Can Will Smith Become a Major Movie Star Again?

4 minute read

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.

Read next: Review: Focus: Can Will Smith Do Cary Grant?

See All the Best Actors in Oscar History

Schauspieler Emil Jannings
1929: Emil Jannings - The Last Command and The Way of All FleshImagno/Getty Images
Warner Baxter
1930: Warner Baxter - In Old ArizonaHulton Archive/Getty Images
George Arliss (1868-1946), English actor, 20th century.
1931: George Arliss - DisraeliPrint Collector/Getty Images
Cinema Personalities. pic: circa 1930's. American actor Lionel Barrymore. (1878-1954) a major star of films and a famed actor. He was also noted as a artist, author, composer and director, one of the famous Barrymore acting family.
1932: Lionel Barrymore - A Free SoulPopperfoto/Getty Images
Fredric March
1933: Fredric March - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1947: Fredric March - The Best Years of Our LivesPopperfoto/Getty Images
Wallace Beery
1933: Wallace Beery - The ChampPopperfoto/Getty Images
Charles Laughton
1934: Charles Laughton - The Private Life of Henry VIIIHulton Archive/Getty Images
Clark Gable
1935: Clark Gable - It Happened One NightMichael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Victor McLaglen, British boxer and actor, 1934-1935.
1936: Victor McLaglen - The InformerPrint Collector/Getty Images
Paul Muni, American film actor, 1934-1935.
1937: Paul Muni - The Story of Louis PasteurPrint Collector/Getty Images
Spencer Tracy
1938: Spencer Tracy - Captains Courageous 1939: Spencer Tracy - Boys TownClarence Sinclair Bull—John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
Robert Donat
1940: Robert Donat - Goodbye, Mr. ChipsSilver Screen Collection/Getty Images
James Stewart
1941: James Stewart - The Philadelphia StoryJohn Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
Cooper Promo Shot
1942: Gary Cooper - Sergeant York 1953: Gary Cooper - High NoonHulton Archive/Getty Images
Cinema. Personalities. circa 1940's. American actor James Cagney portrait one of Hollywood's pre-eminent stars famous for his "tough-guy" roles.
1943: James Cagney - Yankee Doodle DandyPopperfoto/Getty Images
Paul Lukas
1944: Paul Lukas - Watch on the RhinePopperfoto/Getty Images
Bing Crosby
1945: Bing Crosby - Going My WayHulton Archive/Getty Images
Ray Milland
1946: Ray Milland - The Lost WeekendSilver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Portrait of Ronald Colman
1948: Ronald Colman - A Double LifeGetty Images
Portrait Of Laurence Olivier
1949: Laurence Olivier - HamletMondadori/Getty Images
Broderick Crawford
1950: Broderick Crawford - All the King's MenColumbia Pictures/Getty Images
José Ferrer in Anything Can Happen
1951: José Ferrer - Cyrano de BergeracMondadori/Getty Images
Humphrey Bogart In 'Sabrina'
1952: Humphrey Bogart - The African QueenArchive Photos/Getty Images
1954: William Holden - Stalag 17Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
Marlon Brando
1955: Marlon Brando - On the Waterfront 1973: Marlon Brando - The GodfatherHulton Archive/Getty Images
Ernest Borgnine
1956: Ernest Borgnine - MartyGAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images
Yul Brynner
1957: Yul Brynner - The King and IArchive Photos/Getty Images
Barnacle Bill
1958: Alec Guinness - The Bridge on the River KwaiHulton Archive/Getty Images
David Niven
1959: David Niven - Separate TablesSilver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Charlton Heston dressed as Ben Hur
1960: Charlton Heston - Ben-HurMondadori/Getty Images
Burt Lancaster
1961: Burt Lancaster - Elmer GantryArchive Photos/Getty Images
Maximillian Schell
1962: Maximilian Schell - Judgment at NurembergPictorial Parade/Getty Images
Gregory Peck
1963: Gregory Peck - To Kill a MockingbirdSilver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Publicity Still From 'For Love Of Ivy'
1964: Sidney Poitier - Lilies of the FieldJohn D. Kisch—Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images
Rex Harrison In 'My Fair Lady'
1965: Rex Harrison - My Fair LadyArchive Photos/Getty Images
Lee Marvin
1966: Lee Marvin - Cat BallouSilver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Paul Scofield In 'A Man For All Seasons'
1967: Paul Scofield - A Man for All SeasonsMichael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
In The Heat of the Night
1968: Rod Steiger - In the Heat of the NightSilver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Cliff Robertson
1969: Cliff Robertson - CharlyCamerique/Getty Images
John Wayne
1970: John Wayne - True GritPhotoshot/Getty Images
1971: George C. Scott - PattonSilver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Gene Hackman In 'The French Connection'
1972: Gene Hackman - The French Connection20th Century Fox/Getty Images
Jack Lemmon
1974: Jack Lemmon - Save the TigerSilver Screen Collection/Getty Images
47th Annual Academy Awards, 1975
1975: Art Carney - Harry and TontoRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
Jack Nicholson In 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'
1976: Jack Nicholson - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 1998: Jack Nicholson - As Good as It GetsArchive Photos/Getty Images
Peter Finch In 'Network'
1977: Peter Finch - NetworkMichael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
35th Annual Golden Globe Awards
1978: Richard Dreyfuss - The Goodbye GirlRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
"The Champ" Press Party
1979: Jon Voight - Coming HomeRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
AFI Salute to James Stewart
1980: Dustin Hoffman - Kramer vs. Kramer 1989: Dustin Hoffman - Rain ManRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
Actor's Studio Conference
1981: Robert De Niro - Raging BullRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
JAN 2 1980, AUG 12 1982, AUG 13 1982, MAR 18 1983; At ceremonies at the Denver Center for the Perfor
1982: Henry Fonda - On Golden PondLyn Alweis—Denver Post/Getty Images
Ben Kingsley
1983: Ben Kingsley - GandhiDoug McKenzie—Getty Images
Robert Duvall
1984: Robert Duvall - Tender MerciesDave Allocca—DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
57th Annual Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon
1985: F. Murray Abraham - AmadeusRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
William Hurt
1986: William Hurt - Kiss of the Spider WomanTerry O'Neill—Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Color Of Money
1987: Paul Newman - The Color of MoneyMichael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
People's Choice
1988: Michael Douglas - Wall StreetDarlene Hammond—Archive Photos/Getty Images
62nd Annual Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon
1990: Daniel Day-Lewis - My Left Foot 2008: Daniel Day-Lewis - There Will Be Blood 2013: Daniel Day-Lewis - LincolnRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
16th Annual Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards
1991: Jeremy Irons - Reversal of FortuneRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
"Howard's End" Benefit for AmFAR
1992: Anthony Hopkins - The Silence of the LambsRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
American Museum of the Moving Image Tribute to Al Pacino
1993: Al Pacino - Scent of a WomanRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
Tom Hanks
1994: Tom Hanks - Philadelphia 1995: Tom Hanks - Forrest Gump Time Life Pictures/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
1996 National Board of Review Awards Dinner
1996: Nicolas Cage - Leaving Las VegasRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
Presentation of Memorabilia From "Shine"
1997: Geoffrey Rush - ShineRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
4th Broadcast Film Critics Awards
1999: Roberto Benigni - Life Is Beautiful Ron Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
"The Big Kahuna" Premiere
2000: Kevin Spacey - American BeautyRon Galella—WireImage/Getty Images
Celebs at British Academy Film Awards
2001: Russell Crowe - Gladiator UK Press/Newsmakers/Getty Images
74th Annual Academy Awards - Pressroom
2002: Denzel Washington - Training DayFrank Micelotta—ImageDirect/Getty Images
The 75th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room
2003: Adrien Brody - The PianistJeffrey Mayer—WireImage/Getty Images
Sean Penn arrives for the 76th Academy A
2004: Sean Penn - Mystic River 2009: Sean Penn - MilkJeff Haynes—AFP/Getty Images
Onset For Jamie Foxx Music Video
2005: Jamie Foxx - RayPeter Kramer—Getty Images
Stars Promote 'Mission Impossible III' In Rome
2006: Philip Seymour Hoffman - CapoteElisabetta Villa—Getty Images
22nd Annual Santa Barbara Film Festival - American Riviera Award Presented to Forest Whitaker
2007: Forest Whitaker - The Last King of ScotlandMason Trullinger—FilmMagic/Getty Images
9th Annual New York Times Arts & Leisure Weekend - Day 3
2010: Jeff Bridges - Crazy HeartJemal Countess—Getty Images
The Debt - UK Premiere - Inside Arrivals
2011: Colin Firth - The King's SpeechDave Hogan—Getty Images
BAFTA Los Angeles 18th Annual Awards Season Tea Party - Red Carpet
2012: Jean Dujardin - The ArtistFrazer Harrison—Getty Images
86th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room
2014: Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyers ClubJason Merritt—Getty Images
2015: Eddie Redmayne - The Theory of EverythingValerie Macon—AFP/Getty Images
88th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room
2016: Leonardo DiCaprio - The RevenantC Flanigan—Getty Images
89th Annual Academy Awards -  Press Room
2017: Casey Affleck - Manchester by the SeaJason LaVeris—Getty Images
2018: Gary Oldman - Darkest HourFrederic J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images
2019: Remi Malek - Bohemian RhapsodyEd Herrera—ABC/Getty Images

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