What’s happening to Will Smith’s career?

Ben Falk
Will Smith – Credit: PA

Once the biggest star in the world, as close to a box office sure thing as there was and critically adored, Will Smith’s movies have earned a staggering £5.9billion during his career. More recently though, the shine appears to have come off. Why?

Stratospheric rise

Already a successful rapper by the time he became ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ aged 22, 148 episodes of that series propelled him to screen stardom. But he already had his eyes on other prizes. 1993’s little-seen stage adaptation ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ is one of Smith’s finest performances, a daring role as a loquacious gay hustler.

Will Smith in ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ – Credit: Getty

Neither the TV show or that marked him out as a potential big-screen action hero. But Michael Bay’s cinematic debut ‘Bad Boys’ was a sleeper hit and he followed that up with ‘Independence Day’ the following year. Suddenly, the goofy musician-turned-comedy actor was a Hollywood heavyweight.

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The late 1990s was mostly a haze of success for Smith, save for the box office disappointment of ‘Wild Wild West’ (for which he had turned down ‘The Matrix’), but awards bait ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’ signalled his intent to be more ‘serious’ and a transformative performance in 2001’s ‘Ali’ secured him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Will Smith as Muhammad Ali – Credit: OutNow

The mid-Noughties saw more mega-hits in ‘Hitch’ ‘Men in Black 2’ and ‘I, Robot’, while Oscar came calling again thanks to 2006’s ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’. Until ‘Hancock’ in 2008, he held the record as the actor with most consecutive $100-million-movie openings, with eight.

Turning down roles, family success (and failure) and Scientology

2008 was where it began to somewhat unravel. ‘Hancock’ earned over £491m worldwide, but awards-y drama ‘Seven Pounds’ got middling reviews and zero prize buzz.

Will Smith and family – Credit: PA

And then…nothing. Smith didn’t appear on the big screen for four years, instead focusing on his production company and family. Friendship with the Cruises led to suggestions of becoming a Scientologist and rumours about his marriage to Jada Pinkett Smith swirled around the pages of the smuttier tabloids.

He was offered the lead role in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’, but was said to have refused because he felt the character’s role wasn’t big enough (Smith has since denied this).

2012’s ‘MiB 3’ was a hit, but felt like a step backwards and by this point, his children Willow and Jaden were also beginning to make their mark in showbiz.

Will and Jaden Smith in ‘After Earth – Credit: OutNow

Smith actively encouraged this, playing support to his son in M. Night Shyamalan’s critical and commercial flop ‘After Earth’ (2013).

While he remained a dynamite guest on talk shows and was brilliant in press junkets and on the red carpet, it felt like the star’s taste radar was slightly off as he entered his late 40s.

What happens now?

Will Smith in ‘Suicide Squad’ – Credit: OutNow

So does that mean Smith’s star is on the wane? 2015’s ‘Focus’ came and went with little fuss, apart from gossip about the actor’s close relationship with co-star Margot Robbie.

And despite good box office, ‘Suicide Squad’ felt like a missed opportunity, with Smith’s presence within what should have been an ensemble film unbalancing it rather than making it richer. Still, says Ian Sandwell, a freelance reporter who writes about box office for Screen International, “Will Smith effectively playing a sort-of bad guy (a rarity in his career) would have been appealing to most and a big factor in seeing it.”

Next up is ‘Collateral Beauty’, a drama with a starry cast including Helen Mirren, Edward Norton and Kate Winslet, which once again seems like it’s planning to pit him as a Best Actor contender. Momentum appears to be against it. “It could go either way,” says Sandwell.

Will Smith and Helen Mirren in ‘Collateral Beauty’ – Credit: OutNow

Smith’s talent and charisma have never been in question – he is a magnetic screen presence capable of deftly switching between genres.

And some might argue that part of the problem is bigger than movie stars. “Maybe he wouldn’t be guaranteed to open an original property like ‘Hancock’ again, but I’d argue that’s more down to the changing industry,” says Sandwell. “I’m not sure there are that many bankable stars anymore and success is often down to the brand or studio. Even Jennifer Lawrence, arguably the biggest star around at the minute, still can’t get people to see things like ‘Serena’ or ‘Joy’ in massive numbers, while Tom Cruise is also hit-and-miss outside of the ‘Mission : Impossible’ series.”

In fact, Smith shares an ailment with the ‘M:I’ frontman, something one might call ‘Cruise disease’. Symptoms include a steadfast refusal to challenge oneself with avant-garde material outside one’s comfort zone despite success with it in the past. You would imagine Big Will could get any number of quirky and/or A-list directors on the phone, the problem is he doesn’t seem inclined to try.

That’s a shame – if only because he has the kind of name recognition that might drag bigger audiences to smaller, more challenging films. Instead he appears to be intent on consolidating his brand – ‘Hancock 2’ and not one but two ‘Bad Boys’ sequels are nestling in the release schedule, as well as a rumoured ‘Suicide Squad’ spin-off for Deadshot.

It’s his life, of course he doesn’t owe the viewing public anything. But for those who wish he could return to that raw, almost flinty energy of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’, it might be a long wait. And who knows if ‘Bad Boys 4’ would have worn down the audience’s patience by then.

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