A Will Smith era ended with the very strange Hancock
The summer of 2008 broke history, and rebuilt it. America suffered through a bitter presidential election on the road to a globewrecking financial crisis. In theaters, cinematic generations were rising — and falling. Superheroes, Will Smith, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Emma Stone, Mike Myers, Sisterhoods and Step Brothers, Batman, and ABBA, adaptations of TV shows we still tweet about, new installments of movie franchises studios won’t stop rebooting: everything Hollywood was before, alongside everything it still is.
In our weekly column Two Thousand Late, we’ll explore the big hits and curious flops from a summer that has never really ended. Last week: The bleak beauty of Pixar’s WALL-E. Next week: Guillermo Del Toro’s final (alas!) Hellboy movie. This week: Will Smith is the god of Los Angeles.
When we talk about Will Smith and the Fourth of July weekend, we’re really talking about two movies. Independence Day opened July 3, 1996. On July 2 of the following year, Men in Black arrived. The latter came with a plot-explaining tie-in song, a prelude to Smith’s solo debut album, the multiplatinum and Grammy-winning Big Willie Style. And The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was omnipresent in reruns, so it felt like Smith was the whole thing: movie star, TV star, music star, Hollywood itself.
But then came 1999’s Wild Wild West, an unwanted reboot that grossed just enough to give the term “flop” a decadent new definition. By July 2002, Smith was self-reheating with Men in Black II, considered the worst Men in Black by anyone who cares. 2003’s Bad Boys II and 2004’s I, Robot are technically mid-July releases, which means you have to jump ahead to 2008 for the next huge blockbuster Will Smith film released in the Independence Day release window—and the last, so far.
That film was Hancock, 10 years old Monday. It is a strange film, a pileup of incongruous storylines and performances pointing everywhere except each other. Smith stars as the titular character, a booze-swirling superhero who fights crime with a bottle of liquor in one superstrong hand. This sounds like a riotous comedy, but the mood is frequently downbeat. Smith himself is in a bummer phase, frowning, suspicious. He mostly looks sad. His face here is his face the whole movie:
Hancock is a celebrity presence in Los Angeles. Everyone knows his name—and despises him. He stops a car chase, but only after destroying a bunch of police cars. He’s a drunk, and for a few minutes he seems to be fully homeless. The prospect of a hobo superhero is intriguing—especially since summer 2008 was the year of the witty billionaire superhero and the sorrowful billionaire superhero. But actually, Hancock lives in an Airstream somewhere in roadless Malibu—the kind of lifestyle they make Instagrams about, and Hollywood code for “beautiful loner” ever since Lethal Weapon gave Mel Gibson a tragic beach trailer.
Hancock meets Ray (Jason Bateman), a PR consultant with big dreams of making the world a better place. He decides to start with Hancock, setting the loathed hero on the path to public redemption. He gives Hancock lessons in public relations, gets him to shave his stubble, convinces him to don a uniform that looks precisely like Hugh Jackman’s leather X-Men jumpsuit.
So here is a movie where Will Smith learns to be popular—learns to be charming. But the general sourness of Hancock‘s humor fails most attempts at comedy. There are beyond-lame gay jokes, an immortally miserable moment when Hancock shoves one criminal’s head up another criminal’s ass.
Director Peter Berg seems more interested in the action setpieces, including a bank heist in downtown Los Angeles. Saying the words “bank heist in downtown Los Angeles” can only demand the acknowledgment of an homage to Heat—and Michael Mann himself appears onscreen in the film. He was also a producer on the film, and certain elements of Berg’s filmmaking suggest the handheld style of Mann’s middle period exported into superhero films. The shaky-cam is awful, though, a faded vogue for “realism” taken to its silliest extreme. In a memorable dinnertime exchange, the camera moves closely onto the back of heads. This was $150 million cinema in 2008: Will Smith’s face blocked by the back of Jason Bateman’s head, one of Charlize Theron’s eyes squeezed into the frame next to the unfocused haze.
Weird to remember that, just a couple weeks after Hancock‘s debut, another superhero film drenched in Michael Mann aesthetics hit theaters. But where The Dark Knight can lay claim to some grand philosophical concepts that defined America’s paranoid decade, Hancock has an unexpected resonance as a tilted showbiz fable. Hancock is, when we meet him, already famous. Kids walk up to him on the street— call him an “a–hole.” And Nancy Grace calls him out on national television. So the first half of the film is, essentially, the story of a stage-managed Hollywood comeback, complete with a public apology, and an act of penance. We track this cycle, visually, in the media coverage, from a pensive news conference as Hancock goes to jail to the paparazzi greeting him as he goes to a fancy restaurant:
To a certain extent, Smith’s casting in this role feels like a smokescreen. There’s an early moment when Ray explains Hancock’s bad reputation by watching embarrassing YouTube videos of him—a reminder of the mid-2000s internet, which ran on celebrity embarrassments. More timely, maybe, to imagine a younger actress in as Hancock, someone who could have conjured up the era of the starlets run amok. The First Half of Hancock as a Lohan Allegory: Discuss.
But Smith’s casting is the movie, of course. And his somber performance points to a deepening weirdness at the core of this story. Hancock is a fantastically talented black man who mainstream society deplores—even as it covers him attentively. (Every TV in this Los Angeles playing some new Hancock news item.) Ray’s big idea is to, like, sanitize Hancock. (His big suggestion is to always tell the police that they’re doing a good job.) It’s almost My Fair Lady-ish story, with an unmissable layer of American race relations: Jason Bateman, White Man of the Suburbs, shall take this hard-edged outlaw and freshen him into princehood.
So it’s an affront that the film constantly seems to be about everyone except Hancock. Bateman’s the chattering presence of the film’s first half, the driving force toward “goodness.” Then comes the late-act-2 revelation that breaks the movie into pieces. Ray’s wife Mary (Theron) has been suspicious of Hancock, as you imagine any mother would be suspicious of a superpowered drunk hanging out adjacent to her husband and child.
But then it turns out that Mary has superpowers too, and that actually she’s known Hancock for untold millennia, and they were married, and they are immortals who have been called gods —though Mary speaks, darkly and never clearly, of the possibility that they were “built”. Recessive in the film’s first half, Theron suddenly dominates the movie. They have a superfight which becomes an elemental catastrophe—and the suggestion is that their mere proximity is a kind of apocalypse, bringing bad weather and lessening their powers. A sudden final attack by three ludicrously small-time crooks leaves both Hancock and Mary bleeding to death—but Hancock flies away, and both supergods get their healing powers back.
It’s’s a weird arc for our Hancock. He spends a few minutes as an outrageous wreck, publicly promises to improve himself, and successfully improves himself into a police-assisting law-enforcement agent. Then he learns he’s a god, and meets his lost love just in time to rescue her by leaving her forever. You feel the pileup of a long development here. Smith himself was a producer on this film, and there’s a push-pull between self-deprecation and wild vanity. Smith took a bummer role as a sadsack protagonist, the quieter half of a buddy combo opposite Bateman. But then somewhere in years of writing drafts between Vy Vincent Ngo’s original screenplay and Vince Gilligan’s credited rewrite, someone came up with the idea that Smith would also be playing a god.
Hancock was a huge hit, the biggest movie at that year’s box office not derived from a comic book or an ’80s franchise. You wouldn’t call Hancock “original,” but its eccentricity is illuminating—it feels like everyone involved was trying to tell a new kind of superhero story, even if no one could properly explain what that newness was. They were onto something, though. It’s striking to rewatch it today, noticing how many movies recently have been conjuring its essence. It’s a film built on the plot idea that a superhero needs better PR, the precise concept that sparks Incredibles 2. It sends its hero to a funny prison, just like in Deadpool 2, a franchise whose whole “superhero but for laughs” architecture suggests the boozy parody Hancock was marketed as.
And the titular hero happens to be a black man—a solo-blockbuster event unrepeated in Hollywood history until this year’s Black Panther. So Hancock is the strangest kind of film, a chaotic mess pointing the way toward a new world order.
Complete Summer 2008 Schedule:
May 2: Iron Man and Made of Honor
May 9: Speed Racer
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
May 22: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
May 30: Sex and the City
June 6: Kung Fu Panda
June 13: The Happening
June 20: The Love Guru
June 27: WALL-E
July 2: Hancock
July 11: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
July 18: Mamma Mia and The Dark Knight
July 25: Step Brothers
Aug. 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Aug. 6: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and Pineapple Express
Aug. 13: Tropic Thunder
Aug. 15: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Aug. 22: The House Bunny