Consideration of Works Past: Hancock and the Superhero Trope

(Picture from here.)

A little context. Iron Man, the first entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, came out in the USA in May. Hancock, Will Smith’s superhero movie, came out in July that same year. No one knew at that point what a juggernaut the MCU would become, nor that eventually the Disney behemoth would be behind it. Regardless, Iron Man was a beautifully produced, well directed, finely realized superhero film.

Hancock was not really a superhero film—at least not in the Iron Man mold. It was inevitable the two would be compared. Hancock was declared the lesser film. Problematic. A mess. Iron Man was praised as a terrific achievement.

Back in 2008, I wrote this entry regarding Hancock. I would have left it there but over the last couple of years with all of the fireworks over all of the different superhero movies (I’m looking at you, Justice League.)  a couple of reviewers brought out all of the old criticisms. So, I watched it again to see how it weathered.

I think Iron Man was terrific. But I think Hancock was brilliant.

Though the years have not changed my opinion, my reasons have changed.

The majority of superhero stories follow a set number of beats:

  • Character discovers he has powers
  • Character discovers the nature of his powers.
  • Character discovers the moral dimension of having powers.
  • Character determines the path forward regarding the powers.

The decisions the character makes in step 4 determine whether the character becomes superhero or supervillain. Superheroes see duty. Supervillains see opportunity. Peter Parker in MCU’s Civil War said this: “When you can do the things I can. And you don’t. And the bad things happen. They happen because of you.”

If you look at the original Spiderman comic: Peter Parker discovers he has powers. He explores them. He does not engage with the world regarding his powers—in fact, given the opportunity to stop a criminal he opts out. That criminal kills his Uncle Ben. His guilt and responsibility for Ben’s murder cause him to become a superhero.

Not all beats happen in that order or with equal importance. The first Thor opens with him having full knowledge of his powers and their nature. But he’s a dick—so the film largely concerns itself with steps 3 and 4. The Iron Man arc through the films has Tony Stark create and extend his powers through the first couple of films. He spends the next several films exploring the moral dimension of his powers—each film changing the rules and having him adapt. By the Endgame film, Tony knows exactly who he is with relation to his abilities. I would argue his path through Endgame is the natural process of him deciding the logical end point of where those moral decisions take him.

There are several of superhero franchises in comics and two big ones in the film industry: MCU and the DC Universe with Superman and the rest. In all of them there’s a tension between character and abilities. Marvel made a decision to lean on character. DC made a decision to lean on abilities. Every now and then, DC will point out that Clark’s important memories are of Clark Kent, not Superman. But it never lasts. With Marvel, on the other hand, few people refer to Tony as Iron Man. He’s Tony Stark.

These emphases make a difference in the tone of the above beats but not their presence. They’re always there.

The reliance on these beats, and certainly the money involved, tends to make these stories keep in continuous spin. In the comics, no one stays dead and no profitable product ever ends. The DCU has certainly stayed with that idea. But the MCU has managed to kill a couple of major characters. That could prove interesting.

Enter Hancock. (Remember Hancock? This is an entry about Hancock.)

Hancock accepts that these beats occurred. But they failed. By this, I mean at some point in his life Hancock went through all of those beats and decided to become a hero—did it at least twice, according to the film. And they weren’t enough. The moral decision—by itself—is insufficient. At the beginning of the film, he’s still doing heroics but his heart isn’t in it. He’s drunk most of the time. There is no joy in his life. He is alone.

One of the most obvious comparisons between Iron Man and Hancock is that Tony Stark is loved. Oh, he’s an incredible dick. But there are people who care for him. Support him. Sympathize with him. Later in the MCU (and the DCU) the heroes themselves care for one another. Hancock has none of this.

It’s like the MCU and DCU wander across these four beats over and over: 1234, 3421, 1114, and all other combinations.

Those beats are Hancock’s past. Hancock has already learned all the lessons, fought them, rejected them, accepted them, left them behind. He’s still going through the motions—like Peter said, if you don’t, it’s on you. But it’s empty. A meaningless moral sham.

I wonder if the difference between Hancock is the perspective of age. Growing up is a continuous process of learning oneself and proving oneself. But, at some point, that learning is accomplished. That proof is done. What’s left? A joyless existence marching towards death? That’s where Hancock starts.

At the core of Hancock is the relationship between Hancock himself and Ray Embrey. Ray is one of many Hancock saves in the worst way possible—these bad saves are so common in the film that people neglect the fact of the save only to denigrate the way Hancock did it. (In this case, Ray is stuck on a train tracks. Hancock saves him by standing in the way of the train which destroys the train, the tracks, and a lot of real estate.)

But it’s Ray who realizes he has been saved, regardless of how it was done. It is Ray that reaches out to Hancock and wants what’s best for him. It’s Ray that realizes how the world is losing a remarkable human being— Hancock’s powers are almost an aside. It’s Ray that creates a place where Hancock can find his way home. Ray doesn’t preach to him. Ray just shows Hancock things Hancock has done badly and asks: don’t you want to better?

At the core of the story is a person of abilities that is lost and a person that helps them find themselves.

See? Not a superhero story at all.





Consideration of Works Past: Hancock and the Superhero Trope — 2 Comments

  1. I don’t know why Hancock didn’t get more love*. I think it’s both brilliant and good-hearted. And Ray is as much a superhero as Hancock, in his own way. I have a real fondness for the “ordinary” characters who are extraordinary in their ability to bring out the best in the people who have the advantage of powers.

    *and I too love Iron Man and the whole MCU story arc. But that’s another discussion.