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Giant Spiders, Giant Flops: The Enduring Awfulness of ‘Wild Wild West’

Will Smith’s late-’90s nadir is still terrible, but you can find its DNA in many of the low-investment hits of the streaming age

Warner Bros./Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The deepest and darkest insight into Wild Wild West, the notorious 1999 ur-summer-movie catastrophe starring Will Smith as a ribald post–Civil War steampunk cowboy, comes to us from, of all people, Kevin Smith. (No relation.)

Kevin, of course, is the way-more-ribald writer and director of such crass ’90s indie sensations as Clerks and Mallrats and Dogma; by the early 2000s, he was regaling college audiences with his tales of Hollywood success and cheerfully buffoonish failure in freewheeling campus talks compiled on the 2002 DVD An Evening With Kevin Smith. That’s a two-disc set spanning three-plus hours of Kevin Smith fielding goofy questions from rando college kids. I realize that sounds much, much worse than Wild Wild West. But for 20 mesmerizing minutes, in response to a single audience inquiry about a Superman movie that never quite materialized, Kevin spectacularly excoriates Hollywood in all its perpetual buffoonish catastrophe, walking us through precisely how terrible movies get made, or don’t. It explains a whole hell of a lot about 1999, or, for that matter, 2019.

Short version: In the mid-’90s, as Kevin’s star rises, Warner Bros. calls him in and gives him his choice of three scripts to rewrite, one of which is called Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian. (Mercifully, that one never got made, either.) He seizes on the script for a new Superman movie, eventually known as Superman Lives, theoretically directed by Tim Burton and starring Nicolas Cage. Kevin, a legit comic book fanatic, is thrilled at the chance to rewrite it, but first he’s got to impress eccentric superproducer Jon Peters, who has, as Kevin recalls, three mandates for this new Superman: “‘One, I don’t wanna see him in that suit. Two, I don’t wanna see him fly. And three, he’s gotta fight a giant spider in the third act.’”

Big laugh break. High jinks ensue. Peters, a former Barbra Streisand hairdresser who in 2018 produced Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born and was revealed to have been sued for sexual harassment at least five times, evidently has a huge thing for giant spiders, and further encourages Kevin to add “a gay R2-D2” character and a scene where Brainiac fights polar bears outside the Fortress of Solitude. Eventually, Burton signs on and kicks Kevin off the project; Superman Lives flames out from there. And Kevin, now onstage at Clark University, gets not so much the last laugh as the only one.

“But I was really reminded the next summer, when I went to the movies and saw a movie that Jon Peters had produced, and it was called the Wild Wild West,” he says. Big laugh break. Plenty of unfortunate souls in the audience know what’s coming. “So I’m sitting in the theater watching the movie,” Kevin continues, “and I’m like, ‘Good lord, this is a piece of shit.’ But then, all of a sudden, like, a giant fuckin’ spider shows up.”

Wild Wild West, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring Will Smith opposite Kevin Kline, opened on June 30, 1999, the same day as South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. It sucks. I will not attempt to convince you otherwise. It technically made $50 million or so worldwide but is remembered as an ignominious bomb, with all the Golden Raspberry awards and appalled reviews that status implies. (Roger Ebert, on the chemistry between Smith and Kline: “Imagine Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr as partners in a celebrity golf tournament.”) It prevails today in the public imagination as one of the worst big-tentpole summer movies of the past 20 years, and certainly the very worst to feature, indeed, a giant fuckin’ spider, here piloted by an evil Kenneth Branagh with a most unfortunate facial-hair situation.

You will recall that 1999 now is revered as one of the best movie years, ever; from May to August, we got The Mummy, Notting Hill, Tarzan, American Pie, The Blair Witch Project, Eyes Wide Shut, Runaway Bride, The Sixth Sense, The Iron Giant, and The Thomas Crown Affair. Less enjoyably (in one person’s opinion!), we also got Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Big Daddy, Inspector Gadget, Universal Soldier: The Return, and Dudley Do-Right. An expert cherry-picker can convincingly argue that any year, or any summer-movie season, was the definitive greatest, or the definitive worst. But 1999 makes a more vivid case for itself in either direction, and Wild Wild West endures as the nadir to end all nadirs.

During a 2016 Cannes Lions talk, Will Smith himself, in fact, cited Wild Wild West as a career low point, risible in his view less for its quality than for its dishonest marketing: “Back in the ’80s and ’90s, you had a piece-of-crap movie, you put a trailer with a lot of explosions, and it was Wednesday before people knew your movie was shit.” A year later, in December 2017, he starred in the fantastical Netflix action flick Bright, which also sucked, and compelled a great many critics to say so, and yet was a massive hit, according to, uh, Netflix, which is quick to declare every new Adam Sandler project a world-historical success based on internal metrics the streaming giant has no intention of ever sharing in full with the outside world. Dishonest? Quite possibly! But that’s marketing for you.

Rewatching Wild Wild West now is not a pleasant experience, but at least you don’t have to leave your house to do so, and that fact alone offers a fascinating new prism through which to view it or any other vintage box office flop. Call this woebegone disaster whatever you like. You might, for example, call it the Netflix-est movie of 1999.

Summer 2019 is shaping up to be an ongoing woebegone disaster all its own, one we might still be talking about in 20 years, if anybody’s still around to talk about anything other than where to find fresh water. In the past month alone, a grim procession of ostensibly major movies has failed ostentatiously, from Dark Phoenix to Booksmart to Men in Black: International (itself a retread of a far more successful Will Smith–Barry Sonnenfeld enterprise begun in the late ’90s) to yet another movie called Shaft. Even last week’s Toy Story 4, delightful as it may be, fell short of expectations, though that strikes me more as an indictment of the expectations themselves.

Now everything sucks, even the good stuff, basically. What most of these movies have in common, theoretically, is sequel and reboot and extended-universe fatigue, not to mention the glaring absence of a single movie star who can guarantee a megahit as surely as, say, Will Smith in the ’90s. Bad Boys in ’95. Independence Day in ’96. The first Men in Black movie in ’97. The lucrative and well-regarded conspiracy thriller Enemy of the State in ’98. Nobody was hotter than Smith as the 21st century loomed; nobody has been that hot since, including him, critically derided recent hits like 2016’s DCEU turkey Suicide Squad and May’s bizarre live-action Aladdin remake notwithstanding.

Even the Fresh Prince, then, is stuck humping old IP or clinging to the superhero-franchise gravy train now. Wild Wild West was based on a campy ’60s TV show, but its source material was relatively obscure enough to pass in 1999 as a semi-original idea, though not as original as, oh, say, The Matrix, itself a massive hit that year, and one that Smith quite famously turned down. Sonnenfeld, a Coen brothers cinematographer who got his big break directing a couple of early-’90s Addams Family movies, hit the jackpot with 1997’s Men in Black, with a pleasantly whimsical action-comedy style that perfectly complemented Smith’s inherent megawatt winsomeness. The director brings that same energy—zany, brash, ribald in a PG-13 sort of way—to Wild Wild West, and it is grimly fascinating indeed to watch as that charm abandons him, and Smith, and for that matter everybody else, including you.

I don’t actually want to talk about this movie. Smith plays U.S. Army Captain Jim West, a fearsome and virile gunslinger who is subject to all manner of post–Civil War racial indignities. The first of the many, many henchmen he punches out is punched out midway through calling West the n-word; West is later nearly hung in a queasy lynching scene triggered by his unwise decision to play bongos on a bosomy lady’s chest during a fancy house party. West thought that the bosomy lady was really his grudging partner, U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon (Kline), in disguise, you see; Kline spends much of this movie’s run time dressed up as a woman. (Smith is eventually compelled to go undercover as a belly dancer himself.) Salma Hayek drops by but has very little to do besides be referred to as “a breath of fresh ass” and “a breast of fresh air”; Bai Ling has even less to do, other than to be named Miss East and to say “East meets West” multiple times. I told you I didn’t want to talk about it.

The steampunk aspect—Gordon is a genius inventor with a fancy train loaded up with all manner of trap doors and such—is Wild Wild West’s claim to innovation and delight, though it only results in witless set pieces like a dog-collars-as-gay-panic fiasco and an interminable brawl concerning the aforementioned giant fuckin’ spider. The feeling that emerges, as one suffers through all of this, is that one is watching a movie that is somewhere between 60 and 80 percent completed: The stars have assembled, the budget is considerable, a script technically exists, but it all doesn’t quite coalesce into something coherent or remotely enjoyable.

A typical Netflix movie, in other words. The knock on Bright, or Bird Box, or more recent rom-com-type jams like Wine Country or Always Be My Maybe, is that they’re cynically designed as meme generators and low-stakes background-noise machines. You like these actors; you recognize the vague dramatic shape the premise suggests; you have a sense that many tens of millions of people have already interacted with this content, and the FOMO is too much to bear. But the end result doesn’t hold up under the scrutiny of more than, say, 40 percent of your attention. These flicks were meant to be two-screened, if not three- or four-screened.

In this aspect alone, then, Smith and Kline and Co. were two decades ahead of their time, though modern parallels tragically abound. Dark Phoenix, like Wild Wild West, has a dreary and very long train battle; May 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, like Wild Wild West, is stupendously loud and ostentatious and lavish but left audiences ice cold. The difference is that in 2019, Wild Wild West would’ve ideally been a Netflix exclusive—preferably a surprise drop, maybe Memorial Day weekend—that dominated the internet for days on end with belly-dancing Will Smith GIFs and giant-fuckin’-spider jokes and whatnot, creating the illusion of a polarizing hit, but a hit nonetheless, yet another triumph of guilty-pleasure populism over those damned snooty critics. Netflix would’ve dropped a press release crowing that, like, 800 million people had streamed it; by the following Wednesday, everyone would know the movie was shit, and nobody would care.

Is this progress? Is this the future of cinema? Is this preferable to the days when a Wild Wild West–caliber turd had to languish in multiplexes for weeks on end, exposed as the indefensible flop it obviously was? There are worse movies; there are far more ruinous financial disasters. Audiences in 2019 have been subjected to quite a few, quite recently. Thanks to streaming services, Hollywood’s got options now, in terms of burying or brazenly reframing its biggest, boldest duds. The system is, to say the least, still imperfect. But the next terrible movie with a giant fuckin’ spider in it you watch, you’ll probably watch on your phone, preferably while holding five or six other phones.