There is simply no means by which we can avoid the superhero film. As a sub-genre of a sub-genre, it is unquestionably here to stay now that special effects and editing styles have reached the same level of visualisation potential that comic books reached in the mid 80s.
Hancock takes a slightly different slant, and also introduces an entirely new hero character. John Hancock (yes, as in the signature) is practically homeless, living in a beachside trailer straight out of Lethal Weapon II, drinks far too much and has serious issues with socialising. He is also the most powerful force on the planet. And he just doesn’t care.
Rather than take the oft-trodden path of Spiderman and Batman films where the hero is rejected by the people, here we get the opposite, Hancock rejects the people, and they thus reject him in turn. Attention is called in early scenes to the amount of damage he does in what could theoretically be simple missions for him. He doesn’t just catch the crooks, he impales their car on a monument.
Superman regularly does needless damage, ripping things from the ground to throw at enemies, so it’s fun to finally see a superhuman get abuse for not doing things the quick and easy way. It is of course one thing to criticise when you’re the ones who don’t have superpowers nor the self-restraint to use them properly.
But Hancock isn’t just alienated for being different. We learn he doesn’t age, and has, since at least the 1920s, been immortal. As Queen asked, ‘Who wants to live forever?’ Well in Hancock’s eyes, not him, it’s a lonely existence. Upon the release of I Am Legend, an Irish critic commented that Will Smith’s casting in the lead role was inspired because Smith is the actor in this world who relies most upon the love of his audiences, so it was clever to leave him with no one but a dog to worship him. Here Smith plays completely against type, adding some of his badass attitude from Bad Boys but underlying it with genuinely disdain, distrust and a degree of hopelessness.
The film’s main theme is Hancock’s rehabilitation into a “real” superhero of sorts, not by a shrink or lawperson, but by a PR executive, played by a cheesy but charming Jason Bateman. His plan to reinvent Hancock’s image is some sort of personal crusade, we never quite learn why he is so keen, other than a dream of his to change the world. But Hancock is, as is regularly repeated, an asshole, and making him change is far from easy.
Scenes in which Hancock goes to anger management therapy and undergoes a stint in prison are fun, but one feels that the actual entertainment is being delayed. Revelations upon his release turn the film somewhat upside down, as Hancock discovers who he truly is, but the emergence of this mythos behind his powers feels original rather than borrowed from any other superhero’s backstory.
The film is shot in a largely handheld style, which at first can be distracting to the point of being unpleasant, particularly when we are first introduced to Bateman’s character. But from there on in it gives us an intimate sense of fly-on-the-wall-ness that actually works quite well, with the exception of one stormy action sequence where it is impossible to see what is going on at all.
Charlize Theron does her best with the material she has been given, which does improve towards the end, but there is little doubt that she has been cast largely because she is so radiant, here perhaps at her most perfect looking. The addition of a villain of sorts seems a little too easy, but Eddie Marsan, playing the criminal mastermind with the voice of a Baptist preacher, manages to be quite disturbing in a Robert Mitchum-esque manner; quite intense stuff for a supposedly family movie.
This raises the serious question as to who this film is aimed at, and how well it will do? Smith has an all round appeal that should bring audiences from many backgrounds, but they may not take to this grumpier, angrier Smith. Bateman and Theron will no doubt bring in content white middleclass families, but it remains to be seen if this film is family friendly. The language is cruder than most summer blockbusters and there are implications of sex and violence that might be too much for some children, or more specifically too much for parents to sit through with their children, especially one sequence in prison where Hancock takes revenge on two harassing inmates, with some ghastly sound effects and one bizarre shot.
Several cuts were made to the film to allow it a PG-13 rating in the States, and the film’s greatest success seems to be to have brought in a coherent and entertaining summer film at only 90 minutes. After so many years of painfully long blockbusters, this is quite the breathe of fresh air, interestingly the shortest summer blockbuster since 2002’s Men in Black II, which also starred Smith.
Smith is often at his best when he has someone to play off of, be it Tommy Lee Jones, Martin Lawrence or even Uncle Phil. Here, his relationship with Bateman’s character, though somewhat unbelievable, manages to carry the day.
Hancock is very far from perfect, but it’s big and its different and that’s really what we all need right now.