismal opening weekends exploring the worst-case scenario. They’re the latest casualties in a sequel-saturated summer where almost every follow-up without Avengers in the title has underperformed. It turns out not every series can casually pull off a James Bond-style reinvention with new players.

Decades ago, the Bond franchise was one of the only series that found success while shifting from star to star. Many sequels were low-rent cash-ins without the original’s stars — think of The Sting II or Caddyshack II. (Paying audiences sure didn’t.) More recently, Independence Day: Resurgence tried to carry on without Will Smith, who went supernova after the 1996 original. That movie was an ensemble picture, with Smith as the standout lead; the original Men in Black was his 1997 follow-up, and his true coronation as Hollywood royalty. He stuck around for a couple of sequels, but actors inevitably want to move on to new things, or at least limit themselves to one or two ongoing series at a time. Hence the Men and Women in Black going international.

Photo: Giles Keyte / CTMG

By contrast with Independence Day’s disaster-movie scope, the whole joke of Men in Black is that it treats alien invasion casually. Pairs of black-suited agents investigate unauthorized alien activity, operating in secret and wiping the memories of any civilians they encounter along the way. There are wonderfully designed creatures bustling through the 1996 movie and its sequels, but the star attraction is the chemistry between wisecracking Smith as new recruit Agent J, and deadpan Tommy Lee Jones as veteran Agent K.

Men in Black: International attempts to move on from that team. In theory, the shift makes sense: the MIB agency is supposed to be vast and far-reaching, and Smith’s de facto replacement is rising star Tessa Thompson, a gifted actress who has also enlivened her share of franchise films (Thor: Ragnarok; the Creed movies). It’s probably smart that Thompson isn’t tasked with imitating Smith — where J starts out as a reckless, dedicated cop, Thompson’s Agent M is a single-minded nerd who becomes MIB’s first non-recruited employee by devoting much of her young life to tracking them down. She’s fastidious, curious, and ambitious — a different sort of self-possession than Smith’s energetic confidence. It sounds like the kind of same-but-different recipe that’s supposed to make sequels irresistible.

But the first Men in Black (and, to a lesser extent, its other sequels) was well-engineered to take advantage of Smith’s particular energy. MIB:I is meant to prove that the series is star-agnostic, but its substitution turns into a metaphor for a good actor struggling to fill out a superstar’s suit. Agent M is a hard worker. She deserves her shot at the career she’s training herself for. She isn’t content to coast on her charm or her record, unlike her partner, Chris Hemsworth’s Agent H. M’s hiring makes a lot of sense on paper, just as Thompson’s did.

Photo: Giles Keyte / CTMG

But simply plugging Thompson into a thin outfitting / training montage (sans much actual training) doesn’t make her a Smith-level presence. Her confidence is quieter and more internal than Smith’s. That could turn MIB:I into a fascinating inversion of the first film, with Hemsworth taking on Smith’s more demonstrative swagger, and Jones’ deadpan intelligence going to the rookie, rather than the mentor. But MIB:I’s writers don’t seem sure about how to handle Thompson’s interiority, except by giving her the briefest flashes of Smith-ish bravado. Smith’s self-announced arrival as a movie star (“I make this look good,” J famously says when he gets his black suit) in Men in Black is a high that the series has been chasing ever since. Here, the exertions somehow feel both sweaty (hastily trying to give Thompson a makeover sequence, hoping something in the barrage of montaged moments will stick) and lazy (making her a longtime Men in Black fan above anything else).

Agent M is sent to London on a mission that’s initially so vaguely defined that it becomes confusing. That also tracks with how MIB:I uses Thompson, by rushing her into the franchise and assuming her reasons for being there will eventually make sense. As talented as Thompson is, she doesn’t generate any real comic friction, beyond some mild testiness with Hemsworth. The writers seem convinced that what made Men in Black compelling and funny wasn’t J and K’s snarky attitudes and sharp banter, but the very idea of black-suited agents underreacting to crazy-looking aliens. At this point, just the franchise’s trademarks — the dark sunglasses, the shiny futuristic weapons, the neuralyzers — are supposed to entice the audience as readily as an “Oh, hell no” from Smith or a deadpan quip from Jones.

This kind of magical thinking is probably required for anyone who thought it was worthwhile to reboot Men in Black 4 without the original stars. In this case, the filmmakers seem to have had conflicting visions over what a Smith-less Men in Black should look like. As the Hollywood Reporter notes, the film was originally both more daring and more topical, and the sharp edges were eased out during a series of behind-the-scenes struggles between director F. Gary Gray and producer Walter Parkes.

Photo: Giles Keyte / CTMG

The article focuses on plot-related clashes, but while the storyline is muddled, the movie’s real problems are tone and character. The lack of either creates a new void at the center of the series. Hiring the charismatic Thompson and Hemsworth makes the situation worse, rather than better, because they’ve both been so much better elsewhere, including in Thor: Ragnarok. Thompson’s Agent M works hard and gets what she wants, which means little of consequence happens to her as a character. The movie is accidentally about the futility of carrying on Men in Black business as usual.

At least the team behind the new Shaft is a little more aware of what audiences might have enjoyed about previous entries in the series. Like the 2000 reboot Shaft, the new film is titled to suggest a remake of the 1971 classic Shaft, even though it’s actually a continuation of sorts. Back in 2000, Samuel L. Jackson stepped into the role of John Shaft, as the nephew of the “original” John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), who appeared in a cameo. Shaft 2019 functions as a sort-of sequel to that 2000 film, bringing back Jackson and giving him a nerdier millennial son named John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher), with a slightly expanded (and retconned!) role for Roundtree.

Though Jackson is clearly Shaft’s most famous cast member, Usher is the movie’s point-of-view character. By making him and Jackson into mismatched partners on a crime-solving mission, the movie foregrounds generational conflict, which brings a sense of the actual change that eludes Men in Black: International.

Photo: Warner Bros.

But to dramatize this conflict, Shaft makes Jackson into a self-consciously old-school curmudgeon who’s appalled by the supposedly feminized politeness of his son, who works for the FBI as a data analyst because he doesn’t care for firearms. Jackson’s version of John Shaft was already distinct from Roundtree’s — more irascible, less smooth, more Jackson-y. This further revision is probably, in its sitcom-y way, realistic. Of course Shaft is crankier as a sixty-something than he was 20 years ago, and of course a new generation would take a more technological approach to problems that were solved in the 1970s with shoe-leather and shootouts. And at least Jackson and Usher enliven some of the canned banter.

The problem is, Shaft feels obligated to define Usher’s character almost exclusively on his dad’s terms. John Jr. gets in some digs about his old man’s irresponsibility and fogey-ish tastes, but ultimately, the movie wants the kid to man up and fire the guns he claims to hate. It would be more exciting to see a Shaft Jr. who sticks to his principles, which the movie hints at by giving him an unconventional fighting style.

But like Men in Black: International, this Shaft mistakes frequent, abrupt plot turns for expediency, giving its characters little chance to feel like anything but plug-and-play figures. They’re coming at us during an era when sequels are supposed to be destigmatized, and even exciting. This is the era that gave us Mad Max: Fury Road, The Last Jedi, and The Dark Knight, sequels that have shown how reboots, long-term franchise extensions, or even actor replacement can still result in a great movie.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Men in Black and Shaft aren’t low-budget or legacy-tarnishing sequels in the Caddyshack II sense, but they’re low-rent at heart. It’s one thing to make another Godzilla movie. Godzilla has survived for decades because of endless sequels that mostly exist to up the ante on city-level destruction and crazy opponents. But as fluky as audience attention can be (and for what it’s worth, paying audiences who saw Shaft seemed to enjoy it), it makes sense that they’d sense the shrugginess in stories, tones, and even full characters that seem backwards engineered from brand revivals. Instead of star vehicles, these are vehicle vehicles.

And that’s too bad, because these latest sequel flops have something else in common. They’re both movies-turned-franchises centering on black actors, both in their original and current incarnations. This wasn’t an especially common occurrence when Shaft made a big-studio version of blaxploitation in 1971, nor even when Men in Black confirmed Smith’s massive star power in 1997. (The first MIB remains one of the biggest-grossing movies with a black actor in an unequivocal lead role, rather than part of an ensemble.) The casting builds some additional goodwill and rooting interest into both series. They’re commercial projects, open attempts at branding, but they still offer frustratingly rare star-making opportunities for black actors.

If the franchise itself is supposed to be the star, however, it may expect the actual stars to defer to its needs, which mostly amount to the need to keep the franchise going. So instead of honoring the cultural legacies of Shaft or Men in Black, these new installments put talented black performers at the mercy of past-prime franchises, sticking Tessa Thompson and Jessie T. Usher on tours of other people’s hits.

Poor Usher has been through this before; he played the son of Will Smith’s absent character in that misbegotten Independence Day sequel, another movie that seemingly came about because its creators thought the franchise was so appealing to viewers that they’d show up in spite of the cast changes. It’s easy to blame newer actors for not being high-wattage enough to compete with the likes of Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sandra Bullock, and other superstars of recent vintage. But it’s hard for performers like Thompson, Usher, and Hemsworth to shine their brightest in the shadows of so much mindlessly, purposelessly built-up IP.