Will Smith in Hancock reviewed.

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July 2 2008 4:22 PM

Superbad

Hancock's failed superhero satire.

Hancock. Click image to expand.
Will Smith, left, and Jason Bateman in Hancock

In a summer when the broad deltoids of superheroes have been weighted down with the freight of existential despair (the Hulk is the new Hamlet; The Dark Knight the new Endgame) the timing seems perfect for a cynical, corner-cutting mess of a superhero like Will Smith's character in Hancock (Columbia Pictures). Alas, the movie is also a corner-cutting mess. Things get off to such a good start, too, with the drunken hero snoozing on a park bench as carjacking criminals run rampant through L.A. When a little boy awakens him with a request for help, the surly Hancock, clad in a watch cap and grimy shorts, flies to the scene of the crime and sloppily apprehends the bad guys, oblivious of the collateral damage (multicar pileups, trashed public property) he inflicts along the way.

Hancock's slipshod methods and crappy attitude have made him an unpopular figure in the city. After he saves Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from a train wreck, onlookers jeer at Hancock's poor technique: Why couldn't he have prevented the collision entirely by lifting Ray's car in the air and flying straight up? But Ray, an idealistic PR executive, takes pity on Hancock and invites him home to dinner with his wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), and son, Aaron (Jae Head). Eventually Hancock agrees to be coached in superhero etiquette by Ray, a branding expert.

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Hancock's rebranding will involve a jail term, group therapy sessions, and a skintight leather costume that he reluctantly dons to stop a bank robbery in progress. Smith and Bateman are such affable presences that even the mild laughs this premise offers make for a jolly opening hour. But a major revelation about a third character (along with a labored exegesis of Hancock's near-incomprehensible origin story) sends the movie into precisely the poor-tormented-superhero territory it's supposed to be spoofing. Hancock's satire functions on the notion that it would be funny if saving the world from evil were just another job—one you could be good or bad at, one that could inspire you or leave you with midcareer burnout. As soon as the hero becomes another wounded demigod brooding on rooftops, that premise—and the movie—loses its sting.

Peter Berg may be best-known for the 2004 football drama Friday Night Lights, but he has surprisingly sharp instincts as a comic director. (His feature debut was the pitch-black 1998 cult comedy Very Bad Things.) One precisely timed slapstick scene, in which Smith and Theron exchange furtive blows behind Bateman's back, points toward a promising new subgenre: the comic-book movie as domestic farce. But only minutes after this scene, the movie devolves into a blur of action set pieces and superhero metaphysics (you know, that vaguely apocalyptic blather about the convergence of good and evil forces in the universe). The climax, a multipart showdown in the corridors of a hospital, is unforgivably manipulative. What self-respecting director still cuts away to shots of a heartbeat monitor flat-lining? Hancock isn't the only underachiever on the premises—the talented Berg settles for far less than he should. The movie's final shot finds Hancock fully brand-optimized, complete with costume and mascot, atop the requisite skyscraper. Maybe in the sequel, he can rebrand himself as funny.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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