What’s Going On With Will Smith’s Career?
Bright can’t necessarily be called a flop but it’s hardly the greatest moment in the thoroughly mixed bag that is Will Smith’s career. The Netflix exclusive fantasy cop drama — billed as End of Watch with orcs — was seen by over 11 million viewers in its first weekend, according to official figures. Reviews were less glowing, with some calling it the absolute worst film of 2017, but the beauty of Netflix properties is that even the most unbearably bad product is a mere click away to satisfy morbid curiosity, whereas truly terrible films with cinematic releases require more effort and cash. Still, the end result for Bright is one that raises more questions than answers, and offers another strange addition to the filmography of one of the most famous men on the planet.
Will Smith is a bona fide star: The two time Oscar nominee has sold millions of records, made billions at the box office and helped to redefine the modern action hero. His popularity and influence are undeniable, and after over 30 years in the entertainment industry, he remains one of the most likable and charismatic figures in a business that goes through such individuals with increasing speed. However, the past 5 years of his career have been questionable at best, and in many ways, Smith stands as a representative of the waning force of the A-List headliner. His name brings in the big bucks and an undeniable level of public attention, but that no longer translates to guaranteed money in the bank.
A while back, I asked some of my Twitter friends what I thought would be a simple question: Name the last time Will Smith made a truly great movie. Not good, not passable, but genuinely great, the kind of film you’d go out of your way to recommend to people. Some people argued in favor of 2012’s Men in Black 3, a sequel that is admittedly better than you remember it being although I would hesitate to call it great. Winter’s Tale got some support for its sheer lunacy and undeniable entertainment value, but the most agreed upon choice was Michael Mann’s Ali, the underrated biopic of Muhammad Ali that landed Smith his first Oscar nomination. That film was released in 2001. There are still hits for Smith in there, but not the way they used to be, and his most recent trilogy of releases — Suicide Squad, Collateral Beauty, and Bright — lie somewhere between baffling and disastrous.
Being the Hollywood flavor of the month is a gift-turned-curse that’s befallen many a beefcake, the rising stars plucked from obscurity to headline the latest explosion heavy Summer tentpole, only to be replaced once a younger, fresher and cheaper face emerges. Sticking around is the hard part, but if you pulled it off during that zenith in the ’90s, then you were invincible. Think Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible films or Arnold Schwarzenegger as the ultimate American hero with the accent nobody questioned. Smith was one of the dominating figures of that era, following his evolution from squeaky clean rapper and goofy TV star to legitimate Hollywood titan. The one-two-three punch of Bad Boys, Independence Day and Men in Black secured his status as a box office idol, and he pulled off some solid dramatic acting during that time, from Ali to Six Degrees of Separation. By the time the 2000s rolled on, his name could sell a movie even if it wasn’t very good. I Am Legend received tepid reviews and is one of the worst adaptations of a stunning novel, but Smith managed to make it the 7th highest grossing film of 2007.
Not everyone can be Will Smith. His charisma seems endless, and his mixture of swaggering bombast with earnest geekiness endeared him to millions. He was cool because you knew he was still just a massive dork, but he was having so much darn fun being the dork. Even in those big action moments, there’s that enticing undercurrent of humor and strangeness, like when he rants to a dead alien dragged behind him in his parachute about how he’s wasted his day for him in Independence Day, or even in the dire Suicide Squad when he tries to negotiate the terms of his release. Smith was the guy you’d want to save you because you knew, even in the most dangerous of circumstances, you’d have a blast in the process.
Being Will Smith also comes with a heavy weight of responsibility. Even now, in 2018, he remains one of the very few black stars Hollywood will put down big money for, next to Denzel Washington, and even then, he’s really only established himself as a headlining action star of reliable financial returns in the past decade. Change has happened in the industry, but it’s been maddeningly incremental, and you can see the slowness of that process throughout Smith’s career. When you’re one of the only black faces at the table, your successes and failures mean much more than a few million dollars. That can limit the sort of roles given to you, as well as the ones you’d like to take. Sidney Poitier was dishearteningly limited by the movie-making system of his time, despite being both an Oscar winner and box office success; Denzel may be one of the greatest actors of our time, but it’s clear that the establishment still prefer to see him in specific roles of male blackness. Black masculinity is still coded, overtly or otherwise, by Hollywood and society at large as ‘threatening’, and Smith, even at his ‘edgiest,’ was still the dude warm and fuzzy enough to enjoy with the whole family.
‘Edgy’ seems like the worst possible term to ever apply to Smith. He’s too sweet for true edge, and his career has been built on what IndieWire described as a ‘seemingly strategic aversion to controversial roles’. When it came time for his character in Six Degrees of Separation to kiss another man, Smith refused and camera tricks were used to create the illusion (in later interviews, Smith said he regretted not going forward with the kiss but did so under the advice of Denzel Washington, who said it would hurt his career). He turned down roles in The Matrix and Django Unchained, and he’s notably shied away from villainous parts (his turn in Suicide Squad is essentially old school Big Willie Style with a shaved head, and it’s glaring how Deadshot gets such a strikingly sympathetic arc, right down to having a cute daughter to look out for). So much of the appeal of Will Smith is in him being ‘himself,’ and even if that brand of authenticity is as much a manufactured ideal as anything else in Hollywood, it makes it tough for him to stray from that formula. His attempts at more serious dramatic fare have mostly floundered, if not critically then certainly commercially, because that wasn’t what audiences wanted to see. Mopey Will Smith isn’t our Will Smith, and even when he’s the self-sacrificing idol of stoic nobility, as evidenced in the truly turgid and misguided Seven Pounds, it’s too bereft of humor to stick. Being Will Smith is as much a high-concept as the films he stars in.
Smith is now 49, and he seems keenly aware of how the changes in the film industry affect him. Suicide Squad may be a terrible film, but it made sense for him to latch onto a burgeoning franchise as an ensemble player, which took a lot of the heat off his shoulders to guarantee a hit. Even Bright is a savvy move, as it saw him become the first true leading man of the streaming service blockbuster age, and a sequel is on the way. His name alone won’t do the job, but it still has power to varying degrees. People are still loyal to Smith, if not in the droves they used to be, and his status as the icon that is ‘Will Smith’ carries an allure that few others have been able to replicate on screen. That’s one of the reasons his choice to play the Genie in the live-action adaptation of Disney’s Aladdin makes so much sense: He’s easily as definable a figure as Robin Williams was at his height, and the Genie is a character moulded to be the mouth-piece for that kind of star. Remember how that film, despite its star’s wishes, was sold based on the promise that ‘Robin Williams is the Genie’? Will Smith can pull that off better than any major star still working today, and he’ll probably rap for it too.
For a star as beloved and universally recognized as Will Smith, it’s strange that his filmography is so weak, but that alone truly demonstrates the power of being Will Smith at his prime. Those days are in the past and the entertainment ecosystem has shifted so forcefully that they’ll probably never return. That’s not to say Smith can’t stay on top in some form, but it may require a more selective vision and awareness of how the old paths have been blocked off. It’s not easy being Will Smith, but he remains so very easy to love.