Make a list of the comic-book movies that have been released over the past few years, and you may notice a theme: Superheroes can't stop wallowing in their own self-pity.
These days, movies with men and women flying around, making the world a better place, have to take some time out to let the characters vent about what a pain it is being immortal/invincible/indestructible. They gripe about how they must keep a brave face and be day-saviors, even when they're scared and lonely and vulnerable inside. (Jeez, it's no wonder audiences gleefully, gratefully embraced Robert Downey Jr.'s man-of-actual-steel in "Iron Man" -- Tony Stark isn't some whiny wuss! He's ready to slap on some armor and kick some bad-guy tail!)
What made "Hancock," this week's superhero movie, look so promising is that it features a superhuman protagonist who is ordered to get out of his funk and do his job. Will Smith is a down-and-out superman, lying on park benches, blitzed on cheap hooch, constantly getting called an unprintable name by the citizens who should adore him. It seems his attempts to thwart evildoers have done more harm than good, costing Los Angeles millions of dollars in damage. (I love how "Hancock" doesn't let its hero off the hook for his destruction. I know I'm not the only person who has witnessed climactic, property-destroying, superhero vs. villain showdowns in movies and pondered, "How is the city gonna clean that up?")
After Hancock saves the life of an idealistic PR exec (Jason Bateman), the exec hatches a plan to reboot Hancock's image, which means having him sit in jail for his reckless behavior and wait for the city to come calling.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
While the first half has Hancock fully completing his transformation from disheveled, self-loathing jerk to uniform-wearing, upstanding crime-fighter, the movie goes downhill in the second half. I hate to say it's partially Charlize Theron's fault. She plays Bateman's wife, and she immediately takes a disliking to Hancock. Why? "He breaks things," she tells her husband. Does she mean buildings, bones or hearts?
Using sneaky, shaky camera work, director Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights") makes sure we know that there's some secret history between Smith's and Theron's characters. He does everything shy of having Theron dart her eyes back and forth, set to staccato plucking sounds, whenever Smith enters a scene.
This soap-operaesque development is pretty much where "Hancock" lost me -- and it just may lose you, too. What is supposed to be an action-comedy about a superhero who is forced to man up and accept who he is becomes a moodier version of "My Super Ex-Girlfriend."
The movie itself is frayed and messy, the result of too many people coming in and putting dents in something that was promising to begin with. "Hancock" was originally called "Tonight, He Comes," a reportedly darker, morally ambiguous superhero takeoff, courtesy of Vincent Ngo's 12-year-old spec script. After years of development hell, it was reworked into this turgid, flaccid, overmelodramatic monster. The movie appears far-fetched and convoluted even for a superhero movie. We eventually learn that Hancock is an amnesiac who woke up alone in a Miami hospital 80 years ago -- and yet, we're supposed to believe this man couldn't win over a few people during that time.
Complete with a once-over from former "X-Files" scribe Vince Gilligan (and a possible polish from producer/renowned script doctor Akiva Goldsman), "Hancock" is a more self-pitying ride than previous superhero flicks. You can't help but wonder if this is to appease Smith and keep his status as Mr. Wonderful Movie Star intact. For a while there, seeing the Fresh Prince slap a dusty, roguish scowl on his face and act like a foul-mouthed, self-loathing cad is the movie's strongest asset. But, unfortunately, that gets lost in the ether.
Like so many superhero movies before it, "Hancock" ultimately wants us to feel the pain of its titular titan, for he is a creature who is all alone in this world. He must be responsible for preserving the safety of his fellow men and women. For him, it's a blessing and a burden.
Excuse me while I play the world's smallest violin! Just do your job before we call somebody qualified -- like The Dark Knight. Man, I can't wait until July 18 comes around!