The Asshole’s Antihero: ‘Hancock’ was the last great alternative superhero movie

On 4th of July weekend, 2008, Peter Berg’s Hancock showed up and reinvented the superhero movie. The problem is: two weeks later The Dark Knight reinvented it again. But for 14 sunny days — during which cinemagoers were treated to Wall.E and Mamma Mia! — the Will Smith-fronted blockbuster felt just a little special. And deservedly so.

Hancock is probably the best movie Will Smith has ever made; it’s definitely got the strongest premise: an alcoholic superhero with no motivation is rehabilitated by a generous PR guy who owes him a debt. That hero? Smith’s Hancock, an asshole from Miami with no family, no friends and no reason to keep flying around. He saves Jason Bateman’s life, and Bateman brings him home for dinner, also attended by his wife Charlize Theron. Aside from the delights of the Bateman/Theron Arrested Development reunion, it’s a great set-up that leads to a twist involving her character that was miraculously saved from the marketing.

Nothing warms me to a movie — particularly one with relatively unimaginative action set-pieces — than brevity, and Hancock is a beautiful 95 minutes. It jumps, quite literally, from introducing our antihero to Bateman concocting his plan to a hilarious prison segment to a great bank robbery (Michael Mann produced, and the scene is straight out of Heat), the twist and then a bunch of stuff in a hospital. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, nor does it transcend what is necessary to keep the audience just sufficiently entertained that they’ll come back for a second helping once all the exposition is out of the way (back in ’08, that still seemed like an acceptable way of making movies). Hancock is no Dark Knight (but it’s better than the first Iron Man for sure), but it strikes its own greasier path to narrative victory — in no small part due to Vince Gilligan’s screenwriting credit.

Hancock sets up a fascinating mythology of superpowered people — “an insurance policy for the Gods” — that had loads and loads of franchise potential. Back in 2012, Berg and the actors were still talking about Hancock 2, yet despite the first movie’s sizeable gross it has never emerged. In an age of profound superheroic mediocrity — in which the Smith-starring Suicide Squad plays a major role — we could do with a hero like Hancock, who wasn’t confined by Happy Meal tie-ins or any Cinematic Universe malarkey. Hancock was a maverick on every level.