By Benjamin Mercer
Directed by Peter Berg, U.S., Sony Pictures
In an unexpectedly tender scene near the end of the first third of Peter Berg’s Hancock, the titular hero (Will Smith) relates the origin of his name. Upon release from a hospital many decades prior (a superhero, he does not appear to age) after a miraculous recovery from a head injury, a nurse asked for his “John Hancock.” With no memory of who he was and nothing in his pocket but a stub from a showing of Frankenstein, Hancock simply assumed the name of the most flamboyant signer of the Declaration of Independence, itself, of course, a metonym for all signatures.
Though I’d hesitate to say it was solely this encapsulation of the tension between a superhero’s stark individuality and his charge of embodying and enforcing the values of an entire community that led writers Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan to name their protagonist Hancock (the vaguely vulgar-sounding name has also long provoked schoolboy tittering), it’s certainly a clever overlay of comic-book and national mythmaking. Hancock is an astute title, too, for a vehicle whose star ostensibly “owns” the Fourth of July weekend at the box office. But while the founding father’s surname alone speaks to the superhero’s deep-seated feeling of alienation and his noble intentions, the rest of the film is not so carefully considered.
For a while, at least, Hancock plays like its trailer. The title character is a superhero in bum’s clothing. He careens clumsily through the air (an awkward CGI spectacle), creates massive and costly damage to L.A.’s infrastructure in the midst of his life-saving, and practically invites the scorn of the public. He mouths off to anyone who calls him an asshole, regardless of their age (whatever you do, do not call Hancock an asshole). Hancock tones his brazenness down somewhat once he befriends gleefully domesticated publicist Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), whom he saves from an oncoming train. In exchange, Ray takes it upon himself to improve Hancock’s public image. But a voluntary prison term, conceived by Ray as a display of Hancock’s remorse for destroying so much municipal property, culminates in the film’s most unfortunate image: newly arrived in the prison and taunted by the inmates there, Hancock quickly makes good on his threat to stick one inmate’s head up another’s ass.
These opening sequences—devoted to demonstrating the title superhero’s reckless, whiskey-swilling approach to saving the day and his similarly cavalier disregard for table manners—are noisy, juvenile, and mostly based on a single idea: the dissonance between the extreme naturalism of Berg’s aesthetic and the supernaturalism of the subject matter. It’s an unusually self-reflexive conceit for a popcorn film, and in carrying it out Hancock affects a rollicking iconoclasm, which Smith evinces exuberantly. He seems to relish the opportunity of playing against his squeaky-clean image with the foul-mouthed, unshaven Hancock. It’s a flashy performance, full of booze-soaked squints and staggers, though the showboating is gradually revealed as a defense mechanism. Smith, who has always been adept at suggesting vulnerability behind his characters’ brashness (Ali and last year’s I Am Legend particularly come to mind), keeps Hancock’s coarseness interesting for as long as possible. But it’s by no means enough to sustain a feature film, something that Ngo, Gilligan, and Berg recognize. Just as these jokes grow tiresome, Hancock completely changes gears. The hung-over comedy begets, all of a sudden, a flustered, effects-laden superhero saga, two modes Berg unsuccessfully tries to reconcile for the remainder of the film.
To spoil the film’s one genuine surprise: Ray’s wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), turns out to be Hancock’s ex-lover, an even more powerful fellow archangel. When they’re together, they become human, that is to say, vulnerable (hence Hancock’s memory-obliterating head injury). But the further mechanics of their centuries-spanning relationship, their powers, and their purposes are hastily and sloppily laid out and treated with a gravity that doesn’t mesh at all with the film’s lighthearted first section. In these more portentous later scenes, Hancock does continue its interest in slyly subverting the norms of the superhero narrative, nodding, however cursorily, to the usually ignored problems of gender (the female superhero is said to be more powerful than the male) and race (the interracial nature of their relationship presumably has, through history, made them even more vulnerable to attack). But because of the shambling tone set in Hancock’s earlier scenes, it’s difficult to know how seriously to take any of this, much less decipher any coherent allegory from it. The film’s general homophobia also disrupts what otherwise seems to be a consciously progressive social agenda. When Ray holds up three comic books in an attempt to get Hancock to consider donning a more typical costume, Hancock dismisses the superheroes on their covers: “Homo. Homo in red. Norwegian homo.” It’s supposed to get a laugh.
Indicative of the confused emotional and tonal registers of the film is Berg’s decision to mostly do away with the more ambiguously plaintive instrumental post-rock that has drifted through the soundtracks of his most recent features (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom). In Hancock, the funny scenes are tagged with spry, staccato music that indicates when it’s okay to laugh; the scenes of straight-faced superheroism are set to a bombastic orchestral score that sounds like any other.
Though it’s not technically “based” on preexisting material, Hancock eventually reveals itself as of a piece with many recent cinematic resurrections of comic-book properties. Specifically, those films that attempt to dial down their source material to something more grittily “realistic,” either by layering it with a thick, suffocating lacquer of self-seriousness (Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) or by perfunctorily, and rather smugly, using hot-button settings to create the titillating illusion of political relevance (such as the Afghanistan backdrop in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man). Hancock’s realism is more insistent and parodic, and lighter on ominous political buzzwords, but, as in Iron Man and The Dark Knight, it’s used to assiduously ground a fantasy that doesn’t beg grounding.