A Rant about Hancock, a film of failed potentials

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There is no denying, Hancock is a mess. Whether this is due to studio interference or just bad filmmaking is unclear, regardless in it’s current form the film suffers from too many ideas working against each other. As individual concepts, each idea could have been compelling and interesting as far as Blockbuster entertainment. Under the weight of convention and conservatism, these ideas crumble, creating a half-hearted final product that fails as light entertainment, let alone a trascendiary exploration of form and the human condition.

What if Superman was an asshole?

What if the man in blue tights was a boozing asshole? Would he be admired, revered… would he even exist? Would popular audiences reject a character that was “too human”, at the very least, had too many perceived character flaws to be unnapproacheable? The popularity of Film Noir may point to a desire or attraction, audiences have for jaded protagonists, but none of them were possessed with supernatural strengths or powers, and while some of them had distinct abilities that had the potential to make the world a better place, none had that proto-cultural God-like quality that almost willed them to do good. Hancock, like Superman, is seemingly indestructible, at the very least he is “immortal”.

His gift is not blessing, at least not in that he revels or enjoys helping others. His abilities complicate his life as much as they help him. He is plagued by self-doubt, guilt and identity issues, especially complicated by a sense of duty to help others. The film, unfortunately, over-simplifies his crisis and conflict, equating his self-destructive nature to personal unhappiness. This is true, but the way the film handles it is clumsy, as everything is cleanly spelt out and resolved. The interesting aspects of the film are mishandled mostly due to the nature of blockbuster cinema. Personally, I love blockbusters, and see a few a month, but to see ideas like these squandered because of form is disappointing and frustrating. The idea of a “super-human”, plagued by existential and identity issues is fascinating. It’s not foreign to the genre entirely, as the X-Men films also tackle the issue, but perhaps I yearn for something a little meatier.

I almost have to ask, has there ever been a superhero film that really transcends the conventions of the genre? It doesn’t have to be Hollywood, though I can’t personally think of any that don’t fit Hollywood model. I’m not even looking for a superhero, per say. In Hancock, one character comments that once upon a time they were called Gods, another time Angels, now they’re superheroes. All that really changes is the name. Films and novels, like The Lord of the Rings touch briefly through the characters who are immortal, and the crisis that come with that responsibility. The difference here, is the added responsibility of “power” and the responsibility that comes with it. Perhaps, the only example I can really think of that handles this idea with any kind of grace or care, is Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night (1979). Again though, it’s conflicted by an innate desire and need for destruction. This in itself is fascinating, paired with the loneliness and human desires Herzog’s vampire yearns for. I’m searching for something more though, an innate desire for good, and the crisis that comes with that.

Hancock briefly touches on some of these conflicts, almost all in passing, but again, I’m fascinated by the ideas presented. Perhaps the most tender scene of the year, Mary explains to Hancock their relationship over the ions by pointing to the scars on his body. It’s a tender scene, but it also raises an interesting idea… despite being “saviours” and bringers of good, at every turn, humans felt a need to destroy them. The reasons are never explained, but it makes sense. What we do not understand, often inspires fear and violence. There are a great many other ideas at work, that perhaps I myself would like to explore in my own work sometime.

Returning to my question about “superheroes”, and the mishandling of it in popular cinema, another film strikes me as handling very well, at least one idea presented in Hancock. The love story is probably my favourite part of the film, despite being handled terribly. The “idea” of the love story won me over though. One example that stands out as representing the idea and themes of sacrifice and devotion, along similar parameters is Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Though the love is not immediately reciprocated, the idea of super-human power giving up this gift for mortal “pleasures”, like love and happiness. In Hancock, the idea is presented similarly, but once two of these superhuman are close to the other, they by some strange nature become mortal. It becomes a joint sacrifice, and in the case of Mary, becomes a sacrifice of personal “happiness” for the greater good, as she recognizes Hancock’s ability to help people outweighing the importance of their devotion and attraction.

One final aspect of the film I loved, was just a simple and seemingly irrelevant touch: two movie tickets to James Whale original Frankenstein. While the novel, more so, than the film presents the potential dangers and doubts involved with creating life that is “self-aware”. In this case, whoever created Hancock, is in a way a God-like presence in themselves. The characters obviously see in Frankenstein, the same misunderstanding and monstrosity that has been propelled upon them time and time again. It also comes with a desire for answers, and perhaps culpability from the creator, whoever that may be. Again, it all comes back to identity, the search for meaning… it’s not an easy question.

At least from my perspective, the weight of all these issues simply cannot be handled all at once, let alone in the confines of a traditional action/superhero film narrative. The other films I mention, all handle small bits and pieces presented in Hancock, to much greater success for the specificity and moving beyond the traditional model. Then again, I think Lord of the Rings does a fairly good job as well handling the issues within context of a greater narrative (the love between Aragorn and Arwen touch on relationships and mortality), and still maintaining conventions of the Hollywood model. Hancock though suffers from bad writing, editing and to a certain extent even bad cinematography. I will say though, it inspired some interesting ideas, at least for me.

2 responses to “A Rant about Hancock, a film of failed potentials

  1. FYI, the question of ‘what if superman was an asshole’ was covered in Superman III, where he gets drunk and acts like an ass, when he’s not having his zany antics with Richard Pryor :P. Just terrible…

    but as for superhero movies that transcends the conventions of the genre, the closest I’ve ever seen is the Batman franchise. Tim Burton’s original really didn’t transcend the genre per se, just that he had the audacity to make the material SO much darker than the campy Adam West crap of the 60s, so I guess it was very original by default.

    But if you really want something that transcends the genre, Batman Begins is the closest I’ve ever seen. Christopher Nolan had the audacity to not even show Bruce Wayne in the costume until past the halfway point I think, and the movie’s much better for that. Batman took a backseat to Bruce Wayne, I thought, and it was Nolan’s ability to weave past and present that he started with in Memento that really got to the crux of Bruce Wayne’s psyche and guilt complex. So many superhero movies like Spiderman and Iron Man (both very good, but SO by-the-book with the superhero formula) focus on the hero and his cool powers, but Batman Begins was really about the man within the costume, which is why I’m ready to explode waiting for The Dark Knight to come out next week. Great stuff 🙂

  2. Heh, I actually should have known that. I haven’t seen Superman III, but know of the Drunken Superman. Heh.

    I actually haven’t seen Batman Begins, though I’ve ordered tickets for the midnight showing of The Dark Knight. It’s doubtful I’ll be able to get my hands on Begins before then, as I imagine it’ll be rented out at the video store all this week. I can hope though.

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