It has been over three years since we last saw Will Smith on the silver screen in 2008’s Seven Pounds. Regardless of the profession, three years is a long break. But in the movie industry, it can be an eternity. So it was only natural for many to wonder whether Smith’s previous box-office dominance would waver at all when Men in Black 3 hit theaters last weekend. Could the movie star pick up where he left off in 2008 and continue selling a gazillion tickets as though his sabbatical simply never occurred? Well, sort of.
Men in Black 3 opened to $54.6 million last weekend (or $69.3 million if you include Memorial Day). While that’s slightly better than the debuts of 1997’s Men in Black ($51.1 million) and 2002’s Men in Black II ($52.1 million), Men in Black 3 actually sold far fewer tickets. If you adjust for ticket-price inflation, then Men in Black and Men in Black II opened to $88.2 million and $71.2 million, respectively. Furthermore, the first two MIB movies debuted on Wednesdays and would have scored even larger figures had they been held until Friday, like Men in Black 3 was. And Men in Black 3 was the series’ only entry to benefit from 3-D surcharges.
So Men in Black 3‘s performance was actually something of a disappointment, especially when considering its gargantuan $230 million budget. But to what extent, if any, is Will Smith to blame here? After all, we’re talking about a threequel that was released a decade after the last installment — and Men in Black II was a very poorly received installment to boot. Even if Smith had continued acting these past three years, it would probably be unreasonable to expect Men in Black 3 to perform significantly better than it did. Also, according to the market-research firm CinemaScore, 50 percent of moviegoers listed Smith as their reason for buying a ticket to Men in Black 3. So the actor was still the main drawing factor for the film.
Take a look at Smith’s five last features: Seven Pounds, Hancock, I Am Legend, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Hitch. Yes, Men in Black 3 failed to compete with the likes of Hancock ($62.6 million debut) and I Am Legend ($77.2 million). But if you averaged the openings of all five films, it’d come out to $45 million — or $52 million when adjusted for ticket-price inflation. In that light, Men in Black 3‘s $54.6 million debut isn’t so disheartening. Disappointing for such a pricey sci-fi action franchise? Sure. But a stain on Smith’s box-office report card? Not really.
The real test for Smith will be his next film, the M. Night Shyamalan sci-fi thriller After Earth, which will costar the actor’s son, Jaden Smith. It’s an original project, so franchise fatigue won’t be a viable excuse this time. And it won’t be released for another year (June 7, 2013). But while we wait, it’s nice to see a movie star of Will Smith’s caliber back on the big screen — even if his star is shining a tiny bit less brightly than it used to.