Hancock (2008)

CapeHalf a capeHalf a balding headWrecking ball

What if Superman were a wino? That’s the premise of this deconstruction of superhero tropes. What if he were a kinda mean drunk? What could anyone do about it? This movie’s answer is to bring in Jason Bateman as a PR man who decides to rehabilitate the hero’s image, chiefly by guiding him in better public behavior.

Unfortunately, superheroes have by this point been so deconstructed that one more iteration really doesn’t contribute much. At least the idea of making one not only an obnoxious asshole but a semi-homeless alcoholic is one that hasn’t quite been done before. Another positive is that the movie has Charlize Theron in it as the PR man’s wife (who, um, has a secret). She’s never not good. Unfortunately, this is balanced out by the fact that they cast Will Smith as Hancock the superbum.

The premise showed enough signs of promise that I didn’t just go “Aw HELL no” right off the bat because of Smith’s presence... but unfortunately, I must report that this movie is not particularly good.

The thing is, the movie tries to be a comedy and a drama at the same time. Since the advent of Joss Whedon, a lot more people have been willing to try this combination, and unfortunately, a lot of them haven’t yet rediscovered just how difficult it really is. And it’s as a comedy that this movie falls flat. There’s a lot of bits that probably seemed funny on paper, but the laffs just don’t happen. Now one might try to just ignore the unfunniness and treat it as a straightforward hero drama... but you can’t, because there are too many pieces that are too ridiculous to make any sense except as comedy. Without laughs, the more, um, imaginative instances of superpowerhood all just turn stupid and juvenile.

And that doesn’t work either, because the film’s overall tone is all mature and gritty and wannabe-realistic. For instance, the cinematography is very handheld and verité-ish. And the supporting cast (principally Bateman) works hard to keep everything as grounded in familiar everyday life as possible, in the world where most problems can’t be managed by brute force. It goes to considerable lengths to contrast power-fantasy ways of dealing with obstacles to realistic ways. You can see what they’re trying for here, and it’s commendable, but the sad fact is that they did not have the filmmaking chops to pull it off. It works a good deal less well than, say, My Super Ex-Girlfriend. That was a stretch, but it had enough snickers to mostly cover the gaps. And on the serious side, well, it’s sure no Watchmen — not even the film version.

The film’s tone is difficult enough in the first hour, but then in the last half hour it goes for all out drama and heroics, trying to make Hancock into a character with true heroism when the chips are down. And as a self-contained piece of a film, they do it pretty well, but as a conclusion to what came before... they just haven’t earned it.

And... WHY!? Why does every movie that decides to deconstruct superheroes always have to turn around and try, in the closing act, to have their fuckup protagonist suddenly turn into a real hero?? Why always this attempt to both possess and consume one’s cake? Why do people do this over and over and over when it almost never works? Maybe they’re thinking of the scruffy-losers sports movie formula. They’ve seen that sort of plot work there.... Dudes, this is not the same thing. It doesn’t translate.

From now on, I will refer to this trope, when it comes up in other movies, as Hancock Syndrome. TVTropes calls it “decon-recon”, but besides being overly broad, I also find that term a bit too... nonjudgmental.

The big reveal of Charlize’s secret is another moment where they try to reach for some awesome that they don’t have enough credit for. It’s a moment that makes you go WHOA, but then half a minute later, you’re going “But wait, why the hell would she ever go and do that??”

I might as well add that though there’s generally nothing wrong with the quality of special effects, when Will Smith is flying he totally looks like somebody dangling from a rope instead of moving purposely through the air. Maybe he’s trying to depict drunk flying, at least in the early scenes where he hasn’t sobered up at all, but it’s still iffy even when he’s at his sharpest.

I don’t want to diss this movie too much... a lot of it is not bad, and if you can smile occasionally at the humor, there’s a fair amount to enjoy in it. And in the end that means we’re left with yet another blockbuster that is neither great nor terrible, but just middling... and a story that’s neither coherent nor crazy, but just pointless.