It’s hard to remember now, but once upon a time, Will Smith was the king of the multiplex.
Smith, who’s attempting to stage a big-screen comeback with this weekend’s heist caper Focus, had a great track record in the 1990s (1995’s Bad Boys, 1996’s Independence Day) and then an uninterrupted string of hits in the mid-to-late 2000s. The star tossed off one surefire hit a year: I, Robot (2004); Hitch (2005); The Pursuit of Happyness (2006); I Am Legend (2007); Hancock (2008). That last film, a subversive movie about a superhero who wasted his powers, was a brilliant parable for the years ahead.
In project after project, Smith brought his charisma and his fame to bear on unworthy projects. Each of his post-Hancock projects had some fatal flaw that must have seemed alluring to the actor: Seven Pounds (2008), about a man seeking opportunities to donate all of his organs to “worthy” people, had all of the sentimentalism of Happyness but pushed it past logical sense. Men in Black 3 (2012) was a too-safe return to a well that had run creatively dry; After Earth (2013) presumed the audience would be at once deeply interested in both Smith’s son Jaden as a leading man, in the Smith family’s vaguely-defined mystical beliefs, and in M. Night Shyamalan as a director. The collaboration with Shyamalan, a director deeply out of vogue after a series of bombs, spoke as clearly to Smith’s remove from on-the-ground realities as did an infamous interview he and Jaden gave to New York. (Asked if he alphabetized his laserdiscs, Smith replied, “I’m very, very serious about systems supporting creative inspiration.” It was that kind of interview.)
Smith claimed, then, that he was not interested in fame, a claim belied by the fact that all of his movies have been either blockbusters or would-be blockbusters that the public rejected. Whatever was wrong with last year’s Smith flop Winter’s Tale, it wasn’t a lack of bombast or sweep. But it is true that throughout his career, Smith has been resistant to the sort of innovative projects that turn an actor into an icon. His movies that succeeded did so because of their easily digestible conceits, while the ones that failed did so because the formula had turned against Smith. The star famously turned down both The Matrix and Django Unchained; the argument for him as a generation-defining movie star is more mathematical than it is based on real affection.
That math has turned against Smith, and wouldn’t seem to be getting any better. Focus, an attractive trifle, was dumped into the late-winter box office doldrums, and is attracting far more press for rising star Margot Robbie’s appearance than for anything Smith does. The most promising moves, for Smith, lie in the future, in particular with his appearance as the villainous Deadshot in 2016’s Suicide Squad, based on the villains from the DC Comics universe. The franchise onboarding one of the world’s best-known actors, rather than seeking, as Marvel has done several times over, to build a star from something found in a Hollywood gym, has the feeling of a corporate merger, but Will Smith’s strength has always been in his extreme packageability.
It may seem perverse to say that an actor’s appearance in a comic-book movie is cause for celebration, but Smith attaching himself to an existing property may be the way he climbs out of the hole he’s in. Will Smith’s name on a poster can no longer sell movie tickets. That he’s apparently realized that and acted accordingly, joining a large ensemble rather than bending a movie to his will and agreeing to be a villain rather than a hero, is the first proof in a while that Smith, for years the most astute movie star in the game, really is focused.