With another $34 million in its coffers and a growing word of mouth campaign, Will Smith’s latest pseudo sci-fi exercise, Hancock, is shaping up to be one of the summer’s biggest surprises. Not a shock when you consider the star power behind the project, but unusual in that the movie continues to build on its opening despite mostly negative reviews. Now critics never contribute to or cause the commercial fortunes/misfortunes of a release, but many believed Hancock was very minor Smith at best (only a 37% favorable consensus). With $165 million already accounted for, and much more on the horizon, this so-called misfire could end up one of the actor’s strongest outings.
Some have suggested that race has fueled the film’s success, a recent rant by none other than Sean “P Diddy” Combs claiming that African Americans have been desperate for a black superhero to support. Of course, from a superficial standpoint, that concept would seem obvious. Minorities rarely figure into the comic book universe - at least the version Hollywood chooses to support - and the arrival of an original creation, a character build out of certain cultural complements would definitely be unique. But to suggest that John Hancock, a champion rarely spoken of in racial terms (if at all), translates into some kind of Jackie Robinson moment for the genre is just surreal.
Earlier in the year, Iron Man introduced two characters of color into its mix - Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes and Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Both have origins in graphic novel mythos (though some see Fury’s transformation as more about casting than consistency), and will play more prominent roles in future installments. While Terrence Howard and Samuel L. Jackson both had minor moments in the first film, one can see their importance once the pre-Avengers narrative continues. And if one was looking to move beyond the Marvel/DC domain, there are examples of earnest, if ineffective, offerings like Meteor Man that function as a better “been there first” foray.
No, it’s the fact that an A-list African American actor is now poised to have his own high profile popcorn franchise that may explain the excitement - and yet again, this is nothing new for Smith. He rode the Men in Black franchise to two successful films, and would probably revisit any number of his previous roles should the script (and the payday) seem right. Hancock, of course, has a far more interesting backstory, something that could easily be explored in variations of the sequel theme. His transformation from drunk and insolent to tender and heartrending marks the calling card of a potentially classic character. And since his reality is rather esoteric and ephemeral, it could definitely generate repeat investigations.
Which leads us to the other element that people are using to support Hancock’s box office take. Outside of the man in the suit situation, the twist is getting a great deal of press. For those unaware of the third act switch-up a SPOILER warning will be issued. It’s impossible to talk about this part of the film without giving it all away, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and want to remain oblivious to it charms/harms, skip down to the final paragraph. Otherwise, the plot point that transforms the film from a basic action spectacle into something slightly tragic and almost epic is often cited as part of Hancock‘s appeal. Several critics have commented that it more or less makes or breaks the movie.
All throughout the first two acts, Hancock’s interaction with PR man Ray Embrey has been tainted by his wife Mary’s unusually harsh attitude toward the hero. Every time he’s around, she reacts with a combination of anger and revulsion. It turns out that there’s a reason for this - Mary is the same as Hancock, gifted with the same superhuman powers. In a city destroying showdown, she finally reveals her existence. Later, she offers the reasons for her fear. It seems that whomever put these entities on the planet (one of the best explanations is that they are mythic “Gods’ like those of the ancient Greeks), paired them up. Together, they have the potential to sap each others strength. Stay too long together, and they will turn mortal, and be susceptible to injury - or even death.
Mary has been desperate to stay away from Hancock because, in their long and illustrious past together, their partnership has lead to disaster and pain. She explains several examples of their near misses. By remaining apart, both can lead their lives, be it as house wife or a crime fighter. In the end, after being exposed to her, Hancock is wounded and sent to the hospital. When Mary shows up, she too is shot. It takes a Herculean effort from our injured hero to escape his treatment, head out into the street, and save himself and Mary. The farther he gets from her, the more his (and her) powers return. Eventually, we learn that Hancock has taken up residence in New York City, far away from Mary and her family. Both are happy…and more importantly, fully restored.
It’s possible to argue over the effectiveness of this surprise, to suggest as others have that it turns a satiric romp into something far too serious - or in other opinions, striking and rather substantive. The notion of how Mary’s revelation affects the film can be saved for another day. Indeed, it may be more of a personal preference than anything clearly cinematic. What one can argue over is the claims that this is one of the best twists in the history of the type. Parallels to The Sixth Sense and Fight Club have been frequent, suggesting that audiences are really responding based on this outright denouement. By adding the secret, it gives the movie an added punch that a standard ending probably would lack.
Unfortunately, such comparisons are crazy. The Hancock reveal is more about motive than narrative drive. It does affect the way our hero acts for the last 30 minutes of the movie, but it’s not a Kaiser Sose kind of rewrite. Anyone who knows film will see the situation hinted at the minute Charlize Theron makes an appearance. Her shifty eyes and uncomfortable smiles signal something is amiss with this supposedly typical suburbanite. By the time she turns up kicking Hancock’s butt, there’s little shock. True, where the movie takes the material is rather interesting, especially the notion that emotional sacrifice and a lack of partnership must follow these creatures for all eternity (they appear fated to fall in love with each other). But it’s not a definitive turn.
No, Hancock‘s twist is not on the level of 1968’s Planet of the Apes, the truth behind Soylent Green‘s secret recipe, or ‘man/woman’ charade of The Crying Game. In some ways, it’s on par with the whole ‘deal with the Devil’ finale of Angel Heart. It’s a plot point that propels us sideways instead of backward, that doesn’t get us rethinking what we’ve seen transpire so much as contemplating the meaning of such a fact. Sure, it may change the tone of the film, and provide a more somber sort of conclusion that one expects from a big budget popcorn romp, but Hancock doesn’t live or die by said shift.
No, what’s clear is that, as he ages, Will Smith is becoming a certifiable screen presence, someone who can put butts in seats based on his name and his name alone. Sure, there is something to be said for both the race and reveal issues, but neither is as important as who is standing in front of the camera. As his career continues, Smith illustrates the concept that hard work and determination - as well as a deft way with choosing projects - can propel even the most unusual talent into the upper echelon’s of the Hollywood elite. The color of his skin or the last act surprise may be part of Hancock‘s appeal, but they’d be nothing without the former Fresh Prince. Nothing. The best thing this movie has to sell is Smith himself.