Is Will Smith Still a Major Movie Star?

The world's biggest actor never takes risks even when it looks like he's doing just that.

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Figuring out what makes someone a movie star is just about impossible these days.

Box office numbers don’t mean as much in the age of big franchises, and are often disconnected from levels of fame. There are way too many nebulous factors to try and pin down exactly how stardom happens, and more and more, it seems less attainable, or even existent; Tom Cruise ruled the ‘80s and ‘90s, but his name doesn’t guarantee big hits like it used to. A cold streak, with just a few bad flops, can sink a rising star.

There’s no such thing as a bulletproof movie star… except for probably one person. Will Smith is an actor whose stardom has continued to shine with an unsettling longevity through embarrassing misfires like Wild Wild West to slightly less embarrassing, but lucrative, films like I Am Legend. But for all his successes, he wasn’t first billed in this weekend’s controversial superhero ensemble box office winner, Suicide Squad. It begs the question: Is Will Smith a true movie star anymore?

One way to measure the ephemeral nature of stardom is to take the lead of former-ESPN, current-HBO culture bro Bill Simmons, who penned a treatise on the subject called “The Movie Star” on the dearly departed Grantland in 2012. It was mostly a way to contextualize the rise of Ryan Reynolds following his superhero belly flop of epic proportions, Green Lantern.

Simmons cited 24 current male movie stars including, the obvious ones: Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Christian Bale, Denzel Washington, Adam S, anandlerd, weirdly enough, Kevin James. But Simmons smartly zeroed in on Smith using language that made sense four years ago but also sounds eerily appropriate for the atrocious summer blockbuster we’re enduring.

“Everyone is complaining about the quality of this summer’s movies (probably the worst ever), this year’s Oscar race (potentially the most ghastly in years) and a general lack of imagination by the studios (it honestly feels like they gave up), but really, everything comes back to Will Smith and Ryan Reynolds,” he wrote. In our case, it definitely does.

Four years is a long time, and an eternity in Hollywood. Simmons, working at ESPN, filtered his understanding of Reynolds’s stardom through sports. “That makes Reynolds someone like Alex Smith: He’s a no. 1 draft pick, he has all the tools, you can easily talk yourself into him being good,” Simmons explained, “and then, six games into the season, you realize that you’re not making the Super Bowl with Alex Smith.”

But with the unreal success of Deadpool, which rang up over $700 million worldwide, Reynolds has become a bona fide star. What makes an updated view of Simmons’ movie star post so interesting is that Reynolds and Smith are now inexorably linked through superhero films on opposite sides of the Marvel/DC divide; and Smith’s Suicide Squad tried to capture the same sort of winking and dry tone. Reynolds managed to shoot down Simmons’s criticism with the highest grossing X-Men movie ever. What about Smith?

If we take a look at Simmons’s last five movies argument, here’s what we get for the former Fresh Prince in terms of worldwide box office:

  • Suicide Squad: $260 million and counting
  • Concussion: $48 million
  • Focus: $159 million
  • Winter’s Tale: $31 million
  • After Earth: $243 million

There are a few notable misses on the financial front, like the Oscar-bait Concussion and Winter’s Tale, and a big critical miss like After Earth, which basically everyone reviled. But the majority of them, Suicide Squad included, reinforces Simmons’s assertion that “if you fund a Will Smith movie, you’re guaranteed a $150 million worldwide gross … minimum.” Using this simple financial schema, it seems Smith retains his “foolproof” reputation as a bankable star because, as Simmons also says, “people like Will Smith because he’s never given them a reason not to like him.”

The last four years gave us Smith in a blockbuster sci-fi survival movie, a weepy magical-realist romance, a small-scale dark comedy caper, a real life drama about the biggest sport in the country, and Suicide Squad. This is where things get interesting.

The latter could have been the first time Smith chose to challenge his fans, and to give them a reason for them to not like him. As Deadshot, he’s supposedly the deadliest assassin in the world, and a dude that literally looks into the camera to remind you that he (and the rest of his — ahem — squad) are bad guys. But instead he put in what is perhaps the most Will Smith-iest performance of them all, replete with a forlorn daughter character to give his bad dude some saccharine motivation rendering all that bad guy stuff null and void. Even as Hancock (in Hancock), Smith was more of a bad guy. He was a literal anti-hero. What is Deadshot? He’s just a guy who picked the wrong friends.

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