By Nathan Kamal
A year ago, it would have seemed impossible that anything could truly derail Will Smith’s legacy as one of the most popular multi-hyphenate entertainers in living memory. More than maybe any other cultural figure, he had conquered the worlds of television (with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), pop music (we all got Jiggy with various things), and blockbuster film (take your pick). Then the 94th Academy Awards were held, the Chris Rock slap happened, and now we have to figure out what exactly to make of Will Smith. However, just a decade ago, Will Smith was the undoubted king of blockbuster summer films. One of those films, 2012’s Men in Black 3 is currently one of the top ten most streamed films on Netflix, which just demonstrates his continuing if diminished power over audiences.
This installment of the Men in Black franchise brought back original stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones for the third and so far final time. It was released a full decade after the underwhelming Men in Black IIwhich had tested the public’s tolerance for Johnny Knoxville in a scripted role and found it wanting. In the years between Men in Black movies, Will Smith had massive hits like Bad Boys IIforgotten but lucrative films like Shark’s Taleand a few stabs toward critical respectability like The Pursuit of Happyness (his first attempt to foist his children on audiences) and Seven Pounds.
Men in Black 3 stars Will Smith once again as Agent J, the smart-mouthed partner of Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones in uncommonly grouchy form, even for him). The movie begins promisingly, with infamous criminal alien Boris the Animal (an unrecognizable, ferocious Jemaine Clement) being broken out of a maximum security prison that turns out to be on the Moon, with some trademark disgusting creature effects by FX legend Rick Baker. Long story short, Boris goes back in time to kill his nemesis K before he can thwart an alien invasion in 1969; after succeeding, Tommy Lee Jones disappears in the present, along with everyone but Will Smith’s memory.
Will Smith goes just a little bit further back in time than Boris and meets up with the young Agent K (now played by Josh Brolin with an exceptionally good TLJ impression). Multiple hijinks ensue. Bill Hader shows up as Andy Warhol, who turns out to be a MIB agent with utter contempt for pop art, Luke Cage’s Mike Colter is Will Smith’s father in the past, Rick Baker gets to indulge his desire to create Mars Attacks-style retro aliens, and ultimately it turns out that Tommy Lee Jones has been watching over Will Smith since childhood. This retcon was probably intended to bring emotional gravitas to the film (as well as Will Smith’s apparent desire for unnecessary backstory), but ultimately it just detracts from the first Men in Black in which a talented but random man discovers the mysteries of a secret world. After all, he was always special and part of the story, which kind of makes his point-of-view as an everyman a little moot. There is also a character/MacGuffin who is essentially omniscient and coded as vaguely neurodivergent, which has not aged well at all.
As one might expect from a movie starring the biggest movie star in the world, a legendary cranky four-time Academy Award nominee, and a director who already was having beefs with Sony Pictures that would result in legal arbitration shortly after. However, the star power of Will Smith was not to be trifled with, and Men in Black 3 came about after at least three known script re-writes. Apparently, director Barry Sonnenfeld began principal photography before the second and third acts of the films were completely finalized, which is a risky move with a very time travel-heavy movie even if it does not cost some $225 million.
Ultimately, Men in Black 3 went on to gross a staggering $624 million at the box office despite production difficulties and visibly waning enthusiasm on behalf of the principle actors (seriously, Tommy Lee Jones is in the movie for a maximum of 10-11 minutes total). It also received significantly better reviews than Men in Black II; it holds 68% on Rotten Tomatoes. Despite being the highest-grossing movie in the Men in Black franchise, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were deemed not necessary to continue the series, and Men in Black: International was released to general disappointment in 2019. If only Sony Pictures could travel back in time to fix that decision, right?