Saturday, May 26, 2012

Will Smith yields the Fourth

Men in Black 3 is poised to do pretty well. A bankable star (Will Smith). A reliable veteran (Tommy Lee Jones). A new addition who has hip indie cred (Josh Brolin). A franchise that retains its sense of good will despite a second installment that almost no one liked.

And a plum release date just before Memorial Day, the ceremonial start to summer.

However, it's this last part that probably chaps Will Smith's hide.

During his career Smith has been identified with the Fourth of July, an association he has worked hard to cultivate. In fact, he went so far as to anoint himself Mr. Fourth of July back in the late 1990s.

Can being shifted to Memorial Day seem like anything but a demotion to him?

Not because Memorial Day is intrinsically a worse time of the year for a movie to come out. In fact, I'd argue it's better. There have already been a couple major releases, so you're not the first big movie of the season. In fact, you're catching audiences right when their appetites are truly whetted for summer movies in all their shapes and forms. You could argue that by July, the summer movie season is already winding down.

No, it's because Smith calls himself Mr. Fourth of July. He doesn't call himself Mr. Memorial Day. And this earlier release means he can't haul out his old Independence Day branding, which started with Independence Day.

On July 3, 1996, Independence Day hit theaters and was a huge hit. A year later, on July 2, 1997, Men in Black followed and did almost as well at the box office, with greater appreciation from critics to boot.

Thus -- at least in Smith's mind -- a legend was born.

Even though Wild Wild West (released June 30, 1999) was a colossal failure, that didn't stop July 4th from belonging to Smith. His next summer blockbuster, Men in Black II, hit theaters on July 3, 2002.

It was only at this point that Smith's blockbusters stopped being synonymous with summer's midpoint three-day weekend. Bad Boys II was released July 18, 2003, and I, Robot was release July 16, 2004. That seems a bit punitive, as late July is really starting to be the back end of the summer movie season. (Just don't tell that to Christopher Nolan.) But Smith returned to his favored release date in 2008 with Hancock, which came out on July 2nd.

But then a funny thing happened to Will Smith: He disappeared.

He's such a big star that you may not have even noticed it, but did you realize that Smith hasn't made a movie since Seven Pounds in December of 2008? It really opened my eyes yesterday on NPR when I heard a reporter mention that Smith hadn't starred in a movie "since George Bush was still in office."

It's not like the Smith family brand went into complete hibernation, though. Will's son Jaden starred in The Karate Kid a couple summers ago. But daddy was nowhere to be seen.

Well, Smith ends his self-imposed exile today, when the apparently troubled third installment in the Men in Black series (they started shooting before the script was finished) invades the multiplexes. And we'll be seeing more of him in the next four years than we have in the last four, as IMDB lists five movies currently in his pipeline, though only a couple of them have progressed past the "rumored" phase. The one that's currently filming is After Earth, with Winter's Tale in pre-production. Then a bevy of seemingly ill-advised sequels: I, Robot 2, Hancock 2 and Bad Boys 3.

I for one am happy to see him back. Even though I made some snide remarks earlier that indicated I think Smith has a big ego, I actually think he has the right kind of big ego. (As it turns out, I Am Legend was not actually a biopic.) When he's boastful or proud, he's joyfully so, and it never comes off wrong.

Besides, he's a big, charismatic star who has made slightly more good choices than bad ones. That's a gamble I'm willing to take.

(Also, I really want to watch 90 minutes of Josh Brolin impersonating Tommy Lee Jones.)

And so what if it's "only" coming out on Memorial Day weekend (and not even the Wednesday before). At 43, Smith is still young enough to re-brand himself.

So what is coming out on Fourth of July weekend this year? That honor goes to The Amazing Spider-Man, starring the new Mr. Fourth of July ... Andrew Garfield.

Yeah, I'm betting I'll find Men in Black 3 more amazing.

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