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Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
The greatest Will Smith movies, the ones that made him briefly the biggest movie star on the planet, are the ones in the world of sci-fi and genre. Smith never got caught up in all the outer-space-and-aliens business; he always made sure his characters were grounded and relatable, the better for us to have a rooting interest. Will Smith feels like our normal good friend... even when he's punching extra-terrestrials in the face.
Here are his five best genre movies.
05. Hancock (2008)
Peter Berg’s grownup superhero saga — the tale of the drunken, ill-tempered John Hancock, who finally learns to give a damn — is ambitious but also a mess, never entirely capitalizing on its clever idea.
And yet it's very fun to watch Will Smith play an all-powerful jerk who thinks humans are basically a waste of time. If you wanted to, you could read Hancock as his twisted commentary on being a superstar, but the actor's generally genial spirit pokes through anyway. Smith was about to turn 40 when Hancock hit theaters, and it feels like a transitional film — the young cocky kid trying to figure out where he fits in the Hollywood landscape as a full-on adult.
Not everything in Hancock works, but it demonstrates that this A-lister wasn't afraid to take chances.
04. Enemy of the State (1998)
Movie nerds can watch Gene Hackman's security and surveillance expert and wonder if he's a decades-older version of his famous paranoid in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1973). The rest of us can just enjoy this smoothly made, professional entertainment, in which Smith shoulders the studio tentpole thriller like it's the easiest thing in the world. He didn't need special effects to be a star; he could carry anything.
03. I Am Legend (2007)
During Smith's Fresh Prince days, he probably wouldn't have had the dramatic heft to pull off something like I Am Legend. It's not simply that the movie is more somber than his previous popcorn flicks — it's that, as scientist Robert Neville, he spends most of this horror-thriller alone, providing the sort of one-man-show performance we more often associate with Cast Away or Robert Redford's All Is Lost.
But whether acting alongside a dog or trying to survive a global plague on his own, Smith brings a gravitas to every scene, making us feel the isolation and grief within the character. This is a challenging performance that requires subtle tonal shifts, and Smith is superb throughout. The Oscar nominee from Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness brought that same level of commitment to the multiplex.
02. Independence Day (1996)
It is difficult to overstate, speaking of the aforementioned alien-punching, what a big deal it was when Will Smith, after a wild aerial battle, greets a hostile invader with a "Welcome to Earth!" and a sock to the face.
So much of Independence Day to that point felt apocalyptic and overpowering: How in the world were we going to combat these monsters who just destroyed all our landmarks? Smith had the answer: Good ol' American panache and elbow grease. And a firm right hook.
01. Men in Black (1997)
Early in his stardom, Will Smith liked working with a partner — think of him and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys, which just missed this list. For Men in Black, he was perfectly paired with Tommy Lee Jones: Where the craggy Agent K was a seasoned but grumpy pro, his Agent J was a smart-ass young punk who (like the audience) can't believe the world he's stumbled into.
The two actors' odd-couple rapport was a delight from the first moment, and even when the sequels weren't as strong, their relationship held the franchise together. Even more so than Independence Day, here's where Smith established himself as a bulletproof summer movie star. Even more impressive, he made it look like a gas — there have been bigger Hollywood talents, but has anybody made the event movie feel so fun?