Although Will Smith plays an emotionally fragile superhero in Hancock, as a movie star he's practically invincible. By industry standards, the last genuine Smith dud was The Legend of Bagger Vance, but the actor's standing among many audiences has remained decidedly rocky. As a result, he occupies a unique corner of the Hollywood marketplace where quality and taste don't necessarily match up. Unlike, say, The Dark Knight, not many people eagerly await the latest Smith offering -- which currently has a 32% rating on Rotten Tomatoes -- but they'll see it anyway. Hancock is tracking well, thanks to a poster exclusively dominated by Smith's unshaven mug, and that pretty much seals its potent box office fate. Just as Smith's slapdash onscreen persona is bullet-proof, Smith himself is steadfastly critic-proof.
Which places movie in an interesting quagmire: After pulling in waves of cash, it will probably get relegated to the void of forgettable Smith fare, where spectacles offer passing amusement before scampering off forever. Hancock, however, deserves better than a fleeting moment in the limelight and a crash landing in the bargain bin. It's part of a genre that speaks directly to the modern state of blockbuster cinema: The superhero satire. Considering the way superhero movies have continually made bank at the multiplexes over the last several years, superhero satires essentially serve to spoof the zeitgeist. Hancock ridicules the bloated fantasies of its action-packed referents by taking cues from The Incredibles handbook, bringing questions of practicality into a realm that usually ignores them. Just as those characters avoided the hazards of outfits with capes, Hancock gives us a drunken hero incapable of flying around without destroying the cityscape. When we first meet the guy, he's cold-hearted, lonely and relentlessly vulgar -- the Bad Santa of supermen. Frequently raunchy while maintaining the cheerful simplicity of a kids' movie, Hancock switches gears time and again, but it glides along on a confusion of moods.
There's no doubting the absurdity of the situation -- a street bum with powers sloppily saving the day -- and it gets even kookier when Jason Bateman shows up as a well-meaning PR man to help smooth out Hancock's public image. But Bateman's wife, played by Charlize Theron, retains a credible ferocity when enunciating her own feelings about Hancock's role in society. She delivers a poignant monologue near the end of the movie that recalls the emotional tenor of director Peter Berg's less outlandish effort, Friday Night Lights.
Because it seems like she's acting in a far more grounded film, The New Yorker critic David Denby (an outspoken Hancock champion) compares her scenes with Smith to "a Cassavettes psychodrama" before concluding that the whole thing makes for "the most enjoyable big movie of the summer." Honestly, it's not quite consistent enough to justify that hyperbole, but it's still one of the weirdest studio movies in some time, and not one without precedent. Superhero satires tend to get regarded as passable comedies, but they're often loaded with pertinent social commentary. Blankman and Meteor Man deal with inner city race problems. The Incredibles observes unrest in the nuclear family. All the way back in the 1960s, William Klein's Mr. Freedom (which Criterion recently put out in a great DVD box set) mocked super-patriotism. As long as America continues to obsess over good guys in funny costumes, there's a benefit to satirizing them: It helps us understand the mania. Then again, that doesn't mean Superhero Movie! gets a free pass.