Hancock (2008) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
27Jan/110

Hancock (2008)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Danny LIKENote: spoilers ahoy today.

There's two important facets to good film criticism, I believe, and those lie in properly evaluating both the context and the subtext of a given film. The context being what you see and experience, and the subtext being what the film is actually saying. Being able to relate and discuss both of these in an informed way will create a review that's intelligent, and, hopefully, interesting to read.

It also helps if you swear a lot, I've found. For fuck's sake.

Besides being yet another superhero film, Hancock is a surprisingly subtext-filled film. Peeled away beneath the veneer of a gaudy IP-free superhero romp starring one of the biggest movie stars alive is an allegorical take on the modern black celebrity. No, really.

My name is LeBron-- er, Hancock. Yeah, that's it.

A drunken lout who seems to feed on the negative feedback, it's not too surprising when it turns out that Hancock also has the ability to fly, super strength, super speed, etc, etc. His disregard for the public, after years for being taken for granted, sidelined, and just basically treated as contemptible, have created an animosity that he's in no mood to try and fix.

Enter PR man and all around genial guy Ray, who decides to take Hancock on as a client in hopes that he might do some good for both Hancock and the world. Anyone who wants to see the parallels between Hancock and countless celebrities has to look no closer than the next act: reading a thinly veiled apology, Hancock heads into jail to pay for the damage he's caused.

The apology itself is funny, as it sounds like every prepared statement from a celebrity about to pay their deserved due:

I apologize to the people of Los Angeles. My behavior has been improper and I accept the consequences. I ask my fellow Angelinos for their patience and understanding. Life here can be difficult for me. After all, I am the only one of my kind. During my incarceration, I will be participating in alcohol and anger management treatment. You deserve better from me. I can be better. I will be better.

Ray's plan is to wait out the incarceration; once Hancock is gone for long enough and crime raises precipitously, the police will have no choice but to ask him to come to their aid, giving Hancock the opportunity to redeem himself. True to his plan, this happens, and Hancock, eternally besmirched, is put in the odd position of being adored.

This is where the film makes a leap. Up to this point, the film has been entirely about Hancock coming to terms with who he is and redeeming himself, but it takes a turn into who he was. It's understandable if the movie loses its audience at this point as we've already reached the section where, in any normal superhero movie, Hancock's redemption would have been the climax.

But director Peter Berg wants to put more on his plate, and Ray's wife is revealed to be another super powered being. Her and Hancock have a latent attraction that almost blossoms until she reveals that it had already done that several times before to universally disastrous results.

Hancock's sudden fame allows him some redemption but it can't entirely overcome his wariness.

That the wife/other super being is played by South African Charlize Theron who is as lily white as they come. Much of the third act becomes about how the two of them can't be together because that makes them vulnerable to the evils of man, and Theron tells several stories to the amnesiac Hancock about them being attacked by angry mobs or armies. If you've been reading into the rather obvious subtext at all, it wasn't because they were powerful gods, it was because of the color of their skin.

So the last half an hour of the film veers from a parody of celebrity nonsense into full blown lesson on a history of interracial politics. This results in one of the more daring climaxes I think I've seen in a movie that involves people flying and throwing cars: Hancock has to run away as fast as he can. The only way for them to be safe it to stay apart.

It could be argued that that argues for racial separation, but I don't think it's a strong case; they aren't separated by choice, but necessity for survival. It's an unromantic ending, because, even though Ray gets to keep his wife and Hancock gets his past life back, they're all forced apart because the ills of society will destroy them if they try to remain together.

Also, this film involves a superhero putting a man's head into another man's ass, but I'm kind of shaky on the subtext for that one.

Who's up first in the 'head into anus' parade?

Three other subtextual things that tickled me before I hit the context:

  • Hancock is named after founding father John Hancock. He's remembered today entirely for his famously florid signature on the Declaration of Independence. This makes him also a man with only a name and no history, just like Smith's Hancock.
  • The movie that Theron and Smith were supposed to see before his amnesia was the Karloff Frankenstein, not coincidentally a story of a misunderstood monster who was attacked by an unsympathetic mob.
  • The two real villains of the film are subtly stereotypical. The young boy who mocks Hancock insistently is a blond child named Michel-- yes, the German pronunciation of the name. The more conventional villain-- the one with the guns who attacks Hancock when he's at his weakest-- is a white man with a subtle but noticeable Southern drawl. Not exactly difficult villains for the movie to choose, but at least it doesn't rub it in the audience's face with cross burnings or armbands.

All of that being said, the filmmaker's quest to create an allegory resulted in a lot of broad strokes for the characters, and Hancock's PR problems fade away jarringly in the last act. Ray is genial and nice, but it's hard to believe that he'd take his wife's eternal connection to his friend so lightly.

Regardless, Hancock is one of the most surprisingly deep and simultaneously funny superhero movies made in the last decade. I'm sure there's even more to get out of it, on top of plenty of heads getting shoved into other people's rectums. You can never discount that.

Posted by Danny

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