I’m out of shape. I’m playing an out of shape superhero here.
Don’t call John Hancock a role model. Much like Sir Charles, he’s rowdy, resentful, and rightly proud of his independent spirit. He also happens to possess super-powers: he can smash through buildings, withstand explosions and barrages of bullets, and hurtle through the sky. His landings tend to be abrupt, even violent, leaving ravishy craters in the pavement and barking car alarms in his wake.
Hancock is ornery and foul, but he’s also miserable. This is where it matters that he’s played by Will Smith, who makes a business of being a role model, even when spewing foul language for his art (Bad Boys II). Hancock first appears in the movie named for him asleep on a city bench, snorey and hung-over when a child pokes him awake. “Bad guys,” mumbles the boy, rousing Hancock to a semblance of consciousness, pulling his knit cap up so one eye is visible. “What you want?” he grumps, “A cookie?” the kid pivots and walks away, muttering, “Asshole!”
The kid is right, as Hancock‘s poster illustrates: he’s got a screwy sour puss and needs a shave, he’s mad at the world. Still, the cue gets Hancock moving. He takes a slug from his liquor bottle then bounces on the balls of his feet, launching himself into the air, zooming over Los Angeles streets and alleys until he arrives at the scene of the ongoing crime, on the freeway. His entrance might best be described as “slamming.” He crashes through the back window the gun-toting Asian gangsters’ car, settles into the backseat. “Konichiwa!” he blurts by way of jumpstarting a racist, homophobic, completely incorrect verbal assault that distracts the villains who were expecting a more conventionally square-jawed adversary. Hancock gets the job done, but it’s easy to see how the people he saves tend to begrudge his recklessness, drunkenness, and rudeness, and oh yes, the fact that his demolitions cost the locals hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yeah, well, he informs one outraged bystander at another rescue scene, “I been drinking, bitch!”
This last scene is also the one where he meets his would-be savior, an advertising man named Ray (Jason Bateman). Though he’s not exactly an ace at his job — he urges clients to give their products away, to save the planet and, oh yes, create good will among consumers — Ray knows trouble when he sees it, especially trouble that can be repackaged and sold as good old-fashioned heroism. He comes to this conclusion based on a brief interaction with Hancock (who has, in fact, just saved Ray’s life, while creating havoc on a railroad track), determining that the big galoot is depressed. Alone in the universe — or at least on earth — Hancock needs a buddy and an appreciative audience. Ray steps up for the first and devises a campaign to conjure the second.
By way of making Hancock feel loved, Ray invites him home to meet the wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), and young impressionable son Aaron (Jae Head). It’s clear to anyone paying attention that there’s something odd about Mary’s response to Hancock, but Ray is so congenitally optimistic and trusting and bright that he misses it. And so the second-part-of-the-plot’s festering begins, a distracting and eventually unsatisfying series of events that are alternately noisy and jumbled, none adding much to your understanding or appreciation of Hancock and all dismantling his productively perverse, if uneven, characterization thus far.
The most interesting thing about Hancock prior to the plot turn is his defiance of all the superhero conventions. Hauling him back inside those conventions, with (something like) an origin story and a trauma to motivate his aggression. The explanation is too neat, the villains who help expose and exploit it are too tedious, and the resolution is too teetering toward sequel. (Worse, the shift in Hancock’s fortunes sets up a too familiar tension concerning black male sexuality, which the film cannot begin to represent, much less sort out.) In a word, once Hancock is called on to behave and dress like a regular superhero (Ray devises a costume for him, tight-fitting and patently silly), that’s what he becomes. And that’s too bad.
At least part of this breakdown might be attributed to the movie’s long and messy history, bouncing among producers and directors, filtered through rewrites and reconceptions. That it hangs together as well as it does (at least through the first third) is mostly because of Smith’s charisma and intelligent performance. It also has to do with the initial concept: a black superhero desired and derided by crowds who are informed by spectacles, stereotypes, and fear. Though Hancock’s initial rep is variously bad (and his angry, untruly behavior conforms to expectations of a young black man in baggy shorts and a knit cap), the fact that he goes along with Ray’s plan to redeem that image is, at first, ingenious. “Go to jail,” Ray insists, meaning that he agrees to serve time for money he’s cost the city by demolishing property. He’ll agree to become a black prisoner, in coveralls and compliant, fitting yet another stereotype.
As Hancock has never even considered living in confinement (why should he?), his acquiescence evokes a range of responses, from disbelief to contempt (his fellow inmates hate him because he’s responsible for many of them being incarcerated). Frustrated and bored, he complains but stays, invested suddenly in his effect on Aaron, who thinks he’s cool. Ray insists that if he acts like a role model (he follows the rules inside and once out, he respects cops rather than roaring in and disrupting their crime scenes), he’ll win admiration and even affection.
Ray can say this: he’s never been a scary black man with limitless physical powers and a stockpile of anger. Hancock has other issues, beyond his own psychic health, beyond his daily efforts to support the system that has made him feel so alienated and mad. The film notes these issues in passing, en route to its much more predictable and unenlightening resolution. But Hancock can’t actually consider the pop cultural environment that produces Hancock. It would have to be a different, more coherent movie.