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A little over 20 years ago, our galaxy got a lot bigger at the movies, with the Men In Black series making its debut in theaters on July 2, 1997. The franchise helped secure Will Smith's position as a blockbuster movie star, made David Schwimmer think twice before turning down feature film work, and started a series where humor was only matched by its deep thoughts on the universe. While there are only three films, and a short lived cartoon series in the canon based on the cult comic book series that ran at various times in the 1990s, there are still some interesting ways to experience the stories of Agents J and K.
And that leads us to our Newbie Guide to the Men In Black series, which is your one stop shop for all the knowledge you could need when it comes to enjoying all the franchise has to offer. We'll begin with a rundown of all of the properties in the series, as well as a quick synopsis of what each piece is about. Then, once we've run through the series' content, we'll lay out a couple of different suggestions on how to watch the series, depending on how you want to experience the story of the Men In Black franchise.
Be warned, there are some spoilers past this page, as we'll be going into details about why these different viewing runs are unique, and what sort of experience you should expect. Time to suit into the last suit you'll ever wear, as we're about to deputize you dear readers as honorary agents in the employ of the Men In Black.
Men In Black (1997)
Officer James Edwards is about to have a really interesting day. After an encounter with a perp not of this world, he's about to be drafted into a shadowy government organization and become one of the Men In Black. What's more, his initiation couldn't have happened at a worse time, as a rogue alien has crash landed on Earth, in search of a secret that could wipe the entire planet off the map.
Men In Black: The Series (1997 - 2001)
After the events of Men In Black, an alternate timeline sees agents J, K, and L going back to work protecting the Earth against the worst scum of the universe. Various baddies come and go, in this episodic cartoon series.
Men In Black II (2002)
Five years after Men In Black and the retirement of Agent K, Agent J is thrust into another conflict that could make or break the Earth. This time, evil arrives in the form of Serleena, a shapeshifter after a powerful artifact left on our planet as part of a protection pact between the MIB and an alien dignitary. As it turns out, there's only one play that Agent J has when it comes to even standing the slightest chance of saving the day: he has to bring Agent K out of retirement.
Men In Black III (2012)
An alien prisoner, Boris The Animal, escapes from maximum security on the Moon and is hell bent on rewriting history to allow Earth's conquest. As Agent J is the only person to be unaffected by a shift in the space-time continuum, he has to go back to 1969 to right the wrongs of history. And, he's going to have a little help on his side... a younger, brasher Agent K.
The history of the Men In Black now lies before you, and there are many paths you can take to experience it. Let's start with the most obvious route to take, the one that hits all the stops along the way.
The Complete Run
What started as a random adaptation of a cult comic series turned into a money printing machine, as Men In Black became the third highest grossing film of 1997, right behind Titanic and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. With Will Smith's blockbuster profile gaining a lot of cred when added with the previous year's Independence Day, and Tommy Lee Jones being the well-respected, Oscar-winning character actor that everyone knew and loved, their pairing was fated to become something that would bring in a total of $1.65 billion in worldwide grosses. That run would also spawn an animated show, which brings the series to the following running order:
With the notable exception of Men In Black: The Series, the series timeline for Men In Black runs pretty straightforward, as the focus is really on Agent J's progression as a Men In Black agent, with Agent K being brought into his story as required. The relationship between the two agents takes some interesting turns, and J has to not only bring K out of retirement via deneurolyzing, but he also has to go back in time and work with a younger version of the agent that trained him. Not to mention, the animated series branches into a new timeline where K doesn't even go into retirement, L is still part of the team, and Edgar has a twin brother. So if you're ready to get weird with the Men In Black, taking the full journey is the way to go.
The Short And Sweet Run
As with any blockbuster franchise worth their salt, there's a faction of folks that tend to discount the validity of one of the sequels, Men In Black II in this case, as a quality entry in the series. So, if you really want to leave that entry out, we won't hold it against you, as it does make for an interesting narrative. If this is the path you seek, you'll only need the following films to enjoy it:
Ignoring the story of Men In Black II, the series becomes more of a Mobius strip of timey-wimey continuity. With Men In Black starting Agent J's recruitment, we still get the origin story of how James Edwards III became Agent J, through those fateful days in 1997. But, by following it up directly with Men In Black III, we get a story that shows just how well Agent K knew his young recruit before even bringing him into the fold. Thanks to the twist of James's father being killed during Boris the Animal's attempt at preventing the Arc Net Shield deployment in 1969, you've got a bittersweet story about just how connected this inseparable pair is, and how Agent K knew exactly who he was drafting when he reunited with his young friend several decades later.
The Agent J Run
Taking into account the story of James Darrell Edwards III's mysterious recruitment into the Men In Black, there's another way to experience his story's continuity. Since the narrative does tend to focus on J's development as an agent in the Men In Black, this is an intriguing way to experience his complete arc. In that respect, the order you should be watching the Men In Black series is as follows:
We start at the end, as again Men In Black III introduces us to the events in 1969 that orphaned Agent J, and threw him into the path of Agent K. Through watching Men In Black and Men In Black II after watching Men In Black III, we get to see his life progress in a somewhat linear fashion, witnessing a piece of his childhood that would eventually become important to his development as an agent. Also, with this altered viewing order, we see J take on the hardest lesson of his Men In Black career, one that mirrors Agent K's own path through life, as the coda to the series, which leaves him on the path to become an eventual senior agent in the organization. Though, if you want to see the series from a different pair of eyes, all it takes is some clever re-re-organization.
The Agent K Run
While Men In Black as a franchise tends to focus on the exploits of Agent J, there's another, sadder story, to be told through the career of his partner. Looking at the story of Agent K's development as a Men In Black agent, there's a funny symmetry that can be seen when you view the film franchise in a totally reversed order, as listed below:
The grumpy guy's story starts to come into focus much better when you start off getting best acquainted with his looser, Josh Brolin inhabited 1969 counterpart as your foundation. From that point, we're watching Agent K getting progressively more experienced through his unfolding backstory, as he remembers bigger and more heartbreaking events that occurred in his career. The ending, of course, is Agent K remembering his own recruitment into the Men In Black ranks, and his ultimate retirement to be with the woman he loved from so long ago. Strangely enough, watching the story in reverse allows Agent K to maintain the happy ending he deserves, with only a little bit of headcanon needing to be accepted. And yet, there's still one more continuity that could be brought into play, changing everything you know about the series.
The Agent L Run
It's time for a long standing hot take in Men In Black history: Agent L, formerly known as Laurel Weaver, got the short end of the Neuralyzer when it comes to the history of the franchise. Just as she gets that big promotion to the MIB team at the end of Men In Black, she's written out with the slightest of explanations during Men In Black II's opening moments. But there is a way to spend more time with Agent L, as all you'll have to do is slip into the following alternate continuity:
So, get this: Men In Black: The Series not only keeps Agent L on board with the organization, it also keeps K in the ranks as well. This puts the series in a totally different timeline, and in this version of events, Agent L mostly serves in the medical branch during the events of Men In Black: The Series. That's for three of the series' four seasons, with the fourth and last putting L into the field, and with an alien partner named Agent X. While it's not a full fledged revival of Linda Fiorentino's dry witted performance in Men In Black, it's a spirited continuation of her character that validates her existence as more than a mere plot point in Agent J's development as a human being.
How The New Men In Black Movie Will Handle The Previous Movies
After several years of dormancy, Men In Black was announced to have a couple of different projects in the fire, with one emerging as an actual winner that's recently gone into production. Though, right now, it's uncertain as to how much this new film will interact with the classic Men In Black canon for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, this spin-off is taking place in the U.K. branch of the Men In Black organization, with Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, and Liam Neeson being the agents and chief on display.
This new spin-off is supposed to act as a soft reboot that introduces new characters into the Men In Black series, while also honoring the original continuity in some respect. So, there's a chance that Agents J and K might be, at the very least, mentioned, though there's always a slight chance that fans' wishes to see their favorite agents back in action will be granted in the next film. For now, though, we'll get a Jurassic World-esque spin-off creating a new, more global exercise in the storied franchise's history, as an invasion is headed our way and only the Men In Black can save us.