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Men in Black: International is charming and fun but squanders the chance to tell a richer story

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth are great, and so are their gadgets and gizmos. But that’s really all there is.

Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in Men in Black: International.
Columbia Pictures
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Early in Men in Black: International, Emma Thompson briefly channels Miranda Priestly, the icy antihero of The Devil Wears Prada. As Agent O, the head of Men in Black’s American division, she puts Tessa Thompson’s Molly through the paces, prodding her and trying to inject some doubt into Molly’s eagerness.

Molly is desperate to prove she belongs. O lowers her chin, sharpens her face, and pointedly asks whether being part of MIB — a powerful global entity that knows things other humans will never ever hear about, but that is bound to silence, making it essentially impossible to live a full life — is worth it to Molly. She makes every effort to stress the Faustian aspect of this deal, but her efforts go unnoticed by the laser-focused and bright-eyed Molly.

One of these women is at the pinnacle of her career at one of the most powerful organizations in the world, and here she is trying to convince another woman — one who’s just starting out, and who would presumably look up to her — that being part of MIB comes at a price. Their relationship isn’t the focus of the film by any means, but it’s a subversive little nugget in a story that’s supposed to be championing the MIB. And it’s by far the most intriguing part of MIB: International, even if director F. Gary Gray doesn’t linger on it for very long.

After all, the Men in Black franchise is about aliens, gizmos that go pew-pew-pew, mind-wiping gadgets, and saving the world. Luckily, MIB: International has plenty of all of those things, and Tessa Thompson and her co-star Chris Hemsworth — rewarming the chemistry they first served to viewers in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok — have the ability to charm even if they’re just silently grinning at each other. But despite the movie’s appealingly shiny surface and zippy pace, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been if it had leaned further into the story it merely teases.

Men in Black: International relies on the nostalgia of the first film and boasts lots of intergalactic razzle-dazzle, but little else

Here’s a throttling piece of trivia that may leave you contemplating your own mortality: The original Men in Black movie hit theaters in 1997 and is now old enough to legally buy an alcoholic beverage. Teens who watched the film when it came out are now in their 30s, and adults who took their kids to see it may be in their 50s and 60s. Starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as Agents J and K, Men in Black introduced the titular shadow organization, part CIA, part Star Wars, that protects the world from intergalactic threats.

The movie ultimately spawned two sequels (2002’s Men in Black II and 2012’s Men in Black 3) and an animated TV series. Jones and Smith appeared in all three movies but have now passed on their black suits and Ray-Bans to Thompson and Hemsworth.

International is a spinoff of the original franchise that revisits the same organization in the present day. Molly, who saw an alien creature in her bedroom and witnessed her parents being mind-wiped by two MIB agents when she was a child, has spent her entire life trying to find a way into MIB, and to figure out how the agency and the entire universe work.

As Molly, Thompson is half genius and half naif. She’s self-possessed and confident, acing every task O throws her way to earn the title of Agent M. At the same time, every element of her new gig is, well, alien to her. The creatures she’s dealing with come in every color and texture, and even those with multiple sets of eyes or hairy backsides amaze her. She’s like Harry Potter during his arrival at Hogwarts, looking at everything in wide-eyed amazement and experiencing all the wonder for the first time.

O gives M one final task to complete in order to become a full-fledged MIB agent: training at the London branch.

Playing the more adept Hermione Granger to M’s Harry Potter is Hemsworth’s Agent H, the dreamy top agent of MIB’s London division. Behind his brash demeanor and bro-adjacent tendencies, he’s fluent in multiple alien languages and is the most well-trained and well-trusted agent in MIB. And M and H together, under the advisement of Agent High T (Liam Neeson), must protect a very important alien who they don’t know is being targeted for assassination by two mysterious alien beings.

That mission gets quite messy before H and M are thrown into a zippy romp trying to figure out who’s trying to assassinate whom and whether someone at MIB is a double agent member of the Hive, a villainous alien force with plans to take over the world.

It’s a treat watching M and H zip around the globe in all kinds of space-age vehicles that tease the imagination: A rundown New York City subway car becomes a warp-speed train with express stops to London and Paris; a motorcycle has a surprise hyperdrive mode; cars transform into glowing spaceships. The agents also get to fire all kinds of weapons, including one planet-shattering gun that derives its power from a star, and at one point, they come into contact with Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani) a tiny alien with a tiny hat who serves as the movie’s CGI slapstick relief.

But lost in the razzle-dazzle of all these gizmos is the opportunity to tell a story about what it takes to be an MIB agent. In the first movie, Jones’s Agent K wanted to be able to live a MIB-free life again and asked Smith’s K to neuralyze his memories of the agency. There are hints of that sentiment here in O’s preliminary tests of M: O stresses that being an MIB agent isn’t all fun and games, and that it’s something you can’t come back from.

MIB: International returns to that theme a few times, reminding us that M has no friends or family, that she hasn’t ever been in love. The movie hints that it might actually be a rom-com about your job, your boss (in a sharp women’s suit), and becoming the best in your field, rather than sci-fi comedy romp. Emma Thompson and Tessa Thompson’s moments together are brief, but they’re some of the film’s strongest scenes.

Still, Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth’s chemistry and rookie/vet dynamic is almost enough to make you forget about the missed opportunity and just relish in all the alien tomfoolery. A coworker quarrel between the two and deadpan Pawny over a broken-down hyperdrive motorcycle only works because of how charming Thompson and Hemsworth are. A flickering smile here, a knowing look there, and they’ve already won you over. It’s just a bit of a shame there isn’t much more to MIB: International beyond that.

Men in Black: International opens in theaters on June 14.