Will Smith is one of the biggest movie stars of all time, but what if he hadn't done Men in Black back in 1997? Hollywood would likely be looking rather different, even though much of Smith's career may still have gone in the same direction in the two decades since.
It's hard to overstate just how big a deal Will Smith was in the mid-to-late 90s. In 1996, Smith was starring in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a sitcom that had been built around his talent and persona, and made a splash on the big screen with Bad Boys and Independence Day. The former was a success, but it's the latter which catapulted Smith to a whole other planet of superstardom, with Independence Day the second highest-grossing movie ever at the time.
That run continued with Men In Black, before Wild Wild West became his first real bomb, although it didn't make too much of a dent in his career. Smith was one of the last great movie stars, but just how would things have panned out for himself and Hollywood if, as originally planned, he hadn't done Men In Black?
Will Smith Almost Didn't Do Men In Black
Will Smith himself has revealed that he originally turned down playing Agent J in Men In Black, which seems like a surprise given that it's not only one of his most iconic roles, but that the film itself was such a hit. So why did Smith initially say no? It was all because of Independence Day, which was released the year before Men In Black hit cinemas. After doing that film, Smith didn't want to become known as "the alien guy", and so refused the part in Men In Black until Steven Spielberg came calling.
Spielberg was a producer on Men In Black through his company, Amblin Entertainment, and it was the Jurassic Park director who convinced Smith to take the role. As per Smith himself, Spielberg told him "don't use your brain on this one, use mine." Because of his trust in Spielberg's ability and track record, Smith agreed to take on the role in Men In Black. Funnily enough, it was Spielberg who convinced Tommy Lee Jones to take on the part of Agent K as well.
Men In Black Would Not Have Been As Big A Success Without Smith
Men In Black ended up being a big hit: critics loved it, it received three Academy Award nominations (for Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, and Best Original Score), and most of all it was successful at the box-office, grossing $589.4 million against a budget of $90m, making it the third highest-grossing movie of 1997 (behind only Titanic and The Lost World: Jurassic Park). A big reason for its success, however, was Smith himself.
Men In Black's biggest strength is the relationship and chemistry between Agents J & K, or more to the point, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. With Jones playing the straight-man to Smith's goofier, more offbeat character, there's a perfect pairing that elevates the source material. So much of that comes from Smith himself, using his natural charisma and larger-than-life personality.
Smith wasn't the only actor being eyed for the role, however. Friends star David Schwimmer was offered it, but he turned it down because of scheduling conflicts, while Batman Forever's Chris O'Donnell was another of the studio's choices, but director Barry Sonnenfeld deliberately put him off the role in order to get Smith. It's hard to imagine Men In Black working with either of those, or actors of a similar nature, and not Smith, meaning the film likely would've performed much worse at the box-office, and wouldn't have spawned a franchise. Smith made this look good.
Will Smith Wouldn't Have Done Wild Wild West
Wild Wild West lives on in infamy across Will Smith's filmography, because it's one of the biggest duds - both critically and commercially - of his entire career, and yet he likely would never have done it if not for Men In Black. The film was directed by Sonnenfeld coming off the back of MIB, which directly led to him and Smith working together again (they'd later go on to collaborate with Men In Black 2 & 3). If Smith had stuck to his guns and turned down Men In Black, then he wouldn't have built that relationship with the director, meaning no Wild Wild West. So how much does that impact Smith's career?
Despite Wild Wild West being a flop, Smith was able to bounce back from it. His next film, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was another dud, but then came a run that included Ali, Men In Black 2, and Bad Boys 2. Neither of those two blockbusters were a success in the vein of Independence Day or the first Men In Black, but they weren't failures either. Still, this showed a changing of the industry, with Smith - alongside Tom Cruise - the last real movie star whose name alone could pull audiences in. If he hadn't done Wild Wild West, and thus not been affected by it bombing, then it's possible he might've kept that status up a little while longer, but it's a shift that was going to happen regardless. And, of course, a big part of that reputation was doing Men In Black in the first place.
Where it might've hit Smith harder is his music career. "Willennium" was a big success, and a major reason for that is the theme song from Wild Wild West, which Smith wouldn't have performed if he weren't in the movie, so Smith's music career might've been over even sooner.
Would Will Smith Have Done The Matrix?
If he hadn't done Wild Wild West, then what would Will Smith's next move have been? Quite possibly The Matrix. Although it's a little crazy to imagine what The Matrix would be like with Smith as Neo rather than Keanu Reeves, it could've happened since Smith was actually the Wachowskis' first choice for the role. They pitched him the part but Smith, not fully understanding the concept, decided to turn it down. Keanu became Neo instead, and the rest is film history.
It's not just a simple matter of concept though. This was around the same time as Smith was having doubts about taking on Men In Black, meaning he was uncertain about his career trajectory and the moves he was making. If he'd firmly turned down Men In Black, then it increases his chances of saying yes to another big genre picture in The Matrix, which brings with it a domino effect. With Smith as Neo, you'd then have Val Kilmer as Morpheus instead of Laurence Fishburne, and a rather different kind of film.
Smith inevitably brings his own energy to the roles he inhabits. Indeed, it's why most studios and directors hire him, but it likely wouldn't have meshed with the hyper-stylized world of The Matrix. By his own admission, Smith wouldn't have done the role justice like Reeves did, and that would mean a weaker film as a whole, and one that wasn't quite as revolutionary. In turn, that leads to fewer films trying to replicate what The Matrix did: its legacy has been felt on everything from X-Men to Inception, while it was among the series - alongside the Star Wars Prequels and Lord of the Rings, that led to a greater emphasis in Hollywood on trilogies. Would all that have gone the same way with Smith as Neo? Probably not.
Will Smith's Career Would Have Followed A Similar Trajectory
Regardless of the broader implications on Hollywood that Smith turning down Men In Black would've had, his own career would've largely followed a similar trajectory. If he hadn't done Men In Black, and thus not done Wild Wild West, but instead opted into The Matrix, then his star status might've lasted a little while longer. He'd have done The Matrix sequels rather than Men In Black 2, both of which were more successful, but following that he'd probably still be taking on similar roles: Bad Boys 2; I, Robot; Hitch; The Pursuit of Happyness are all moves Smith likely makes no matter what, or at least something similar to them, and their respective performances wouldn't change too much either way. There'd be micro differences in terms of roles, but the bigger picture would remain intact.
Smith's career is one of a bonafide movie star who wants to be respected as a serious actor. He followed up his big 90s run of blockbusters by doing Ali, which landed him his first Oscar nomination. I Am Legend and Hancock led into Seven Pounds; Men In Black 3, After Earth, and Focus led to Concussion; he followed up Suicide Squad with Collateral Beauty. These are the movies he wants to make because he wants that credibility as an actor.
Smith's movie star might've shone a little brighter for a little longer if he'd done The Matrix, or, subsequently, it could've faded faster without Men In Black, but he alone couldn't change the direction Hollywood was heading in, and the pulling power of movie stars would've declined either way eventually. His filmography wouldn't be too greatly changed, because he'd still be mixing blockbusters with serious dramas, albeit The Matrix looks a lot better on there than Wild Wild West. There would be some big ripple effects, coming out of The Matrix especially, and the careers of some others might've been changed as well with or without Smith's light shining on them, but a lot of it would be the same too. The biggest differences would be not having Men In Black starring Will Smith, or The Matrix with Keanu Reeves, and in that regard, Hollywood would've been a lot worse off.
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