I read an article about Will Smith when I was twelve years old in a hotel room. He was promoting I, Robot, just a few years removed from an Oscar performance and right at the peak of his career. The article was essentially a fluff piece that broke down his process of choosing roles and his formulas for finding successful movies. His process broke down as such: action movies make money, romantic movies make money, romantic action movies make lots of money, I should try to be in those types of movies. The article credited this formula as a sign of his brilliance and remarked at how far ahead of his peers Smith was. Even as a discerning middle schooler, I remember thinking that his formula didn’t sound too remarkable to me. Don’t get me wrong, Will Smith is a tremendous talent and one of the greatest movie stars of the last thirty years. But, as with most people, his success had as much to do with luck as it did with any spectacular brilliance on his part.
The year is 2016, and Will Smith isn’t a movie star anymore. That’s an overstatement, of course, but he’s certainly not the headliner he once was. A few years back, casting Smith in a movie was an incredible investment: he wasn’t just bankable, he was a guarantee to make $100 million at the box office. From Independence Day in 1996 to Hancock in 2008, Smith made 14 movies. 12 of them made over $100 million at the box office, including 8 in a row, and most of them cleared that benchmark easily. For eleven years, he was a money printing machine with an 86% percent success rate. With all the volatility in the movie business, Smith stood alone as a harbinger of consistency and success. It all started to unravel with the 2008 Christmas release, Seven Pounds, a plodding, sensitive movie that just didn’t quite resonate with audiences or critics like some of his other movies. Smith, always discerning with his roles, took four years to star in another movie. By then, his momentum was gone.
Fair or not, tabloid rumors and his insistence on turning his children into child stars hurt his brand tremendously. His carefully crafted, wholesome image was crumbling at the seams. He was still the Fresh Prince, but he hit a career low with the horribly reviewed flop After Earth, his first non-sequel in five years, an ill-conceived attempt at turning his son into a movie star. He followed that up the next year with a small role in Winter’s Tale, another horribly reviewed mess of a movie. Last year, he gained some ground back by starring in the entertaining Focus and the well-intentioned Concussion. Neither movie made $100 million or received an Oscar nomination; abject failures to the old Will but moral victories to the new.
His role in the upcoming Suicide Squad is telling. I’m sure it’s an excellent role that he feels passionate about, but it’s a movie he never would have done ten years ago. When he was at the peak of his success, a Will Smith movie was defined by one thing: Will Smith. His charm and charisma defined the move; he worked with lesser known directors and his co-stars were usually nowhere near his level of stardom. He was the draw, and when he did franchises, he did his franchises. So, Suicide Squad is an interesting gambit. If it does poorly or, even worse, if it does well but Smith’s performance is critically reviled, he hits a new career low. If it does well, it’s likely that most of the praise will be heaped on co-stars Margot Robbie and Jared Leto. He’s not the first billed and he’s certainly not the main draw; for the first time in two decades, a Will Smith movie doesn’t hinge on Will Smith’s performance. So where does that leave Will Smith?
At 47, Smith has plenty of time to reinvent his career. Tom Cruise is 6 years older and Denzel Washington is 14 years older, and Smith is more popular with millennials than either of them. He doesn’t need a McConaissance, just a slight reinvention, a second wind. He’s never at his best when he’s playing a character; you buy a ticket to see Will Smith in a movie. I’d love to see him embrace his lighter side again. He’s at his best when he gets to utilize his otherworldly charm in Fresh Prince and Hitch and even Independence Day. Then again, he doesn’t have to prove anything to me or anyone else. He’s rich and powerful and if he wants another Oscar or to turn Jaden into a movie star, that’s his prerogative. Heck, if he wants to turn into latter-day Harrison Ford and play Grumpy Boss in ten different movies, he can, because he’s Will Smith, one of the only true modern movie stars. We saw him cry over his father’s abandonment in Fresh Prince, we saw him deal with middle age and his own fatherhood in The Pursuit of Happyness. Only he gets to decide what’s next.