As I type these words, Los Angeles, New York and a pseudonymous Chicago are all under attack. Here are the personnel sent to rescue them and the box office: a bourbon-soaked black bum with a ribbety-boppin’ vocabulary and a reckless disregard for property; a long-tailed, cigar-chomping demon with a taste for Tecate and publicity (and a reckless disregard for property); and a raging masked vigilante, who owns way too much property and so has little regard for anyone else’s. Behold Hancock, Hellboy II and The Dark Knight, now assembled in the multiplex like a Justice League gone goofy on melted butter. Hollywood’s season of wanton destruction has reached its height, along with the season of subtexts so blatant they’re super.
Are these not-so-hidden messages compelling and intriguing or just a good excuse for making things go boom? And what’s wrong with boom, anyway? Conventionally, if tacitly, these three new superhero movies admit that their protagonists don’t just set disorder right but also set it in motion, to the audience’s deep satisfaction. Hancock, Hellboy and Batman are a little like slapstick comics in that regard, answering our eternal need to see normal life kicked in the pants. They’re also a little like that other stock character, the Western gunfighter, in being misfits who cannot be a part of the normal life they ultimately restore. That much is understood in advance by every ticket buyer. What remains to be seen is whether any particular discovery is possible in these big, loud, expensive, highly engineered but potentially idiosyncratic films.
You do learn something from Hancock: that it’s awkward to streak through the sky of Los Angeles with all those birds getting in the way. You uncover the hypocrisy of people who say it’s good to stand up to bullies but then criticize you for throwing one way up in the air, just because the kid is 10. You find out that fine-looking women can be very cold to a man with awesome powers when he greets them from the sidewalk bench where he’d passed out. In short, you discover that Hancock is the most down-to-earth of superhero movies. That’s how it’s written (with credit to Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan), directed (by the briskly straightforward Peter Berg) and played by its star, Will Smith, who may be the first screen actor to bring to mind Lenny Bruce’s speculations about the dangerous sexual potency of Superman, and to do so while miming a hangover.
But with Smith’s first burning glance at his co-star, Charlize Theron, here playing a Valley wife and mother who is perfectly ordinary except for the golden hair and goddesslike deportment, Hancock begins to abandon its ruder, funnier possibilities for something safer–something that is (Lenny help us) redemptive. Now you learn what you already knew: that Will Smith can clean up very nicely, proving that he’s not really the superhero as rebuked and scorned black man but the superhero as superstar. You learn, with only a little more surprise, that husbands and fathers in the Valley cannot live up to their wives, at least when Charlize Theron is in the house. And you learn that no one can be redeemed without fight sequences featuring plenty of CGI.