Will Smith is back on top – but his career has bigger problems than his Oscars ‘slapgate’ controversy

Back on top: Will Smith at a photoshoot for ‘Bad Boys: Ride or Die’ in May this year  (Getty)
Back on top: Will Smith at a photoshoot for ‘Bad Boys: Ride or Die’ in May this year (Getty)

At some point in the early Nineties, Will Smith decided to become the “biggest movie star in the world”. He was the face of the hit sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and had also made some inroads as a rapper. Now, Smith sat down with his manager, James Lassiter, and devised a strategy. The two of them combed through data about the most popular movies ever, and broke box-office success down into a formula, based on common denominators. “It was always special effects,” Smith explained. “There was always creatures, [and] there was always a love story. So we started looking for movies that had special effects, creatures, and a love story.” And they found them: films such as Independence Day, Men in Black, and I, Robot. The plan worked.

Which is to say this: you’d have to be a fool to doubt Will Smith. The 55-year-old Philadelphian is an actor who knows the business of Hollywood inside out – and understands the raw, inimitable power of simply being liked. In 2022, after Smith walked on stage at the Academy Awards and introduced his palm to the side of Chris Rock’s head, people started asking if his career was over. For a hot second, it seemed like it could be. Fast and Loose, a Netflix-produced action movie with Smith attached as the lead, was abandoned. Emancipation, Smith’s once hotly anticipated slavery drama, was widely ignored when it slunk onto Apple TV+ in December that year.

But then more time passed. Friday saw the release of his comeback film: Bad Boys: Ride or Die, a third sequel to the 1995 buddy cop film, starring Smith and Martin Lawrence. Over the weekend, it made $104.6m (£82.2m) at the global box office – a figure that dramatically surpassed expectations, setting it up to become one of the year’s biggest movies. The film even turns Slapgate into a gag, with Smith’s character weathering a flurry of open-palm smacks from his partner, cajoling him out of a panic attack. Too soon? Hardly. It’s clear that the public have forgiven Smith for his act of uxorious public violence. It’s time Hollywood did, too.

If we’re being honest, the idea that Smith’s problems began and ended with that fateful tumble with Rock was always a framing of convenience. It fits a “fall from grace” narrative: on the night of his greatest triumph – the long-sought-after Oscar win, the apex of a glittering career – Smith threw it all away in an instant. But the reality is somewhat messier. He won the Oscar for his role as Richard Williams, father of tennis legends Venus and Serena, in the sugary, reputation-laundering biopic King Richard. It was a solid performance in a less-than-Oscar-worthy movie, and it came off the back of a long period of worsening creative choices for the erstwhile Bel-Air golden boy.

When was the last great Will Smith film? Ang Lee’s ambitious, effects-heavy Gemini Man (2019) was interesting in premise, but deeply flawed. Twisty and featherlight crime caper Focus (2015) was somewhere in the nether zone between “great” and just “OK”. Men in Black III was similarly fine, but nowhere near the level of the original. The year 2007 may have been the last time Smith felt truly bulletproof as a movie star. I Am Legend, a triumphant star vehicle for the actor, was out in cinemas, and Smith narrowly missed out on an Oscar for his role in the hit weepie The Pursuit of Happyness – his second nomination, after Ali five years earlier. The fact that Smith has signed on for a forthcoming I Am Legend sequel (despite his character’s death at the end of the first one) says a lot.

If the highs of the past decade have been muted, then the lows were despondent: shoddy and problematic supervillain ensemble Suicide Squad (2016); Netflix schlockbuster Bright (2017), matching Smith with a rebarbative orc rozzer played by Joel Edgerton; Disney’s live-action Aladdin (2019), which cursed Smith’s uncanny genie from the get-go by inviting comparisons with Robin Williams’s ineffable original. After Earth; Collateral Beauty: the list of squibs goes on. It is a testament to Smith’s megawatt star power that he has remained one of the world’s most bankable and widely liked actors despite two decades of near-total creative anhedonia.

The question, then, needs to be not what Will Smith can do for the film industry, but what the film industry can do for Will Smith. Look past the sheer hysteria of the Oscar night – which saw Smith accused of everything from toxic masculinity to attempted murder – and it’s hard to see the slap as a career-ending misdeed. Hollywood regularly sees far more heinous, damaging and premeditated transgressions go forgiven and forgotten. We need, in other words, to move on.

Bad Boys: Ride or Die has announced to the world that Smith is back, reborn, and that his audience is still there for him. He needs to seize the chance to shake off not just the altercation with Rock, but the years of silent stagnation that preceded it. Smith may well still hold a claim to being the world’s biggest movie star. Let’s hope he gets the movies to prove it.

‘Bad Boys: Ride or Die’ is in cinemas now