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How a Jewish scholar from the Middle Ages inspired 'Men in Black 3's poignant time travel story

The Torah can be applied to a multitude of topics, including the exploits of the Men in Black.

By Josh Weiss
Will Smith Men in Black 3 SONY PRESS

There isn't much to do on Yom Kippur beyond prayer, reflection, and learning. The annual fast day (one of the holiest dates found on the Jewish calendar) is all about repenting for the transgressions of the past year; the lack of food and drink are meant to serve as a reminder that a life well-lived goes beyond one's mortal needs.

Many individuals — like filmmaker Etan Cohen, for instance — prepare themselves for the contemplative holiday of atonement by revisiting the writings of Maimonides (aka the Rambam), a celebrated 12th century Torah scholar, whose commentary on the yearly act of penitence touches on the idea of "how every single step in our lives can teeter towards the good or towards the bad," Cohen explains to SYFY WIRE.

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That existential concept of "the little decisions we make and how they can affect big things in the universe" rang especially true around late 2009, when Cohen found himself tasked with penning the screenplay for a third Men in Black movie (now streaming on Peacock!) featuring the return of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones after a 10-year absence from the big screen. Nearly everyone — from the stars, to director Barry Sonnenfeld, to composer Danny Elfman, to executive producer Steven Spielberg — had finally agreed on one more outing.

In addition to being a long-awaited sequel in the iconic franchise, the project also needed to deliver a satisfying conclusion to the alien-busting saga of MiB Agents J (Smith) and K (Jones). "It was just a great challenge to try to figure out a way to close the series in a satisfying way that didn’t just seem like Part 3," Cohen says. "Men in Black is all about the story behind the story and we wanted to do the story behind the story behind the story."

With ideas of choice and fate knocking around his brain like particles inside a super collider, the writer decided to introduce a little time travel to the party — a welcome addition to a big screen mythos where galaxies are the size of marbles and entire civilizations are waiting to be discovered inside train station lockers.

The premise was fairly simple: J must travel back to July 1969 in order to save a young K (a pre-Thanos Josh Brolin) from the machinations of a ruthless extraterrestrial assassin named Boris (Jemaine Clement), while ensuring that the Apollo 11 mission launches a planet-protecting shield into Earth's atmosphere. Fairly simple, but exactly what the series needed: a fresh sandbox of cosmic revelations.

"A lot of Men in Black is about having fun with conspiracy theories behind what’s really going on and the Moon landing, of course, is so pregnant with conspiracy theories and images about that," Cohen adds. "And also, to drop Will — as an African American guy — into the late ‘60s created this kind of tension that [Smith] really liked and wanted to explore."

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Cohen's script lands an emotional gut punch at the tail end of the third act with an explanation for modern K's reputation as a no-nonsense sourpuss. The Moon launch was successful, but resulted in unforeseen collateral damage. Boris murdered J's father (a pre-Luke Cage Mike Colter) at Cape Canaveral in 1969 and, blaming himself for what happened, K decided to watch over the dead man's young son until he was old enough to be courted by the top-secret organization.

"Men in Black is at its best when you, ‘Oh, of course! Of course, Andy Warhol is an MiB agent!'" Cohen says of the big twist. "On a deeper emotional level, there was a response of, ‘Oh, of course that’s why he recruited him! That’s why they have this great relationship as partners.' I think people feel like, ‘Oh, this is clicking into place,’ which was a really satisfying way to stick the landing on the third one. One of the great moments of the process was when Steven Spielberg read the script and said he thought it was better than the first one."

Released into theaters on May 25, 2012, the threequel was warmly received by critics and audiences, who considered the film to be a marked improvement over its slightly underwhelming predecessor a decade before. The '60s-era setting, Brolin's scarily good imitation of Jones, and Smith's charisma were all highlighted as strong points. 

It went on to make just over $654 million at the worldwide box office, making Men in Black 3 the highest-grossing entry in the entire franchise (although the 1997 original still remains the most profitable in terms of budget vs. ticket sales).

Despite the critical and financial success, there were no discussions about making a fourth installment. "I think it was hard enough to get everyone together on that and to agree on a story," Cohen admits. "There was something amazing about being able to get everyone back together for the movie, that it was kind of an assumption that this would be the end of it. I think that was why we put so much pressure on ourselves to come up with an ending that would feel like a real ending and not sequel bait."

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But as we know, there's no such thing as letting a franchise retire with dignity in Hollywood. The Ray-Ban-wearing, neuralyzer-flashing agents inevitably returned seven years later via Men in Black: International, which shifted the focus to Agents H (Chris Hemsworth) and M (Tessa Thompson) with less-than-stellar results. The consensus: Smith and Jones were the lifeblood of MiB. If they weren't involved, fans pondered, then what was the point in rebooting?

"You have to bounce it off those guys," Cohen finishes. "We would always say it’s just a classic, noir/cop/detective thing, except it happens to be in this universe. And if you don’t have those two guys who can pull it off like that, it’s so hard to imagine the movie without them … As a movie, I don’t think it works without those guys. Their chemistry is so amazing."

The Men in Black trilogy is now streaming on Peacock.