Things I Learned From… Men In Black 3

So, Men In Black 3. Ten years after the last installment. Did someone run out of money and have to raid the Storecupboard Of Ideas That Worked Last Time Round in the hope of making a quick buck?

It was… okay. Should have been a lot funnier. For a start, if your whole point is that something happened to Agent K that changed him into an emotionally shut-off, all-about-the-job kinda guy, shouldn’t he, urm, not be like that in the past? Imagine Agent J going back to 1969 to find that K was originally a wise-cracking hippie wild man, seducing the chicks and trash-talking his enemies! Suddenly J is (comparatively speaking) the stuffy one, scrambling to restrain his crazy-impulsive partner!

No?  Well, anyway, it should still have been funnier.

But actually, my major problem with Men In Black 3 is that the plot seems to be deliberately designed to keep the central character from actually doing anything in Act Two.

Spoilers. Obviously.

End of Act One, Agent J is going back in time to save his partner’s life. He knows when K will die, and where. So he jumps straight there, right?

Well, apparently not. He jumps to the day before, under orders not to go anywhere near his partner, because… well, I have no idea why, actually. I could theorise it’s because of the Grandfather Paradox, but no one bothers to say that’s the reason – and given that J bumps into K within minutes, spends the rest of the film with him and there are no apparent ill effects…

So there he is. 1969. Twenty-four hours to wait before he can save his partner’s life at the Apollo 11 launch. So what shall we do in the meantime, movie viewers? Let’s, urm, try half-heartedly to save the lives of some random aliens whose importance to the plot is never explained. Let’s meet a actually-quite-fun alien who gives us a Magic Thingummy to save the Earth. Let’s pull Andy Warhol’s wig off. And eat some pie. That’ll do, right?

This is a movie that doesn’t have an Act Two. It has no idea how to complicate the hero’s journey towards his objective, no idea how to wring fun and games (in the Blake Snyder sense) out of it’s premise, no idea what facets of the two agents’ characters can be usefully explored by making one of them thirty years younger and dumping the other in a strange and hostile time period. Given half a chance, this movie would cut straight to Cape Canaveral and dangle off a launch gantry for ninety minutes.

Come on, people.  The episode of Stargate SG:1 where they went back to 1969 was way better than this, and it didn’t even have Will Smith!

How could Act Two have been improved? Well, one option: they could have made Agent K a target from moment one of the 1969 section. If Boris the Animal has jumped back in time to kill him and Agent J isn’t certain when it will happen (it would have been easy to find a way to deny him that information in the present), then J has to go straight to K and stick to him like glue, waiting for Boris to make an attempt on his life. (Of course, Boris will make several, each increasingly complex, funnier, and closer to succeeding.)

Then all you need is to make K unwilling to have J around – he doesn’t believe J’s wild time travel story, doesn’t like him, or even selflessly wants to stop him getting in harm’s way – and you have not only a meaningful plot, and a real threat, but also, conflict between your two main characters. And character conflict means comedy!

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure you can do better. But whatever you think should have happened, learn the lesson – Act Two is not a process of waiting for the good stuff to happen. It IS the good stuff.

It’s the place where we find out who the characters really are under pressure, what’s really at stake, and how evil the bad guys really are. If you don’t lay that groundwork in Act Two, then Act Three is meaningless shouting and running around.