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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Tales From the Black List: Hancock (2008)

* * 1/2

Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman

But first, a story: I was perusing the Black List looking for a title that I could watch and write about for the feature and learned that Hancock, the 2008 Will Smith film that tries to deconstruct the superhero story, was part of the first ever list in 2005. Since I specifically use this feature to write about movies I've never written about before, I thought this was a non-starter because I was sure that I'd written about Hancock already. A quick search revealed that I was wrong about that, so I happily sat down to re-watch the film and promptly discovered that the reason I've never written about it is because I had not, in fact, ever seen it before. I'm not sure whether that says more about me (in my defense, I see a lot of movies) or about the film, which had such a long and winding trip from page to screen that it became part of Hollywood lore for a while, and which has such an easily digestible premise that apparently it can seem like you've seen the movie without ever having actually watched it. At any rate, here's Hancock, a movie that I've now definitely seen and which never really manages to pull itself together enough to bring its idea successfully to life.

The premise of Hancock is so obvious that it's almost startling: Superman, but depressed and kind of an asshole. It's about Hancock (Will Smith), a man with superhuman powers such as being able to fly, being impervious to bullets, and having super strength. He also has amnesia as a result of a blow to the head and can only remember as far back as waking up in the hospital, not knowing who he was or where he came from. As time has marched on (in the film's timeline, he's been living as "Hancock" for about 80 years, never ageing), giving him a chance to brood over it, he's come to the conclusion that the person he was before getting amnesia wasn't that great since no one ever came to claim him in the hospital. This makes him feel depressed and, coupled with the fact that his abilities set him apart from everyone else on the planet, isolated, a feeling which is only deepened by the fact that his superheroics tend to result in people being angry with him. Instead of getting praise for fighting crime and rescuing people from potentially tragic situations, Hancock is instead criticized for how he accomplishes his feats (often causing millions of dollars in damages) and his attitude when met with those complaints. 80 years of depression and isolation have caused him to turn to alcohol for solace and his mixture of capability and brokenness make him someone that the public alternately seeks out, because he's the only person who can do the things that he does, and then vilifies, because he takes no care in what he does.

2008, the year of Hancock's release, was a turning point in the superhero genre. While superhero films were not yet ubiquitous, it's the year that set the stage for the mass proliferation over the past few years that, if all goes according to studio plans, will carry on for decades to come. It was the year of both The Dark Knight, arguably the greatest superhero film ever made and the film that made the genre "respectable" from the perspective of people who can only appreciate films that can be taken "seriously," and it was the year of Iron Man, the first big step in Marvel's quest for world domination. Considered in that light Hancock, which made significantly less than The Dark Knight (because everything in 2008 made significantly less than The Dark Knight) but which came within less than $100 million of Iron Man's domestic box office (and actually made more than Iron Man internationally), should have been a major win for its studio. It wasn't just a hit, but it was a hit as an original property in a genre that was about to blast off to such an extent that heroes as unlikely as gun-toting raccoons and fourth-wall breaking mercenaries would go on to become major draws. Hancock also had the advantage of being ahead of the curve by directly addressing what would shortly become a growing point of discussion about the world inside superhero movies and the cost (financial and in terms of lives lost) of superheroics. By all logic, Hancock should have been a film that launched a franchise, which by this point probably would have encompassed the traditional trilogy and the inevitable reboot.

But that's not what happened with Hancock, which seems almost fitting given the long and winding road it took to the screen. As I said, Hancock was part of the inaugural Black List, which came out in 2005, but the original script made it onto Hollywood's radar in 1996, when it was called Tonight, He Comes. I don't know which version of the script the Black List selected, or even how many different versions there are, though I imagine that it took quite a few drafts to get from Point A (Tonight, He Comes) to Point B (Hancock) because the two stories are wildly different. The script for Tonight, He Comes is about a pre-teen boy whose parents, a weak and ineffectual father and a mother who, despite being a fictional character who only exists on the page, is written about as if the screenwriter is fantasizing about having sex with her while he's writing, who is bullied and becomes friends with Hancock, a depressed superhero. It ends with Hancock kidnapping and trying to rape the mother and the father discovering his courage and trying to save her. Hancock is about a depressed superhero who reluctantly allows a PR guy (Jason Bateman) to try to rehab his image and who later learns that his new friend's wife (Charlize Theron) is also, secretly, a superbeing and one who holds the key to his past. All the two really have in common is the basic concept and a couple of the names. When you consider that, it's no wonder that the finished product is a film that doesn't seem to know what it wants to be about, or how it wants to be about it.

Hancock's first act, which you might call the "comedy" portion of the screenplay, is actually not too bad. It does a swift and effective job at setting up the premise, has a bit of fun with it and with Smith playing ever so slightly against type as a grumpy jerk, and establishes a nice rapport between Hancock and Ray, his new PR guy, who understands the hero's frustration at constantly being called an "asshole," but notes that it would be easier to convince people to stop calling him that if he, you know, stopped acting like one. Then the film introduces Ray's wife, Mary, spends a little while playing cat and mouse with why she takes an immediate dislike to Hancock, and then uses its final act, which is thoroughly serious and lacking in anything comedic, to bring in a bunch of mythology that is basically dumped in the middle of the story like a load of bricks and which simultaneously explains everything and nothing at all. It's sort of like they decided to film half of one script to start and then half of another script to finish. I confess that I don't truly understand why the idea behind Hancock was so hard to bring to the screen, it doesn't seem like it should be one of those "unfilmable" projects that just wouldn't have worked no matter what, but maybe it's a situation where it moved through so many hands and so many people's ideas got mixed into it along the way that those involved ceased being able to see the forest for the trees. In the years since its release the film's premise has lost some of its novelty thanks to the new, somber conception of Superman and the general "who gives a damn how a superhero gets the job done" attitude of DC's "Murderverse," but the promise of Hancock was real. They just never quite got there.


Dell said...

I like Hancock more than most, it seems, but it certainly takes a sharp turn somewhere in the second act that hurts the movie.

"...maybe it's a situation where it moved through so many hands and so many people's ideas got mixed into it along the way that those involved ceased being able to see the forest for the trees." I think you hit nail on the head as far as why the movie ultimately falls apart.

Norma Desmond said...

It's shocking that this isn't one of those movies that has half a dozen credited writers.