He was the kind of charismatic actor that had enoughappeal to carry both big action flicks like IndependenceDay and rom-coms like Hitch.Audiences loved him, and studiosknew he could deliver at the box office. He attached himself to bigpictures and made them a success. Since his hit sitcom The FreshPrince of Bel-Air ended in 1996,Will Smith has become one of the most successful film stars of ourgeneration.
But,like many successful actors enjoying the extra padding of blockbuster bucks, Will Smith wanted to experiment. He began taking ondramatic Oscar bait like Aliand The Pursuit ofHappyness. They werewell-received by critics for the most part – but audiences didn’twant their Smith served with a side of sadness. They wanted thecharming agent from Men in Black.They wanted the effortlessly cool Smith in Bad Boys.Basically, they wanted Smith to be different versions of the personhe appeared to be offscreen – fun, easy-going, and whole-heartedlylikable. And while he may have shown off his acting chops playingboxing champ Muhammad Ali, to Smith fans, those roles felt like adeparture for Smith… good, maybe, but not who Smith really was. Hewas their action hero, the guy that they wanted to emulate. He was the coolest guy in the room — the one who punched an alien in the face.
IfSmith was being pulled by his own desires to make different films, hewas also pandering to audiences who wanted him to remain the actionhero they knew and loved. After a four-year acting break following hisdramatic role in Seven Pounds in2008, Smith returned to the franchise that people loved – Menin Black – for the third filmin the series. Agent J was back, and mass audiences turned out to help him top $150 million at the box office once again.
Smith’striumphant return to acting led to several offers for prime parts, including Quentin Tarantino’s titular Django Unchained. Smith turned down the role that eventually went to Jamie Foxx, because, in his words, Django “wasn’t the lead” acting next to Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Schultz. But the film also strayed away from Smith’s more traditional — and more successful — roles. Smith’s last big hit beforeMen in Black III wasthe sci-fi flick I Am Legend, a film that Smith carried without any other actors. After that wasthe successful — though less so — Hancock,starring Smith as a down-on-his-luck superhero. It seemed clear: Audiences wanted Smith in otherworldly roles where his presence dominatedthe screen.
SoSmith took on After Earth, about aman and his son (played by Smith’s real son, Jayden Smith) who returnto a dangerous Earth after the planet has been destroyed. The film bombed and was universally panned, deemed “boring” at best and “Scientologistpropoganda” at worst. (Smith, who boasted story credit on the movie, claims not to be associated with theHollywood cult religion, but professes to be a student of“all religions.”) In the film, Smith played aserious, stern father who guided his son through the dangers of Earthwhile Smith’s character sat in a spaceship, instructing his sonthrough it all. It wasn’t a role audiences were used to – here,Smith was passive, letting his son do all of the action… andaudiences hated it.
But itseems that Smith may finally be understanding what his audience wantsfrom him – and that’s Will Smith, 15 years earlier. Smith’s newlineup of films aren’t cerebral dramas or slow-moving biopics, butsequels to films he made nearly a decade ago. There’s I,Robot 2, Hancock 2, and BadBoys 3, and, presumably, 20thCentury Fox’s Independence Day sequel, though the actor is not yet attached to the film, which is set to hit theaters in 2015. But he’d be smart to — like Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol‘s Tom Cruise realized, the only way to avoid career tailspin is to return to the franchises audiences adored. (And the career embarrassment of agreeing to star in a film directed by M. Night Shyamalan in the first place.) So, please, Will, join Independence Day and make After Earth just a distint memory. It’s the only way we can truly welcome you back to Earth.