Hancock: The Greatest Sports Movie You Never Saw

As regular readers will no doubt be aware, this blog is nothing if not unoriginal. And with that in mind, it seems appropriate that the following post does little more than remake several points better made elsewhere about a moderately successful Will Smith movie from five years ago. I’m no sell-out.

If anyone remembers, in 2008 Will Smith starred in a film about a troubled, alcoholic superhero called John Hancock who, with the help of a benevolent PR guy played by Jason Bateman (star of Teen Wolf Too, for my money THE great Teen Wolf movie), overhauls his image and learns to be a better man. As rubbish as that sounds, I recall actually being pretty excited about this picture prior to its release, particularly after seeing the trailer before a screening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Remember that in 2008 the notion of cinema exploring how superheroes might function with real life problems was still relatively unchartered territory. Watchmen, Super and Kick-Ass were all at least one year away from release and the only real example I can think of prior to this was the 2006 Michael Rapaport movie Special.

Unfortunately the film abandons any attempts at deconstruction or originality about two thirds of the way through and becomes just a massive, pointless pile of crap that isn’t worth discussing. It’s a real pity though because the original concept for Hancock was based on a script called Tonight, He Comes written by Vincent Ngo at some point during the ’90s. That script, while certainly not the work of breathtaking originality and subversiveness that some have claimed, does at least probe the inevitable sense of isolation and emotional turmoil that being the sole superhero on earth would bring. Unfortunately it was let down by some super lame adolescent shock tactics, similar to those that one might find in Garth Ennis’s postmodern take on the superhero, The Boys. It certainly isn’t as bad as The Boys, which is probably best described as Watchmen for morons. Who watches the watchmen? Well for Garth Ennis apparently it’s a rag tag bunch of completely unauthentic knobheads espousing the smug, adolescent, half-baked libertarian views of their creator. And some of the Ennis-eque taste for the attention-seeking grotesque does unfortunately make it through to the final picture, most notably the scene where Hancock literally sticks one criminal’s head up another’s anus. What a laugh! I cannot believe they just went there! Yawn.

Admittedly there are one or two genuinely moving moments early on that hint at the loneliness and general unhappiness of the protagonist. But this can largely be credited to the talents of Will Smith as an actor and, to be fair to the lad*, the often maligned director, Peter Berg. As an aside, I actually think that Berg does have a talent for shooting scenes that generate a sense of empathy for his protagonists that many other blockbuster directors lack. But my point is essentially that these moments are rare and fleeting and do not emerge from any really interesting concepts or ideas from the shooting script.

As such, what I found much more interesting was how the film, at least initially, sets itself up as a metaphor for the demonisation of the sports superstar in contemporary society. Stephen Hunter acknowledged this subtext in his review of the film, praising the its implicit commentary on both the privilege and the trauma of the black, American sports star. This cultural concern is not evident in the original Ngo script, nor is Hancock’s ethnicity or race specified. But casting a black actor as Hancock definitely invites such a reading.

There are two key moments where this allegory is most obvious, one of which is the scene in which Hancock gives a press conference before voluntarily turning himself over to the authorities to serve a custodial sentence. The scene itself immediately calls to mind the Marion Jones press conference of 2007 after she was sentenced to prison for perjury, although I would suggest that the character of Hancock is perhaps closer in his construction to a male black star from a more mainstream sport who has fallen into disgrace, such as Michael Vick or Kobe Bryant. There are countless other examples but the tone of the scene certainly called to mind the odd ritual of sports stars feeling the need to ask for contrition from the press/public for their misdemeanours. I must confess that I am not the most avid follower of American sports however I think that the allegory also holds particular relevance for how professional footballers in the Premier League are vilified for any perceived off-field failings. That said, the press conference of contrition does seem to be a more American tradition as the only example from football I could think of was Paul Merson’s 1994 admission of his cocaine problem.

Nevertheless, although race is perhaps of less significance than class in how players are portrayed on this side of the Atlantic, the phenomenon of exaltation and demonisation is much the same. And the the other scene, in which Hancock, having just saved Jason Batemen’s character from a collision with a train and certain death, is chastised by an angry mob of LA citizens for all of the unnecessary destruction of public property his act of heroism caused, is of equal relevance in both regions. This scene, in perhaps not the most subtle fashion, captures how people feel fully entitled to judge and condemn the behaviour of rich sportspeople. And the film also alludes to how this is exacerbated by the new media and technology that facilitate our voyeurism and consequent ability to condemn their behaviour with Bateman later showing Hancock a Youtube video reel compiled of amateur footage of his many indiscretions.

I’m one of these really cool guys who likes to spend most of their Saturday nights commenting on Premier League match reports and news stories on the Guardian website. And I do not think that I have encountered the term “disgraceful human being” as frequently in any arena as the comments section of a football-related post on a news website. It’s unbelievable. Players are frequently condemned for infractions entirely unrelated to their position as footballers and for getting up to a lot less than the average university student. And the level of vitriol aimed at those who do occasionally overstep the mark, such as Joey Barton, is astonishing.

The case of Barton actually offers an interesting comparison with Hancock. Barton emerged around 10 years ago for Manchester City as a very talented player with an unfortunate penchant for both off- and on-field indiscretions, culminating in a jail sentence for assault in 2008. Barton’s own difficult background (he has a brother in prison for a racially aggravated murder) was often overlooked at the time, as fans and journalists lined up to heap a level of opprobrium upon him that would have perhaps been more appropriate for a despotic dictator. Subsequent to his release from prison Barton himself embarked on an attempt to overhaul his thuggish image and actually showed himself to be a very open and articulate interviewee which contributed to the very prominent public position he has held since, particularly when one considers the relatively modest level he has been playing at since then. While he certainly has not been controversy free over the past 5 years what is rather troubling is the sneering attitude of many in both the media and amongst the wider public towards his attempts to reinvent himself as a man of culture. One does get a sense in the condemnations of Barton’s attempts at reinvention of a resentment that this jumped-up upstart could be embraced by broadsheet journalists for his views on art, culture and politics. Earlier this year Marina Hyde wrote a really smart piece illustrating the resentment of tabloids towards the success of the “chav” X-Factor judge Tulisa and the overwhelming sense schadenfreude in their reporting of her professional demise. What one could glean from the Tulisa affair was a disturbingly widely held view that this working-class girl should be put back in her place. And I think that there is an undoubted willingness in the mass media in the UK and Ireland to demonise a certain type of successful working-class professional (John Terry, along with Barton and Tulisa, immediately springs to mind), many of whom happen to be footballers.

Anyway, it was interesting that Hancock briefly engaged with this idea in its American context. It’s just a pity that it’s abandoned half-way through. The superhero works as an allegory for the sports star so it would be pretty cool to see someone else perhaps run with the idea. And do it properly this time.

*Football speak

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