Will Smith, a box-office enigma in the era of ensemble blockbusters

Is Will Smith still the same megastar he once was? In today's Hollywood, is anyone?

Will Smith is clearly not someone who is accustomed to failure. He had a hit hip-hop song on the radio when he was still in high school and has been wildly successful ever since.

From the outset of his career, Smith's trademark as a star has been his ability to project the confidence that there's nothing — whether it's an alien invasion, a robot uprising, a legion of post-apocalyptic mutants or simply parents who just don't understand — that he can't conquer through the sheer power of his charisma and casual machismo. He has ridden that air of unwavering self-assurance to more than $6 billion in worldwide grosses, making him one of the most reliably bankable stars in an industry that boasts a decreasing number of them with every passing year.

But in the wake of his 2013 flop, "After Earth" — a big-budget sci-fi adventure film in which he costarred with his son, Jaden — new chinks suddenly appeared in Smith's armor. The film, reviled by critics and dismissed as a vanity project with what many saw as tinges of Scientology, opened in third place and went on to gross just $60 million — a devastating result for an actor who had come to be regarded as a veritable one-man summer-blockbuster machine.

Wounded by the debacle, Smith spent more than a year away from the big screen, finally returning last weekend with the darkly comedic con-artist caper film, "Focus." Inevitably, the film's opening was closely examined for indications of whether "After Earth" represented just a momentary setback, like Smith's 1999 bomb, "Wild Wild West," or a harbinger of his waning star power.

The results were ambiguous. "Focus" opened at No. 1 with $18.7 million, a solid start for a $50-million R-rated production outside of Smith's typical wheelhouse. But the tepidly reviewed film was hardly an unalloyed victory, marking the lowest opening weekend for the actor since 2008's "Seven Pounds." Even as Smith sat atop the box office, think pieces still hit the Web with headlines like "Is Will Smith Over?" and "Five Ways to Fix Will Smith's Box Office Slump."

"Because it's Will Smith, the intensity of scrutiny is like no other because he has set the bar so high," said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for the research firm Rentrak. "Everything that's perceived as a misstep is suddenly like the sky is falling. I think it's unfair, but it's the nature of the beast."

An important determinant of Smith's ongoing box-office viability may be the industry's broader shift away from star-driven vehicles and toward marketing-driven franchise films with preestablished audience appeal, movies in which the brand, more than any single actor, is the real draw.

"When you look at movies like 'The Avengers' or 'Guardians of the Galaxy' or 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,' it's about the ensemble and the sort of grandiose nature of the film," said Bruce Nash, who runs the box-office statistics analysis site the Numbers. "That's where we're at with tent-pole movies now. You can't just have Will Smith as a fighter pilot fighting aliens anymore."

For Smith, the opportunity to play a duplicitous con artist in "Focus" represented a stab in a new direction after a period of introspection spent reappraising the kinds of films he wants to make.

"Specifically at this time in my life, as I'm pushing more and struggling more for authenticity and openness and alignment, it was exciting to have a character who doesn't care about any of that," the actor told The Times recently. "I enjoyed going in the opposite direction, from where I was in my life. Going the wrong way, studying the wrong way, helps clarify the right direction."

Even as he's searched for that right direction, in the three years since his last genuine smash, 2012's "Men in Black 3," Smith — a star who always appeared to exert the utmost control over his own image — seemed to lose his grip on his narrative. Once the sniping over "After Earth" died down, the public's attention shifted to Smith's children, Jaden, 16, and Willow, 14, whose film and music careers have been diligently, some might say aggressively, managed and promoted by the actor and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith — and much of that attention was unfavorable.

It's unclear, though, how much damage any of this focus on Smith's off-screen life may have done to his on-screen career, particularly when one zooms out to the wider international box office, where he remains a major draw. As dismally as "After Earth" performed domestically, it still managed to earn more than $240 million worldwide.

Then there is simply the inexorable factor of time. Smith is 46, and although — like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, who are both in their 50s — he's still more than capable of credibly starring in action vehicles, a shift toward more character-driven projects may be not just advisable but inevitable. Smith, who has done occasional smaller projects in between the giant blockbusters, will next star in "Concussion," a sports drama focusing on the issue of head injuries in the NFL that opens on Christmas Day.

"You can't be the big action hero forever," Nash said. "Perhaps ['Focus'] is fitting into a sort of long-term plan where Smith is looking to be a little bit more of a character actor versus the machine-gun-toting action star."

That said, summer 2016 will find Smith back in action/tent-pole mode again, though this time in an ensemble movie based on a comic book series called "Suicide Squad."

Perhaps, then, the proper question isn't, Is Will Smith still the same megastar he once was? In today's Hollywood, the more pertinent question may be: Is anyone?

Times staff writer Mark Olsen contributed to this report.

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