Hancock is one of those movies that was perpetually on my list of Movies I Should Get Around to Watching. When it was in theaters and long after it left I had every intention of checking it out. I even bought it on DVD and let it collect dust for several year until I got around to watching it just now. The premise, a superhero who is very much a jerk, was considered fresh at the time (2008) and has since been explored on film in much darker detail in both Watchmen and The Boys. But unlike those where the heroes in question crossed over into doing some flat out evil deeds this film offers somewhat of a middle ground between those and say, Superman. Will Smith stars as Hancock, a man with the usual superpowers (flight, super strength, invulnerability) and immortality who also happens to be a mean and miserable drunk. The movie opens with him sleeping on a park bench after a likely bender when he’s woken up by a kid to go catch some robbers fleeing a crime. After telling the kid off he flies after them with no regard to his surroundings, crashing through street signs and causing all kinds of other damage in route to stopping the bad guys.
Hancock is a guy who is not evil but is performing his heroics minus any sense of joy or accomplishment. He has these powers and while he feels inclined to use them for good he treats them more like a curse than a gift, like they’re getting in his way more than helping him lead a good life. And the public reciprocates; he is viewed as a guy who no one particularly likes but is useful for certain tasks so they keep calling on him. Then he catches the eye of Ray (Jason Bateman), a struggling ad exec who sees a chance to rebrand him and turn around his image. But there’s something else afoot when Ray’s son Aaron becomes enamored with him, and his wife Mary immediately starts acting weird whenever he comes around. As the movie progresses hijinks ensue as Ray tries to get Hancock to embrace his marketing strategy, we learn about Hancock’s origin and backstory, and we find out just what the connection is between Hancock and Mary.
The initial premise was and still is intriguing. Hancock was not thrust into the superhero life by dead parents or some mission from on high, he’s just stuck with it and not particularly happy about it. That’s different from the hypocritical Homelander from The Boys or the off the deep end for the greater good Ozymandias from Watchmen. Hancock isn’t an undercover villain or a guy who has come to see himself as the savior of humanity, he’s a good guy who is trapped in a life of being called upon for his abilities but not having anyone or anything else meaningful going on, and no noble cause burned into his psyche. And it sucks to be him because of all that. The heroes burden is usually something that exists alongside an excitement to have abilities and to do good, not as the entirety of one’s character. And the film does a good job in the beginning at presenting that to us. Smith does a good job conveying all that onscreen; despite his reputation as a blockbuster lead he really is a good actor when his number is called to be one. And he manages to go without slipping into smiling, charming Will Smith mode the whole movie, too.
Unfortunately the rest of the movie doesn’t keep up with the first act. Ray’s big plan to rehab Hancock’s image, turning himself in to the authorities to atone for all the property damage he caused and letting the inevitable increase in crime create a longing for him to be set free, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Putting a super powered man inside a regular jail that he could break out of on a whim and possibly recruit people to join him defies all logic, and the few attempts at getting humor out of it fell flat. And to make matters worse, what was supposed to be an eight year sentence ends in mere days of movie time and not even a half hour of movie time. It comes and goes so quickly that there isn’t any real emotional buildup to the release that we all know is coming. All we really get out of it is a moment between Hancock, Mary, and Aaron when they visit him in prison, another thing that makes no sense given what we find out about Hancock’s relationship Mary later.
And things really go downhill in the third act, when we learn Hancock’s backstory and what the nature of the relationship between he and Mary is. The big reveal, that Mary is a super powered being also who was once married to Hancock, comes very abruptly. We go from being shown some kind of weird tension between the two to just telling us with little development in between. And then we proceed within minutes to what is supposed to be the big fight that resolves everything, but feels like a short cut to just end the movie. And it’s not even the big action set piece that usually is the payoff in these kind of movies; it’s just a run of the mill encounter with some garden variety criminals that causes some definitive action on how Hancock, Mary, and Ray will continue on with one another. And when all is said and done Ray and Mary don’t even have so much as an onscreen hashing out of what has been revealed before they ultimately decide to stay together. It’s like they started out making an unconventional superhero movie then switched to a relationship movie but then didn’t do the work to make that a satisfying ending. When the credits roll little between Ray and Mary makes sense and Hancock’s decision to embrace being a hero wasn’t properly spelled out either.
The knock on the movie was that it was a big pile of wasted potential, and it’s really hard to disagree with that. A real opportunity to give us a three dimensional look at a superhero was squandered here. Hancock doesn’t have decades of story canon to adhere to and wasn’t based on any existing archetypes so they could have done whatever they wanted with the character and the story without pissing anyone off. Unlike Man of Steel there was no previous depiction of this character for anyone to compare it to but they failed to capitalize on what was a totally blank canvas to work with. The one time a Hollywood studio does something close to original in this genre and they completely fumble it. It really felt like after the first was act completed that they were running out of time and/or money to finish and had to cut all the corners.
It also set the table for Smith’s career over the past decade, one of chasing Oscar bait with attempts to do something different and profound but always missing the mark and falling into some level of disappointment. It’s like he learned all the wrong things from doing Ali, where he put on an Oscar worthy individual performance in an otherwise pretty good movie that should have been great. What he’s done is the opposite of the Rock, who was trying really hard to be a real actor but realized that people really want to see him beat people up and make things go boom and jumped back in with both feet for the duration. Smith seems to want that recognition as a true thespian but keeps making bad choices of how to get it. On the other hand when he just does what everyone wants from him we get Bad Boys for Life which was a smashing success pre-COVID 19 and should serve as the template for him going forward. Be who you are Will.
Now back to this movie. I think a lot could have been fixed with another 30 minutes instead of the inexplicably short 90 minutes long that it ran. But alas, they didn’t do that and as a result I found everything after the first half hour to be unsatisfying. Smith, Bateman, and Theron all did well but that’s not enough as you can see all of them do their thing in better movies and not bother with this one. Smith in channeled this same kind of energy much better as Deadshot in Suicide Squad than he did here so go watch that instead. Is it a total waste of time? No. If you like Smith and/or Theron and just like to see them onscreen then if it comes on TV have at it. But would I recommend seeking this movie out if you haven’t seen it yet? Not really. I’m in no hurry to watch it again myself to be honest, even though I eventually will since I have a copy of it here.
Final Score: 2/6 (Watchable but with glaring issues)
(Scale: 6 – great, 5 – very good, 4 – good, 3 – ok (no glaring issues but don’t rush to see it), 2 – has major issues, 1 – bad, 0 – trash)