The History of Will Smith as Mr. 4th of July

Apple Original Films' "Emancipation"  Los Angeles Premiere - Arrivals
Apple Original Films' "Emancipation" Los Angeles Premiere - Arrivals / Matt Winkelmeyer/GettyImages

With Bad Boys: Ride or Die's lucrative opening weekend, Will Smith is back as a box office powerhouse. The prophecy has come true. People still like to watch Will Smith say funny lines and blow things up on the big screen during the year's hottest months. Experienced moviegoers, though, will remember that Will Smith wasn’t just once an occasional summertime hitmaker. In the 2000s, Smith developed a reputation for utterly dominate a specific weekend in July.’ Thanks to a slew of hit motion pictures that opened over 4th of July weekend, Will Smith garnered a reputation as “Mr. 4th of July”.

That moniker undoubtedly came from the movie that arguably kicked off Smith's career as a leading man in movies. After launching as a star with the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the hit movie Bad Boys, Smith really hit it off as a cinematic leading man with Independence Day. That ensemble piece became a box office phenomenon for all involved. However, it especially ensured that Smith would no longer be confined to the small screen. A movie star was born. Independence Day, naturally, launched over 4th of July weekend. That same frame would be the home of the next Will Smith blockbuster in 1997.

One year after Independence Day smashed box office records, Men in Black dominated 4th of July 1999. Two back-to-back 4th of July hits not only cemented Smith as a movie star. They also suggested a popular holiday weekend now belonged to the weekend. The Warner Bros. Will Smith blockbuster Wild Wild West quickly set a 4th of July 1999 release date. Mr. 4th of July was officially born. Even after Wild Wild West flopped in 1999, there was no stopping the momentum of this reputation. Men in Black II making money head over heels during the 2002 4th of July weekend only reinforced that perception.

That sequel and the Christmas release date of the 2001 feature Ali solidified the idea that Smith was such a big movie star that his new movies had to be tied to lucrative holidays. Smith wasn’t just known for anchoring 4th of July summer blockbusters. He also anchored 2000s Christmastime tentpoles like Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness, and I Am Legend. You couldn't just launch a new Will Smith movie anywhere. This actor was such a massive deal that his star vehicles had to launch over equally buzzy holiday frames.

Even Will Smith movies that didn't open over the 4th of July tried to evoke that Mr. 4th of July perception. Bad Boys II in 2003, for example, opened on July 18, 2003, just two weeks after 4th of July 2003. The following year, Smith's 2004 blockbuster I, Robot was supposed to open over that year’s 4th of July weekend. However, Spider-Man 2 shifting from an early May 2004 launch pad to June 30, 2004, scuttled those plans. In announcing this superhero movie’s release date shift, Entertainment Weekly referenced Smith’s Mr. 4th of July persona by quipping "Will Smith may think he owns the July 4th weekend" in the article's first sentence. This release date association had truly spread into the mainstream!

In 2008, Hancock opened over the 4th of July weekend. It scored a massive opening box office haul that amassed a little over $107 million over its first five days of release. 12 years after Independence Day, it looked like nothing could stop Mr. 4th of July. After all, if Wild Wild West couldn’t pump the brakes on Smith’s career, what could? Unfortunately, the age of Mr. 4th of July did abruptly cease. Hancock was, in hindsight, the end of an era. Smith has not headlined a 4th of July hit since then. In the years since Hancock, Transformers sequels, Despicable Me offshoots, and a series of box office bombs (Terminator: Genisys, The Legend of Tarzan, The Lone Ranger, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny) have instead taken up roost over this holiday frame.

After Seven Pounds in December 2008, Smith took time off from acting which lasted nearly four years. When he came back in 2012 with MIB3, Smith returned to a new Hollywood. In between Hancock and MIB3, four Marvel Cinematic Universe installments (including The Avengers) launched. Serialized storytelling was the new buzzword around Hollywood. Studios were leaning way more on franchises than movie stars to carry the day. MIB3 made a fantastic $654.2 million worldwide (a significant improvement on Men in Black II and even Hancock). However, 2013’s After Earth demonstrated that Smith was no longer instantly reliable at launching big hits.

In the wake of this new reality, a new Smith movie couldn't just open over 4th of July weekend and expect to make a fortune. Future Smith titles like Focus opened in late February and other unusual release dates. In execution, this wasn’t an entirely bad thing. A movie like Bad Boys For Life redefined the blockbuster ceiling for January action movies with its massive $200+ million haul. The dreadful Suicide Squad, meanwhile, would’ve almost certainly had even worse legs if it had opened anywhere except the competition-free zone of August 2016. Smith could still bring out a crowd in a modern movie. He just had to anchor something audience-friendly like Aladdin. Dour Smith titles like After Earth and Gemini Man wouldn’t cut the mustard no matter what time of the year they dropped in.

Those nuanced thoughts, though, were far from people’s minds back in the 2000s. In this era, it looked like making a hit was simple. Put Will Smith on the poster of an action movie. Promise people it would open over 4th of July weekend. Then wait for the money to roll in. This Mr. 4th of July phenomenon was the last bastion of star-driven Hollywood. The last gasp for a certain kind of tentpole filmmaking, where stars drove the project rather than brand names or grand franchise plans. Bad Boys: Ride or Die exceeding expectations proves Will Smith is still a box office draw in the right movie. That’s not going anywhere. The age of any actor becoming the next Mr. 4th of July though…that ship has sailed.

Colorful Visual Flourishes Can’t Salvage Bad Boys: Ride or Die. Colorful Visual Flourishes Can’t Salvage Bad Boys: Ride or Die. dark. Next