Superheroes should be top of list as far as Stuff White People Like; they’re mostly rich; neurotic; obsessed with crime; they practically live at the gym; and they’re kinda nerdy. Even the concept of a superhero is white; it’s not enough for them to be heroic, they have to be super-heroic (talk about an exaggerated sense of self). Black superheroes are almost an oxymoron given this definition. That’s why Hancock comes as such a relief. It’s not exactly that he’s a role-model when we first meet him, but… he’s not preppy, fretty Peter Parker either. Hancock looks (and acts) like a superhero that has sex once in a while; he likes a drink and he swears with authority. Screw Spiderman.
Los Angeles hasn’t had a hometown superhero up till now, so Hancock gives it one. His name is John Hancock. He is black, drunk, surly and instantly likable. True, the movie doesn’t trust us to like him. Even with Will Smith playing Hancock, his re-birth as someone less interesting is nascent from the start. But for those first twenty minutes, Hancock is white America’s nightmare, and the movie is tremendous fun. Unshaven, alcoholic and brawling crime –as opposed to fighting it – Hancock wreaks havoc wherever he goes and the insurance claims are mounting. L.A. has fallen out of love with its Superman, and it’s up to P.R. whiz Jason Bateman to save the day.
While Will Smith is drunk, Hancock is a block-party. Smith has the build to be a superhero. He could be Superman, if he chose. And how much more fun Superman is when he’s swearing at people. Remember how Christopher Reeve smiled more easily as the bad Superman in Superman III? That’s the key to Smith’s performance here. Smith, like Reeve, isn’t letting out his inner-demons. He’s just enjoying what generations of actors have enjoyed – the chance to act drunk. When Hancock is wasted, he liberates Smith. He doesn’t have to be the paragon of virtue who drags a superhero movie down. Instead, he’s that aspect of the superhero which excites us the most: He can do anything! And no-one can make him answer for it! It’s why we root for villains even when Hollywood won’t let us root for villains; why Alan Rickman gets the applause in Robin Hood… because we spend our lives trying to be goodies. At least if we had super-powers, we like to think we’d use them to break the rules.
Jason Bateman’s role should that of the straight man. It is – for the first twenty minutes, but after that Hancock forgets to be a comedy. That’s a pity. Bateman knows how to underplay and he uses his knowledge wisely for twenty minutes. He winds up being the one constant in Hancock; the only character that isn’t thrown for a loop after the Big Secret is revealed half way through. Not so poor Charlize Theron – who looks great, but whom Hancock doesn’t know what to do with. Theron is asked to waft sex Smith’s way and then… nothing. She’s asked to be Someone Very Important and then… nonsense. And it isn’t even that she’s bad, she’s just… ballast. She’s shoehorned into the movie just when Smith and Bateman have got the comedy working and, through no fault of her own, the movie unravels around her. Call it Catwoman syndrome.
The trouble with Hancock is that it sobers up too quickly. The movie seems afraid of its protagonist when he’s not acting like Superman, and it’s as if a bunch of white producers (and a very responsible black star) got the jitters about the premise of drunken superhero that happens to be black. But I think they miss the point. It isn’t Hancock’s drunkenness we respond to. It’s the fact he doesn’t take shit from anybody. Superheroes aren’t “white” because they’re good; they’re “white” because they’re so damn starchy. The world needs at least one superhero who isn’t crying inside as he saves the world. So fine – take away the drink, if you must. Just don’t make him a pussy.