Last weekend, a new Will Smith movie opened at No. 1—but don’t break out the champagne just yet. Slipping in after Fifty Shades Of Grey’s quickie box office climax, heist romance Focus beat out the third-week haul of Kingsman: The Secret Service with just $18.7 million. That’s solid enough for a tame, R-rated February release aimed at grown-ups. Not so great if you’re Will Smith: Hollywood Superstar.
Blame it on the ambiguously chic marketing, middling reviews, or rashes of bad weather across our Big Willie-loving nation last weekend, but the sleek, slight Focus was never destined to be a box office behemoth. Sure, pundits agree it would’ve been far less of a blip on the books without Smith’s star power, but even Smith seemed to know he needed to set expectations low long before Focus opened and critics and moviegoers responded with a resounding “meh.”
See, kids, there was a time when Smith could routinely pull hundreds of millions of dollars in box office by saving the world on the big screen. He fought drug lords, and aliens, and zombies, and other, different aliens at the movies. He played matchmaker and reluctant superhero, and once, just once, played a homeless would-be stockbroker who possessed no superhuman skills or training other than a deep and abiding love for his child.
Then one summer, to everyone’s horror, Smith fell like Icarus while trying to make son Jaden into his own movie star in M. Night Shyamalan’s Scientology-tinged sci-fi bomb. Last month, Smith finally admitted that After Earth’s massive failure “broke” him free from the need to be the box office Ali. Conveniently, that also meant he already didn’t care if Focus biffed it at the box office.
“It is a huge relief for me to not care whether or not Focus is No. 1 or No. 10 at the box office,” Smith said weeks before it opened, getting ahead of inevitable think pieces, like this one, that would ponder the significance of his failed post-After Earth comeback. Mr. July saw the writing on the wall, and he wanted us to know he didn’t care.
“I’ve already gained everything I could have possibly hoped for by meeting the people and the creation of what we did together,” he said, as all talent says, of his Focus cast and crew.
Smith might not be supremely invested in a modest little gig like Focus, a vehicle meant to rebrand and ease him back into being a marquee movie star, but he managed to rebound from After Earth by signing on to several high-profile films. Those include Focus, playing a role originally meant for Ryan Gosling (then Ben Affleck), and the upcoming high-priority NFL project Concussion, the hot-button drama Peter Landesman is helming for Sony.
By next year, Smith will be starring in Warner Bros.’ high, high-profile DC supervillain tentpole Suicide Squad, the second stand-alone film to follow in the studio’s signature comic book universe after Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice blows the DC doors open. For better or worse, it’ll reunite him with his Focus co-star Margot Robbie, only this time they’ll share the burden of carrying the film with co-stars Jai Courtney, Joel Kinnaman, and Jared Leto—none of whom, incidentally, have yet proven their individual box office powers.
But ever since he found TV success as the Fresh Prince, Smith has carefully plotted a lucrative career out of being likable. In David Ayer’s Suicide Squad he’ll play Deadshot, a broken, loner assassin with a death wish—and an enemy to Batman. The change in character should do his image good. Suicide Squad could be a pass back into cultural relevancy for Smith, who knows better than most star-survivors just how fickle Hollywood can be when you make one tiny, little, massive, stinking, flop.
And then there are the persistent whispers of a Will Smith-Kanye musical team-up, fueled by Smith’s own revelation that Yeezus has been trying to get the Fresh Prince to pick up the mic again. “I’m not gonna do it unless I’m truly inspired, but Ye’s been pushing me a little bit,” he said in a 2013 interview.
“I don’t want to say, ‘I’m going to do it’ then get in there and suck,” Smith reportedly told The Sun more recently, revealing he’s got “seven or eight” tracks already locked down.
A collab with rap’s resident enfant terrible could be the creative jolt Smith needs to emerge from his screen stasis, not to mention give him a reason to stop gamely reciting the Fresh Prince theme song every time he hits the talk show circuit. (Seriously. Stop. Making him. Do it.)
Yeezy or not, the rumors of Will Smith’s career death have, it seems, been greatly exaggerated.