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Wild Wild West turns 20: Looking back at one of the biggest flops of the '90s

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Jun 28, 2019

If you’re familiar with the work of Kevin Smith, then you’ve most certainly heard the story of his encounter with Jon Peters. When Smith was offered the chance to pen the script for a Superman movie in the ‘90s, he met with the infamous Oscar-winning producer to make his case. Peters, the former boyfriend and hairdresser of Barbra Streisand who went on to produce Tim Burton’s Batman, was a wildly divisive figure and the very epitome of the mad Hollywood producer stereotype, as evidenced in his meetings with Smith. As detailed in one of his funniest stories, Smith noted how Peters had three stipulations for his Superman project: Supes couldn’t fly, he couldn’t wear that outfit, and he had to fight a giant spider in the third act of the movie. Superman Lives never got made (instead, watch a really fun documentary about its failure to launch), but Peters never lost his dream of that giant spider.

Cut to 1999 and the movie Wild Wild West. What does Will Smith fight in that film’s climax? You guessed it. Why a giant spider? Who knows? Then again, the confusion around that particular plot point merely highlights the confusing mess that was the rest of the movie.

It’s been 20 years since Wild Wild West crashed and burned at the box office, signaling the first true flop of Will Smith’s era as the premiere leading man of the late 1990s. It was a movie that seemed to have everything in its favor: the most charming A-lister of his time, hot off the release of massive successes like Independence Day and Men in Black; the latter's director, Barry Sonnenfeld, a man known for his visual ingenuity; Oscar winner Kevin Kline, rising star Salma Hayek, and Shakespearean delight Kenneth Branagh in supporting roles; and a western-steampunk aesthetic blended with top-of-the-line special effects that were sure to delight audiences worldwide. Who didn’t want to see Will Smith as a cowboy spy or hear that end credits rap that I bet most of you can still recite by memory?

The '90s saw a minor boom with the revival of the Hollywood western thanks to titles like Unforgiven, but new projects developed in the aftermath of that movie's Oscar glory were seldom intended for blockbuster audiences. Wild Wild West, an adaptation of the 1960s TV series, most definitely was. The original plan was to make the film with Richard Donner, Shane Black, and Mel Gibson, but that thankfully did not happen. Over the years, the biggest leading men of the decade were approached or rumored to be attached to the starring role, from Tom Cruise to George Clooney to Johnny Depp. By 1997, when negotiations for the movie started once more, Will Smith was the hottest star on the planet thanks to the one-two punch of Bad Boys and Independence Day, with Men in Black awaiting a release.

It’s not hard to see why Will Smith would want this part, although it did come after he had turned down the lead in The Matrix, which opens up a whole world of “what if” that would have changed the path of Hollywood blockbusters forever. Jim West is Cool. He’s a western James Bond, smarter and tougher and sexier than anyone else on the frontier. Will Smith has always been cool, too, but in a far goofier way. The Fresh Prince was never suave, but therein lay his charm. Sure, he could punch out an alien followed by a witty one-liner, but the real Will Smith is best when flailing and looking absolutely baffled by everything around him, which may be why his best role is Men in Black. Transferring that energy to Wild Wild West made a lot of sense. This isn’t material that should be played straight, after all. What more suitable role for Smith than a suave spy who’s also a clueless goofball?

Jim West isn’t black in the original series, so changing his race for Smith was a big deal and a pretty forward-thinking step for a Hollywood production on this scale (imagine the internet hysteria if this had happened today). The filmmakers change the story to fit Smith’s casting in this historical period. West is a U.S. Army captain whose parents were two of the many victims of a massacre on a freed slave settlement at the hands of a former Confederate general. He experiences racism throughout the film and is positioned as the true hero in the face of the Confederacy and their giant effing spider. Not every creative decision to make this casting work fits the narrative, but it’s a refreshing alternative to supposedly color-blind casting.

The problem with the movie is basically everything else. Despite the best efforts of Smith and Kline, very few of the jokes land, and one running gag about cross-dressing lands with a particularly dull thud. Kenneth Branagh hams it up to nearly unfathomable levels as the villain, but it's not fun to watch, especially when he's spewing racist slurs at Smith. It's clear how much the film wants to be a Bond movie, from the debonair spy banter to the intricate gadgets, but it's too reliant on those gimmicks to care about its muddled story. Poor Salma Hayek is given nothing to do, and by the time Jon Peters’ beloved giant spider stomps into the third act, you’re long past caring how things end, which is a problem given that the bad guys are literal Confederates. Honestly, the end-credits rap by Smith and its accompanying music video are a more succinct and enjoyable telling of this story.

Wild Wild West grossed $222.1 million from a $170 million budget, making it the first undisputed flop of Smith's hot streak as a leading man. It swept the 1999 Razzies and won five awards out of eight nominations, with the TV series' original star Robert Conrad appearing to collect the awards and express how disappointed he was with the film. Smith later apologized to Conrad for the movie, but would go on to land two Oscar nominations and some of the biggest commercial hits of his career. Steampunk never really took off in Hollywood, despite other high-profile efforts, possibly because the industry has a hard time taking such an earnest aesthetic seriously. Even in an age of superhero dominance, there’s something about cogs and top hats that’s just too much for them.

As for Jon Peters and his giant spider obsession? He hasn't made a movie in many years and his most recent producer credits are essentially in name only, but when the possibility of making Neil Gaiman's The Sandman came up in the early 2000s, he tried once more to get his big mechanical arachnid on the big screen. Shockingly, that movie never happened.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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