WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Men in Black: International, in theaters now.
After movies like Bad Boys and Independence Day put him on the radar, 1997's Men in Black cemented Will Smith as a Hollywood leading man, showing he could be the face of a franchise. With Tommy Lee Jones in tow, Smith helped shape Barry Sonnenfeld's alien trilogy as one of the funniest comedy franchises ever. Fans were skeptical whether Men in Black: International director F. Gary Gray could achieve the same interstellar magic without him. Sadly, he couldn't, and the film emphasizes how badly this property really does need Smith to stand out.
Some actors are just so associated with their franchises that it's hard to dissociate them. Some examples are Jim Carrey with Ace Ventura, Bruce Willis with Die Hard, and Sylvester Stallone with Rambo. Heck, when the Rocky franchise transitioned into Creed, Stallone still stuck around as Rocky Balboa, as he's so associated with the franchise.
Kudos to Sony for trying to chart a new course with MiB, as the studio clearly wants to get creative and tell fresh stories for modern audiences. However, without Smith, MiB: International feels lukewarm at best. In addition to bringing charisma to the franchise, he's also been its heart and soul for over two decades. After three movies, it's near impossible to really take in how ingrained he is with the Men in Black franchise. The punchlines, drama and emotions in Gray's film just don't hit home like when Smith was steering the ship.
This isn't a knock on Chris Hemsworth as H and Tessa Thompson as M, as their chemistry is great and we get a solid buddy-cop/pseudo-romantic dynamic from them a la Thor: Ragnarok. But they don't command the screen or have the presence this movie needs, which Smith offered in the past when suited up with a pair of shades, all while making the agency "look good." This charm makes a big difference, as he adds a suave style, personality and his own flair to the role, making us feel like it's Smith with a neuralizer rather than an actor playing a role. In short, he's being himself rather than playing someone, and after three films, MiB: International is, with no disrespect to Hemsworth's and Thompson's performances, a step down.
This is a character-driven franchise, after all, and Smith added a huge shot of authenticity to it. He had spunk, rebellion and wit as J, basically coming off like the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air thrown into cosmic debacles. And in so doing, his character really resonated, similar to how Robert Downey Jr. owned Iron Man by showing us he embodied the attitude and aura of Tony Stark. In other words, it's all about believability, and when it comes to Men in Black, Smith's J is best described as the face that runs the place.
That said, in terms of replacements, it'll always be tough to get someone adequate enough to take over for someone as synonymous with MiB as Smith. Hopefully, we get to see Smith working with Hemsworth and Thompson at some point, because even if Jones' K doesn't come back to round things out, this is definitely a trio we can see succeeding and carrying the series forward in big ways.
But as it stands, the latest chapter lacks the overall oomph Smith brought to the table. If anything, as Aladdin illustrates, Smith can still help create a tentpole franchise, so let's hope Sony has a plan to lure him back, as MiB is a concept that still has a lot more potential for a day and age in which borders and refugees are integral issues.
In theaters nationwide, director F. Gary Gray's Men in Black: International stars Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Laurent Bourgeois and Larry Bourgeois, with Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson.