Will Smith: Likable guy, right? Well, perhaps not quite as likable as he was in those halcyon Fresh Prince days, but still a pretty solid foundation of Hollywood Leading Man, even after exposing the world to his progeny: Hair-whipping enthusiast Willow Smith and notable Razzie Award winner Jaden Smith. Truly, the fruits of his obvious talents have not fallen far from the tree during the course of a career that has come a long way since he was a hip-hop MC in the late ’80s.
Take a look at his filmography, though, and you’ll slowly come to realize that there’s a final frontier the actor has never explored: being a genuine antagonist. Call it typecasting perhaps, an entire career built out of the “doofus, streetwise good guy” vibe of Fresh Prince, but the firm alignment of Will Smith characters on the side of Truth, Justice and the American Way has seemingly been set in stone for more than 27 years at this point. In that time, he’s never played what could be construed as the primary antagonist or villain of a film. Not once. Not many actors can say that, over the course of a career that long. It’s hard to think of any other comparable actors outside of perhaps, say, Tom Hanks … but even Hanks played a prospective senior citizen-murdering criminal in The Ladykillers, and stabbed a homeless man to death in Mazes & Monsters.
It goes deeper with Smith, though, and it makes one question if he has some kind of specific criteria for the roles he’s picked or been given over the last three decades. Does he go out of his way to specifically only play guys with whom the audience is supposed to identify? Does he hate the idea of ever coming off as morally ambiguous? Or has he just been pigeonholed so pervasively by Hollywood into this mold that it’s become impossible to break? Let’s dig a bit deeper into specific movies from his filmography, at the closest points he’s ever come to playing antagonists.
This film from early in Smith’s career (he was only three seasons into Fresh Prince at the time) might be the only time you could make a case that he’s playing the primary antagonist, but that doesn’t really hold up the more you look at it. The movie is an adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning play by John Guare and stars Stockard Channing and the always irascible Donald Sutherland as WASPy socialites/intelligentsia who are taken in by a charming con man played by Smith, who they believe is a friend of their children who are away at Ivy League schools. Smith’s character Paul works his way into their lives primarily so he can live their extravagant lifestyle—and along the way they all become the best of friends, until the deception is revealed. Much of this is played for laughs, rather than drama.
If anything, the actual antagonists here are the characters played by Channing and Sutherland, whose bourgeois attitudes are the reason for their own deception. They look at Paul in a way that is uncomfortable—it sort of presages the way that the upper crust white family of Get Out is looking at young black men.
Smith, meanwhile, is arguably playing a “Magical Black Man” on some level here, the same as he would in a much more literal way in The Legend of Bagger Vance. He comes into the life of some upper class white folks, “teaches them things about themselves” and then vanishes into the night, only for them to find that they’re just one of many families who have had this same experience with Paul. Or to quote the synopsis, which makes this amusingly clear: “Paul’s schemes become highbrow-legend, anecdotal accounts which are bantered about at their cocktail parties. In the end, Paul has a profound effect on the many individuals who encounter him, linking them in their shared experience.”
So in the end, Paul is a visiting angel who brings some “real world” experience into the cloistered lives of these socialites, and an interesting story to tell at their soirees. Which is to say, he’s not the antagonist.
In the 14 year gap between Six Degrees of Separation and I Am Legend, Will Smith played a ceaseless parade of wisecracking good guys in an array of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. He’s the likable protagonist in films both good (Independence Day, Men in Black), bad (Bad Boys) and fun-bad (Wild Wild West). He also tackled heartwarming comedies and dramas such as Hitch and The Pursuit of Happyness, and of course played the most magical black man of all in The Legend of Bagger Vance. He even made his debut as a kids movie voiceover star in Shark Tale, which made the “top” 10 of my recent ranking of “terrible “dance party endings in animated features.
After all those good guy roles, I Am Legend is where Smith’s truly antagonistic role should have finally come to pass … but didn’t, because Warner Bros. completely wussed out at the last minute. It’s either that, or Smith didn’t want to play a character with even an ounce of moral ambiguity involved, and called an audible.
If you’re not familiar with I Am Legend, it’s the story of a man who hides by night in apocalyptic New York, while the city crawls with vampire-like monsters. By day, he explores the empty city to exterminate and conduct medical research on the creatures, trying to synthesize a “cure.” It’s based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name, having previously been adapted as The Last Man on Earth (with Vincent Price!) in 1964 and The Omega Man in 1971. The big reveal at the end of the book is an earth-shaking one: The “monsters” are not only sentient, but they have their own underground dwellings and have overcome their bestial nature to rebuild a society. Understandably upset that the “hero” spends his days hunting and murdering them, they capture him, put him on trial and EXECUTE THE GUY FOR HIS CRIMES at the conclusion, as he realizes that he’s the true villain of this story—the “monster” that comes and rips apart families.
But you know … Will Smith’s in the film adaptation! So forget all that shit! Now he’s a straightforward hero without a shred of moral ambiguity or complexity to him, and the film ends with him heroically sacrificing himself so a mother and child can escape the rampaging, mindless hordes of vampire monsters. Because HOLLYWOOD!
But the really funny thing is, Warner Bros. came this close to giving audiences an ending that would have been closer in tone to the book. The alternate ending, not used in theaters, makes far more sense in conjunction with the other scenes of the film where Smith’s character suspects a deeper intelligence among the vampires. In this version, they actually achieve a peaceful resolution to a stand-off, with Smith returning the female subject he’s been cruelly conducting medical experiments upon, before considering the implications of his own hubris and realizing that he’s the antagonist. But I can only assume some studio exec looked at this ending and said “How will we sell action figures if this guy turns out to be a serial killer of vampires? And also, couldn’t there be a big explosion? Let’s do that.”
Seven Pounds was a bizarre film, wasn’t it? A weepy, big-budget drama that somehow cost $54 million to make (most of that must have been Smith’s salary), it’s a feature-length deification of his character’s suffering and atonement.
After causing a multi-car accident due to carelessness, which takes the lives of seven people, Smith’s character embarks on a quest to martyr himself as dramatically as possible, searching the city to find worthy “good people” who are in desperate need of various organ transplants. Finding them one at a time, he begins giving up pieces of himself: A kidney here, a chunk of liver or lungs there. He even finds a new woman to fall in love with to replace his lost wife (who also died in the car crash) for the sake of symmetry, because if there’s one thing that Will Smith characters respect, it’s storytelling convention. It all ends with that most sensible mode of committing suicide: Via pet jellyfish.
In any other context, “guy who kills seven innocent people” is almost always going to be the film’s antagonist, right? Except no, here it’s twisted into the self-righteous hero, who pointlessly goes beyond “saving other people” and into personal flagellation by doing things like turning down anesthetic during medical procedures for maximum goth-itude. “My soul, it is dark,” I assume he says at some point in the script’s first draft. “Like, darker than black. Smell The Glove levels of darkness.”
Which is all to say, even in a Will Smith movie where you can say “his character caused the deaths of seven innocent people,” he’s still the protagonist, and the audience is still supposed to be rooting for him.
In more recent years, Smith has continued turning his various characters into “good guys” regardless of whether that really makes sense. In Focus he was a valorous conman grifter; in Concussion a demonized doctor working to expose the threat of head injuries in pro football. Most notably in Suicide Squad, he was literally playing a Batman villain—but surprise!—he’s actually a really sweet guy, despite being a professional murderer. Yes, “turning villains into antiheroes” is essentially the motif of Suicide Squad as a whole, but it should be noted that of all the villain members of the squad, Smith’s Deadshot is treated as the most down-to-Earth and good-natured of them all. Sure, he kills for money, but look, he’s a loving father! Let the guy go free, why don’t ya? GIVE US BARABBAS! BARABBAS!
In the end, I can only find one instance in his entire 27 year film career when Will Smith made a brief cameo as a character who is inarguably an antagonist. In 2014’s Winter’s Tale he briefly appears as—get this—Lucifer himself, and in a three-minute scene he yells at the demon played by Russell Crowe.
So there you go. Don’t go accusing Mr. Smith of lacking range. He played against type for an entire three minutes one time.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer with too much time on his hands to look at Wikipedia filmographies of various actors. You can follow him on Twitter.