In Not Guilty, we look at movies that the general consensus tells us that we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should embrace -- "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. This time around, we take on Will Smith's skewed take on superhero cinema: Hancock.
I am not ashamed to admit I am part of the 41 percent that, according to Rotten Tomatoes, actually likes Hancock. Of course, it’s not a perfect movie. But despite its very respectable box office -- Hancock finished 4th overall for 2008, and currently sits at the seventh biggest July 4 weekend opening of all time, topping the first Spiderman movie -- Hancock is little more than an afterthought in an ever-growing list of superhero flicks. It’s not that people think it’s necessarily a really bad movie; they just tend to not think of it much at all.
It was a long and arduous path to get Hancock to the big screen, one that included a rewrite by Vince Gilligan (pre-Breaking Bad), had numerous directors like Tony Scott and Michael Mann at one time rumored to be attached and needed two rounds of cuts to lose an R rating. Twelve years after its inception, Vincent Ngo’s spec script Tonight, He Comes had evolved into Hancock. Here’s why it deserves more appreciation, and attention, than it gets.
Two words: Jason.Bateman.
Jason Bateman is one of those actors that should be a bigger household name than he is. Whether he’s stealing scenes as Pepper Brooks in Dodgeball, being one of the only redeemable parts in a lackluster movie like Smokin' Aces, or playing the hapless straight man surrounded by a group of narcissistic idiots a la Arrested Development, he’s one of the few actors that can fluidly move from endearing schmuck to lovable, sarcastic smart-ass without ever being the guy you love to hate. Bateman's comedic chops are impressive and subtle, which is why he remains consistently good in everything. How he has yet to be the Internet’s boyfriend escapes me. Get it together, Tumblr.
In Hancock, Bateman’s Ray is a publicist with a conscience, something you rarely see depicted on film. For all intents and purposes, he’s the actual hero of the movie, displaying compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness towards Hancock’s numerous flaws and screw-ups, his own wife’s dishonesty, and the rest of the city’s lack of appreciation toward the man that they desperately need. Ray really believes people can be better and Hancock can be better. He is the epitome of being the change he wants to see in the world, and it’s his lead-by-example that acts as a catalyst for Hancock’s attitude adjustment and eventual redemption. This is probably the only super hero movie where the person that saves his city doesn’t rely on special powers, superior fighting ability, or expensive gadgets.
It’s a more realistic takes on a superhero
I know, I just used “realistic” when talking about a superhero. But let’s imagine for a moment what it would be like if superheroes were, in fact, real. If these godlike immortal figures with their supernatural powers truly walked among us, we would treat them the same way we treat the closest thing we have to superheroes: Celebrities and athletes. They would be hoisted onto sky-high pedestals built out of an endless number of unattainable and unrealistic expectations, only to be savagely torn down the moment they failed us. Because the only thing our semi-masochistic society loves more than a hero is to see one fall. Sure, we may also love a good comeback, but rarely - if ever- do we ever make that road to redemption an easy one.
Hancock shares some similarities to the storyline in The Incredibles (which is, hands-down one of the top 3 superhero movies ever made), especially when it comes to supers that are celebrities who the public eventually turns on because people are fickle jerks. Only Hancock doesn’t have a family, his super crew, or the witness protection program to find solace; he has Jim Beam and a salty attitude. And despite being a generally disliked, alcoholic a-hole, he still dutifully shows up and saves lives, an obvious indication that there is a good person buried underneath layers of unhappiness who believes in doing the right thing, even if his approach is completely wrong.
For all intents and purposes, most heroes have some pretty super-sized baggage when it comes to issues, be it murdered parents, horrific science experiments gone wrong, or raging narcissism. It’s usually status quo to do no more than a brief mention and carry on. Also par for the course: Superheroes are rarely, if ever, depicted suffering any consequences for their actions on the big screen. The public gets pissed, and maybe a loved one dies, but it’s always treated as a subplot at best whereas, in Hancock, the super has to show accountability and remorse for the mistakes he made and damage he caused.
It’s an honest depiction of depression
Even beyond Hancock’s dysfunctional relationship with the city he feels obliged to save is the story of a human being struggling with depression. Wrapping this silent disease in the package of a superhero is an ideal metaphor for what it’s like for anyone struggling with a depressive disorder; on the outside, even the person who seems to have everything going for them can be struggling to cope with some very real, very crippling pain that almost no one knows about.
Will Smith’s portrayal of a depressed super who is this close to hitting rock bottom is palpable. He self-medicates with booze and uses anger as a shield to keep himself from getting further hurt, tactics that are not foreign to anyone who has battled a depressive episode. Likewise, his incredibly abrasive exterior serves to further perpetuate his self-isolation (like living in a beat up trailer out in the middle of nowhere), which is a classic defense mechanism for anyone with abandonment issues. It isn’t until Ray continues to show up that Hancock starts to learn to put his trust in at least one person, and eventually starts on the road to healing from his past. While some people could interpret Hancock’s willingness to accept Ray’s offer to rehab his public image as an ego-driven move, in reality, it’s more likely that Hancock’s very real need for a friend and emotional support is what motivates him. At some point, the pain becomes too unbearable, and in order to crawl out from under it, you need to accept a lifeline that gets tossed to you. Neither superhuman physical strength or the ability to fly are any use when it comes to fighting depression.
In some ways, Hancock came out a few years too early. While it performed well in theaters, it came at the very beginning of the golden age of superhero films and was quickly lost in the shuffle and all but buried behind Marvel and DC’s franchises. Hancock is a genre film that’s geared towards adult audiences as opposed to the current family-friendly slate of comic book movies that dominates the industry. It perfectly blends dark humor with some more thoughtful components without ever risking becoming campy or relying too heavily on over-inflated fight scenes and CGI. But with the success of the R-rated Deadpool, maybe now is the ideal time to revisit the possibility of a sequel and give grown-up super fans a more mature iteration of the superhero.