It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an implosion!
The reason became clear in one whole second: until that exact moment, Hancock was good or potentially so, then displayed the second half of an entirely different and extremely average movie, with echoes of a whole different third throughout. This isn’t a movie review blog, though, so stick with me – I want to talk about Superman.
During my time of consulting for filmmakers about twenty years ago, I learned a lot about how a movie can go awry, specifically that doing so is the default. The question is when and how it does not. The answer is as far away from “realizing the creative vision” as one can get, because it’s about decisions made in the moment, in the thick of logistics, when any number of other people are making those decisions too, but uncritically. The only way it happens is when someone, usually someone with some infrastructural heft, exerts ongoing force (social impact, authority in the moment, whatever you want to call it) over the general production and toward decisions made in the crunch.
I’m not romanticizing the “lone creator” by saying that. The role is usually not held by the director, or if it is, then it’s in conjunction with a long-standing creative partner like the cinematographer, but it’s more often one of those producers with curious prefixes who’s not a studio rep; rarely, it’s an actor. It’s almost never the screenwriters, but it might be a script doctor if he or she is brought onto set in an authoritative way.
Anyway, not only is the total absence of such apparent in Hancock, it goes even further. It doesn’t merely falter or wander into comfortably generic territory – it practically breaks its neck getting away from itself almost immediately, and then falls apart again, and totally, halfway through. It’s a recoil from being one movie, then a spastic cinematic suicide to avoid being another, and it reveals, via negative image, in the photographic sense, a dissertation on American blackness. Specifically that one simple and fun question turns into two independent, not-fun ones.
- What if Superman were a black guy?
- What if a black guy were Superman?
The first question is the tougher one. Superman is not “a” superhero like Green Lantern or Spider-Man; this is mainstream sacred ground. The role, demands, and purpose of American Jesus is on the line.
That’s why Hancock can’t go where Eddie Murphy’s Axel Rhodes went in Beverly Hills Cop, bringing ghetto blackness into police work and being better at it than the white establishment cops, even inspiring the lamest one of them to improve. Cue long-standing and all-too-accurate comedy about “we can’t let them do it, they’re not competent enough, or oh fuck, what if they excel!” You remember the In Living Color skit about black people playing golf, right? Pretty funny and/or queasy in its typical “crossing a line? this line?” way, but … about Superman? What if Superman were a – gee, what would that word be?
Comics did it spectacularly well, once. I wrote about it in Man of steel; it lasted for about a year. But in 2010, in film? No way. No fucking with that please says the collective entity. You can not have Will Smith in knit cap, stubble, park bench sleeping spot, and pile of liquor bottles zoom off and save the day being absolutely Superman full stop. Not only would that defy every policy and public-image effort since Beverly Hills Cop, shoot – it would mean the film’s problem-at-hand is about the public realizing what a great guy he is, and how they’ve been missing it all this time ’cause he’s black and unseemly, and why should he change, it’s not his problem. Gasp, it wouldn’t be Hollywood 101 either (“this guy has a problem, he needs but he must”), it’d say the problem is ours not his, and thus become that most stenchy thing in the industry … a message.
I’m probably gonna regret this paragraph … but Blankman (1994) might offer an example of cinema’s closest glance in that direction. It’s one of the most offensive films I can remember, and if you say it’s disgusting I’m not going to argue hard, but somehow I keep thinking there’s a heart in there. Maybe its awfulness is jaw-dropping audacious rather than merely vile – maybe. The black, developmentally-delayed, deluded protagonist does actually manage to be a superhero, in this case the TV Batman, and not just because he’s saved by coincidence and hijinks. Could it be done using that image immortalized as “super predator” in the 1990s? I dunno. Aside from the first sequence and that bit where he tosses the kid, the potential is visible mostly in the “didn’t do” portions of Hancock, like the deleted scenes, but in isolation they come off strictly as hammering on the image rather than doing anything strong with it.
The second question, then, is the film’s topic for the first half of the running length. It’s settled: start with Hancock not being a successful Superman. See with suitable comedy that the (a, any) black guy can’t be Superman and is either almost Super Bad or already there. See the idealistic white guy show him the way, and whew, they can save the day. Of course that means the sort of Bad Santa edgy thing about the initial imagery has to go away fast, revealing chiseled Will under the grime with nary a bottle of Thunderbird in sight, and that the “real” character must become the sincere Not a Bad Negro After All.
Now, my cynical snark aside, that could still be a pretty good movie. Adilifu Nama says how in Super Black:
… Hancock signifies the superstar persona of immensely talented but troubled black athletes that fall off the pedestal of public adulation because of succumbing to personal demons only to later plea for forgiveness. Hancock was less about imaginary black superheroes in comics, cartoons, television, and film, and more about real black superstars in the music industry and sports entertainment field that are criticized for flaunting an above-the-law stance and are viewed as unsavory role models for children.
The Super Bad that Hancock might become, is indeed right on the edge of becoming, could be itself a useful is-it-really-that-way topic. E.g., do white athletes who commit abusive and/or criminal acts get the same coverage, or that kind of coverage, or any for that matter; do black athletes really have to be squeaky-clean paragons of virtue in order to be respected, and since when is infidelity “troubled” or notable in any way; and much more. As for the Ray Embrey character, if the content is solid such that Hancock is not intrinsically developmentally-delayed or morally-impaired (i.e. his blackness is not shown to be one of these), then their interaction could avoid the Eliza Doolittle problem and be pretty great. Even the movie’s pitfalls and missteps – ’cause I could easily go into that regarding the prison issue – would be discussable ones.
But all that evaporates, as I said at the start. Totally. That movie? Or the other one? Neither; it all gets replaced by some damn weird thing about amnesiac immortals, tragically lost true love, and a truly remarkable ass-pull about rules for “how powers work.” There is literally no sense either to the shift, or within the movie that the second half belongs to. I even tried to make it work, casting it into the mold of the Nietzchean hypothesis, or rather fallacy, relative to Superman, but even that fails, because Hancock’s superheroic abilities and aspirations are irrelevant to the entire framework of back-story, new “rules, and proceeding plot.
Eyes narrow. Why did this happen? Not “why did this or any movie go structurally awry,” because that is not news. And not “why did they shift into frankly bizarre territory to say that prejudice vs. a black-white couple was bad in the past but apparently that same couple is fated to be apart, thank goodness, now,” because again, jeepers, saying black-man-white-woman is OK but it must stop, in Hollywood, shockeroo. But why shy away merely from one, but both constructions of the Superman/black question?
I maintain that this is all about the sacred ground, not in comics fandom, but the real deal, culturally and nationally. Evidently, doing a classic Super Bad with a black guy, as with a robot, or what-have-you, sympathetic or wholly villainous, is fine; there are whole categories of comics and movies based on exactly that. Also, doing either of the two good or at least interesting “what ifs” I described is A-OK territory for any other white superhero, even Batman and Wonder Woman. But not for Superman.
Remember, no messages in Hollywood? Ha. There are messages, all right. And for these questions, it is, Don’t ask.
Next column: Elf-(ahem)quest (March 26)
Posted on March 19, 2017, in Filmtalk and tagged Adilifu Nama, Beverly Hills Cop 1983 film, beware the superman, Blankman 1994 film, Hancock 2008 film, In Living Color TV show, Luke Cage, Super Black, super man, Will Smith. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.