As expected, “Men in Black: International” is an exercise in throwback nostalgia. The era that it references is a bit of a surprise, though. The original “Men in Black” film, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, came out in 1997. But this international reboot is inspired less by the 1990s than by the pre-1989 era of spy narratives. Going global in “Men in Black: International” means going back to the Cold War. But the movie isn't looking backwards to celebrate a time when rich white men felt more secure in their power. Rather, the movie takes aspects of the Cold War past to try to imagine a world that's more cosmopolitan, more welcoming, and less obsessed with borders.
The new “Men In Black” film, like the others in the franchise, is set in an alternate present in which numerous alien races secretly live on earth. The men (and women) in black are once again part of a government-like organization tasked with making sure that various furred and multi-eyed beasties don't land on earth illegally and don't commit crimes. They also keep the alien visitors a secret.
The original “Men in Black“ is a domestic adventure, with the MIB functioning something like the FBI. Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) examine clues, interview witnesses and arrest tentacled monstrosities. In short, the first MIB is a detective drama.
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“MIB: International” switches genres; it's not about gumshoes, but about spies. As in a James Bond film, the action bounces from exotic locale to exotic locale. Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) and Agent M (Tessa Thompson) visit London, Paris, Marrakesh and the secluded Mediterranean island fortress of a four-armed intergalactic smuggler. Agent H is the parodic 007 analog. Like Bond, he gambles (snatching an ace from the cage with a three-headed snake), drinks and is irresistible to women, no matter how many limbs or suckers they have. The twisty plot involves assassinations, moles, infiltration and double agents.
Having borrowed so much from Cold War stories past, the film, perhaps inadvertently, also finds itself using the USSR as a model for its antagonists. The Hive is an expansionist insectoid race which absorbs its conquests. It can take over the minds and bodies of other creatures, so that they serve the Hive.
This is exactly how paranoid science-fiction Cold War films like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (both 1956 and 1978 versions) portrayed the Communist menace. Russia and China during the Cold War were often compared to insect colonies, as President Ronald Reagan did during his 1964 speech in which he warned about "the ant heap of totalitarianism." The Hive can only be stopped by an ultimate weapon, powered by a star and nuclear reactions. The evil expansionist collective is held in check by atomic technology. Sound familiar?
The USSR doesn't exist anymore. Say what you will about current authoritarian Russian leader Vladimir Putin, but his top-down, kleptocratic regime is not particularly collectivist. The Hive, as a stand-in for the international Communist menace, isn't really referencing any current geopolitical threat. It's a nostalgic goof.
Even goofs can be meaningful, though. “Men in Black: International” is a story about aliens living on earth secretly. In the current climate, with President Donald Trump constantly fearmongering about the dangers posed by asylum-seekers, the film could easily have turned into a story about evil slimy immigrant terrorists trying to destroy us. The Cold War setting is a way to sidestep our current climate of xenophobia.
As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie observed on Twitter, the original “Men in Black” was a good-hearted movie about a "government organization that exists to *protect* alien refugees on Earth." “Men in Black: International” extends that pro-immigrant stance by leaning into the cosmopolitanism of its Cold War setting. Agent M is inspired to join MIB as a child when she quietly rescues an alien infant. H is friends with (and lovers of) people (or whatever) from many sectors of the galaxy. The Hive threatens everyone; even aliens who initially seem antagonistic and dangerous are, it turns out, allies in the fight against it.
Of course, Cold War stories had their own strain of nativism and colonialism. You get a reflection of that in “Men in Black: International,” too. The diminutive, animated character of Pawny, an alien who pledges himself to Agent M as a kind of retainer, uncomfortably recalls condescending representations of indigenous servants/sidekicks like Gunga Din or Tonto. The racism and sexism of the James Bond prototype is somewhat mitigated, though, by casting Thompson as the main star. When Agent H admits to Agent M that he needs her to save the world, it's an acknowledgement that white men aren't the only, or even the main heroes in the universe. The earth is stronger when it's got a diverse group of defenders, human and otherwise.
Nostalgia is often seen as reactionary. Longing for an earlier America can mean longing for an America in which black people and women had fewer rights and less freedom. But when bigotry and xenophobia are ascendant, the past can sometimes provide resources to imagine a better future. “Men in Black: International” takes Cold War spy stories, tweaks them a little, and finds a way to see alien immigrants as a source of strength, not as a threat. The Cold War was hardly an idyllic time, and we don't want to repeat it. But Agent H and Agent M know that when you're trying to save the world, you pick up ideas, and allies, where you can.