dir: Peter Berg
There seem to be superhero flicks coming out every goddamn week, and mostly they’re the tried and tested superhero properties carefully branded and nurtured by DC and Marvel Comics over the last century. They are, at least the successful ones, considered to be powerful box office draws and dependable investments. Yes, I’m talking about Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Fantastic Fours and the X-Men flicks. You can now, due to its inexplicable success, add Iron Man to the list.

Then there’s the second tier of flicks based on lesser known superheroes which seem not to do as well simply because they’re not as well known, and aren’t considered serious draws, no matter how well they do (Spawn, The Crow, Blade, Daredevil, Electra, Hellboy, Constantine, Ghost Rider, The Phantom, The Shadow et bloody cetera.) The primary difference is that the top tier characters are so well known and so recognisable that everyone goes to see them at the cinema, and children the world over whine until their parents buy them the merchandise. With the second tier, only the fans and nerds go or care.

The advantage the A-list properties have is the loathsome term mindshare: recognisability, ubiquity; half the marketing is already done. The disadvantage is having to hew closely to the established canon, and having one’s hands tied creatively and by the rating such a flick has to have to justify the expense.

The B-list stuff’s primary disadvantage is that it’s not that well known, but, with a lower budget, lower overall expectations, and more fringe origins, they can go for darker stories and can get by with tougher, higher ratings (for violence and language) that would doom a more bankable property.

Of the ones I can think of, which were written purely for the screen and had characters who, whilst original, in concept and appearance mostly match their paper antecedents, none of them really have done that well. Mystery Men, The Specials, Sky High, My Super Ex-Girlfriend (bleh) did nothing box office-wise, or at least did little to dispel the notion that a mega successful superhero flick needs to be comic book based and have a serious pedigree of decades if not centuries. You know, like that Jesus guy.

The success of Hancock, which is probably entirely dependent on Will Smith as the lead rather than any particular merits of the film, could open up the floodgates so that every single film that comes out of America is a superhero flick.

Which would be great. No-one could ever tire of this stuff.

If you’re following my logic, and I’m sure you gave up a while ago, a superhero flick that comes along without any background or recourse to earlier incarnations has a very tough road to travel. But with Will Smith as the lead, Hancock manages to combine the advantages of both tiers of superhero filmmaking yet manages all the same to tell an unconventional hero story. If they’d had the balls to make the kind of profane and ultraviolent superhero flick that you see glimpses of throughout the film, poking through over the ratings-desperate compromises that bandaid everything, Hancock could have been something else entirely.

Hancock is a drunk who, when he feels like it, also fights crime in Los Angeles. He is also super strong, impervious to bullets and can fly. Even though he seems to have some interest in helping people out, he does it in such a deliberately lousy way that he ends up causing more harm than the criminals he pursues.

But he doesn’t care. People call him an asshole all the time, prosecutors want to prosecute him, plaintiffs want to sue him for all the damage he’s caused; the public harasses him for the damage and his inconsideration, and his stinking drunkenness.

In short, he is the most believable example of what an actual person would be like if they had superpowers but didn’t give a damn about other people. He only seems to do what he does because he hasn’t got anything better to do, and isn’t sober or empathetic enough to care if, in the process, he causes millions of dollars worth of damage.

After he saves the life of a good-hearted idealistic PR guy in the form of Ray (Jason Bateman, who plays a character more fantastical than the one played by Smith), the benevolent PR guy decides to turn Hancock’s life around by improving his image.

You see, Ray is smart and empathic enough to know that Hancock’s real problem is that he’s lonely. He wants to be respected and loved, but because he’s alienated and hated, he acts out by getting drunk and causing catastrophic damage.

Part of this rehabilitation of Hancock involves actual rehabilitation, as in, spending some time in jail to show the public that he doesn’t consider himself to be above the law. As novel as this premise might seem, there is little difference, in terms of the press conference Hancock gives saying that he admits he has disappointed the citizens of Los Angeles and aspires to do better, between this fantastical set up here where a super powered being apologises to the public, and actual press conferences here in the real world. I’m referring to the inevitable ones that powerful celebrities like Smith, or major league sports stars who get caught up in drugs, crime or sex scandals, end up performing when they give their mea culpas televised and in public.

You know, whether it’s Robert Downey Junior, OJ, Kobe Bryant, A-Rod, or, in the Australian context, a West Coast Eagles footballer or a less than bright but highly successful cricket player, the tone varies substantially according to the seriousness of the crime (or indiscretion) and the ego of the celebrity. Just as in ‘real’ life, it is PR flacks and lawyers urging their clients to make these kinds of non-confessional confessionals in order to maintain the marketability of their individual brand so as to both improve their chances in the court room, and to not cause the trickle of money from endorsements, sponsorship and corporate gigs to halt.

A lot of all of this is woven through the supposed redemption aspect of the story, as Hancock realises the importance of being a moral and considerate superhero, in order to respect and be respected by the people of Los Angeles. Of course this is all played for comedic purposes, but the film doesn’t shy away from trying to have dramatic resonance, which I know because of the sheer amount of scenes where it went from jokey to serious and bathetic, all to the accompaniment of plaintive strings and piano music, played as if to say, “not caring about the fate of this guy would make your mother cry and makes you worse that 15 Hitlers”.

The strange thing is, Hancock, who remains somewhat belligerent and leery throughout, even after his redemption, still maintains his distance as well. Scenes of sharing amongst the prisoners in jail, where Hancock is asked day after day if there is anything he wants to share, continue unabated, and only culminate, contrary to our expectations, in Hancock simply saying that he is who he is, and he drinks.

We’re expected to expect that a torrent of revelation, tears and hugs are to ensue, mocking the whole concept of group therapy and new age-y psychology that posits that people do bad things because they don’t get a chance to share their feelings with others. In fact much of Hancock’s supposed redemption is based around a wholesale and entirely appropriate mocking of political correctness and the modern strictures that would hamper and hamstring an American superhero if they actually existed in this day and age.

None of this should go towards supporting the idea that Hancock is solely a satire on superheroes and superhero films. It is nothing of the sort. It pokes fun at some of the aspects of the superhero genre, like the costumes, the origin story, the legal realities of the contemporary litigious world, but we’re, at all times, expected to see Hancock as a serious superhero and the film as a serious A-list property.

That doesn’t mean that it avoids subverting many of the conventions that are applicable. There is a major revelation about half-way through the flick about Hancock and his origins, but it’s decidedly contrary to most origin stories (no mutation, radiation, super technology or billionaire inheritance used to mask the psychopathy beneath the mask). In fact, it goes more towards the mythic rather than the comic book, which in itself doesn’t disqualify it from the genre. With the major revelation, it also kicks the film towards a completely different kind of resolution, which many reviewers hated, but I found refreshing.

I’ve seen and heard of enough of this comic book crap for the last thirty years adapted for the big screen to be able to appreciate people doing something different with the elements for once. Hancock completely avoids having the standard slugfest ending, damsel in distress, or inane action sequences simply for their own sake, which bumps it up majorly in my estimation. Even if I don’t understand why a certain character who previously hid their nature and existence decides to reveal it in the most public of ways, I derived much more enjoyment out of the directions the story manages to go which completely contradict almost every other A-list film based on a comic book I can think of.

I’m not saying it’s a great film by any estimation. And, I’m ashamed to admit that even in the enjoyment stakes, I would still (for this year) mark this slightly lower than something utterly conventional and far more generic like Iron Man, which was nonetheless great entertainment. But I still give this flick the benefit of the doubt for what it tries to do and what it actually does. Even with someone as bankable as Smith in the lead role, it took a lot of balls and ovaries to put together something which so clearly was going to rub audiences the wrong way.

I have no doubt that there will be a sequel to this, and I’m unsure where they can go with it, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that it could be interesting. This isn’t an even vaguely thoughtful or philosophical take on the genre, don’t think that for a second. It’s a messy, loud, aggressively put together flick with uneasy cinematography calculated to make you feel agitated even when people are discussing lunch orders or the weather.

But there was enough here to keep me interested and entertained. And I liked it far more than The Incredible Hulk.

So there.

7 times I wondered how much nastier they could have gone if they’d made this more Bad Boys II than Driving Miss Daisy out of 10

“I can smell alcohol on your breath!”
- “That's cause I've been drinking, bitch!” – borrowed from Shakespeare, I think, Hancock.