Hancock is a film that started out as a great original superhero film that tackled its canonized genre and occupation from a different angle than most superhero movies had before it. It also brought to the table a compelling premise. What if the superhero in the superhero’s movie was not liked or adored by the community he served and protected? What if the superhero is as angst-ridden as the society he calls home? This is how Hancock started out and it was brilliant. I was immediately engaged by the alcoholic John Hancock (Will Smith), who is imbued with the strength, flight and invulnerability of Superman.
Hancock is a man constantly trying to hurt himself, putting himself in situations where he can be abused mentally. He drinks to dull his emotional pain, a familiar circumstance to many Alcoholics Anonymous participants. He doesn’t care about the people he saves or himself. He does what he does because that is what he is, it’s in his job description.
During the first act of Hancock, I loved the witty dialog of the film and Mary Embrey (Charlize Theron) was wonderful to watch. She plays an average woman married to Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a public relations spokesperson whose life Hancock saves, that can barely hide the contempt she harbors for Hancock, the destruction he causes and his flippant disregard for the laws of the United States.
When Hancock decides to go to prison for his “crimes” (where one of the funniest and most outrageous moments in the film occurs) and enters counseling for his anger and alcohol abuse, the film began going somewhere no other superhero film, to my knowledge, had gone before: a superhero getting psychological help and group counseling for the emotional trauma he or she has previously endured. I was waiting for those sequences to occur to watch Hancock open up about himself. The scenes are well shot (Hancock sits with his arms crossed) and you can see the disagreeability all over his face. And just when Hancock begins to open up to the group and by extension, the audience, Hancock is called out of prison for an action sequence. I had heard about the tone shift in Hancock before I saw the film and this is the moment when it occurs. Director Peter Berg had me and was right at the precipice of a truly great and original piece of work that he decided to shelf in favor of a standard Hollywood action film with a detrimental, pointless and boring plot twist.
Screenwriters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan could have used the same material but in a different way at the point the tone shift emerges and continued with the Hancock film they began with. Hancock could have continued with his therapy, stayed for his full prison term and been released eight years later. Upon release, Hancock would have gained many people’s respect and garnered some from Mary as well, even if only in secret. Hancock could have still been attracted to Mary (it is Charlize Theron after all) and have tried to put the moves on her. Instead of what occurs in the film, Mary could have simply rebuffed his sexual advances and walked away. Mary could have then grudgingly grown to respect Hancock, what he means to society and the world. She could come to believe this to such an extent that when Kenneth “Red” Parker Jr. (Eddie Marsan), Man Mountain (David Mattey) and Matrix (Maetrix Fitten) break out of prison and find Hancock in the hospital bed about to shotgun him to death, Mary steps in front of him, taking the shotgun blasts in the chest and stomach, saving Hancock’s life at the expense of her own. Hancock yells: “NOOO” and then dispatches the bad guys exactly as he does in the film. Through Mary’s death and sacrifice for him, it’s the final push Hancock needs to come full circle and become the superhero she knew he has it in himself to be. Mary has a funeral, which Hancock attends. Then Hancock is shown visiting her grave alone, tending to its up-keep now and many years in the future (he doesn’t age) before flying off to protect his city, which is now a safer place to live. The End.
Peter Berg’s Hancock reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable in that they both house superheroes built from scratch (no comic book lineage), though Unbreakable did it in far more realistic fashion. Berg had something truly great on his hands and like Shyamalan, threw it away. Shyamalan did it in Unbreakables’ last two minutes and Berg did it during Hancock’s entire second half. It’s a shame. I guess I have to watch Darkman again, another original “superhero” movie that, unlike Hancock, fulfills its promise.