Summer, as we know, is lousy with superheroes. Turn the corner in any multiplex between Memorial Day and Labor Day and you're liable to be trampled by some dude in titanium tights hurling F/X thunderbolts in a desperate, last-ditch effort to save a dying planet—or, more likely, a faltering major studio.
Unless you're 12 years old, these dudes can be exceedingly tiresome because their inherent genre limitations—how many ways can you dodge a giant fireball?—have been compounded by overuse and diluted by over-familiarity.
Summer 2008, just now reaching its movie midpoint, is, however, in the singularly happy position of having produced not one but two rather exceptional superhero pictures, films that refresh and revivify the genre rather than running it further into the ground. Jon Favreau's clever, solidly crafted Iron Man, which kicked off the season in May, has already proved a durable, deserving favorite with audiences and critics alike.
Peter Berg's Hancock, which opens in time for the Fourth of July, impresses me as similarly successful, but for very different reasons.
Not surprisingly, both movies seem to start from the premise that the superhero is by now a bit of a cultural joke, and that something radical must be done to restore his appeal and relevance. Iron Man approaches the task by giving its hero a topical, satiric edge while also snazzing up a lot of the old genre essentials; smart and sly, it conjures a stylish tone and storyline that turn out to be models of well-executed consistency.
Hancock takes an altogether stranger tack, and consistency of Iron Man's sort is not at all part of the agenda. Quite the contrary, in fact. Berg's film is deliberately deceptive and surprising. For the first hour (it has the great virtue in this season of bloated running times of being a tight, not-a-moment-wasted 90 minutes) it seems like one kind of film. Then, as if turning on a dime, it screeches off in an entirely different direction and turns into a movie that seems to have sprung from another galaxy.
I think it's important to note that startling shift, because it's central to what's so distinctive and exciting about Hancock, but I also won't spoil the viewer's pleasure by revealing the surprises its last half-hour holds. Suffice it to say that, while its execution is demonstrably more ragged than that of Iron Man, Berg's film ventures into more bracing thematic territory, and ended up striking me as the more fascinating of the two films.
It starts out, felicitously, with the Superhero as Bum. Played by a grizzled, blocky, parch-lipped Will Smith, the movie's title character sleeps on park benches, dresses in cast-offs and guzzles bottles of bourbon with a true alkie's avidity. But ... he has super powers. When a trio of baddies with big guns lead an LAPD squadron on a deadly rampage down one of the city's freeways, Hancock rouses himself in time to rocket into the air, plunge into the miscreants' SUV, swat away their bullets and stop the crime in mid-spree.
Or rather, in mid-air. Instead of letting the baddies' car gently down to earth, he impales it on the spire of the Capitol Records building—another bit of arrogant tomfoolery that's left the citizenry convinced that, for all his help in keeping crime under control, Hancock is really just a freak, a jerk, a head case with outlandish abilities.
The Superhero L.A. Loves to Hate obviously needs an image assist, and that arrives courtesy of an idealistic PR man named Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman). Rescued by Hancock in yet another act of mayhem-inducing civic intervention, Ray takes the gnarly superhero home to dinner, where the presences of Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and son Aaron (Jae Head) start to puncture Hancock's antisocial emotional armor. Soon enough, he's listening seriously to Ray's proposal for a media makeover.
Given this start, it's not hard to anticipate the initial stages of Hancock's narrative. Act One shows us the superhero's bad reputation in action and the problems it causes him and L.A. (a city that can be truly punishing to tarnished idols). Act Two chronicles the rehabilitation set in motion by Ray, which involves Hancock doing a stint in prison, getting in touch with his feelings, paying compliments to law-enforcement officers, and even, very grudgingly, agreeing to wear a superhero outfit.
The mix of action, comedy and offhanded satire here is hyperbolic in the usual superhero-movie fashion, of course, but it's not overly jokey or cartoonish. The movie takes its superhero's dilemma seriously. Yet something else sneaks up while we're following his story—the kind of odd resonances that, at least in my own musings, often add an unexpected dimension to pop-culture sagas like Hancock.
As the movie's one-hour mark loomed, I started wondering: Could this film be an inadvertent allegory for the summer of Obama? I mean, the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee is often seen as an appealing "post-racial" media star not unlike, say, Will Smith. But is he the superhero we need in this precarious hour? Do we really know him? Could he have a dark side we haven't seen yet, like, the film seems to suggest, O.J. Simpson?
The latter figure and his late wife flashed to mind when the story took its pivotal Act Three turn, which involves some crucial interaction between Hancock and the character played by Charlize Theron. Again, I'm not going to spoil the surprises here, nor do I mean to imply that unintended political allusions are what animate the film's final third; rather, the tale grows suddenly darker and more profoundly suggestive, inviting us to ponder the mysterious and perennial appeal of characters endowed with superhuman powers.
They used to be called gods or angels, we hear in the film's final act. In the current era, they're superheroes. There's an obvious truth to this, and it touches on what might be called the existential paradox of the superhero: They are really neither mortal nor immortal, indestructible nor perishable, but something strangely in between. Like Prometheus, Christ and many others, they occupy the troubled space separating the human and the supernal, and their tragic loneliness comes from having the power to save others while being unable to save themselves.
Some superhero movies, like Iron Man, amuse us by making their superheroes all-too-human. Others—including a couple of my favorites in the genre, James Cameron's Terminator films and Bryan Singer's Superman Returns—emphasize the superhero's otherness, which makes him less similar to us than to the heroes and intercessors that have long populated the human imagination.
Hancock starts out seeming a prime example of the former group—what could be more down-to-earth than a wino superhero?—but ends up solidly in the latter camp. That leap not only catalyzes the film's thrill-ride potential; it also leaves us with something to think about when the ride's over—an unexpected achievement that places it among the best of recent superhero movies.
Hancock opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle.
Think of French films and various words probably come to mind: stylish, sophisticated, brainy and so on. A word that probably isn't near the top of the list is fun, but that's precisely the main virtue of Claude Lelouch's Roman de Gare—a form of fun that's delirious, unashamed and, in its own offbeat way, very French.
Lelouch is best known for A Man and a Woman, one of the art-house standards of the '60s. Since then, he's made 40-some features, and the reason they haven't made it to this side of the Atlantic is, presumably, that they are mainly commercial trash. Roman de Gare has its own trashiness, but it adds to that a kind of literary playfulness that makes it a higher level of trash, at the very least. It's as if Jacqueline Susann and Umberto Eco [eh...!] had a weekend tryst and turned out this tale between lovemaking sessions.
The film's title denotes what we would call an airport novel—a quick and entertaining read. Roman de Gare is the cinematic equivalent thereof, but it's also something else again: an airport novel deconstructed, turned inside out, and made to say "uncle."
The film's main character is played by actor Dominique Pinon, who has a strange squashed face that might befit a Gallic Buster Keaton. But who, exactly, is that character? Lelouch sets various narrative plates and possibilities spinning from the film's first scenes, so that by the tale's middle section we are unsure if the man Pinon plays is A) a child-rapist and murderer recently escaped from prison, B) a schoolteacher fleeing his boring life, or C) a ghost writer who does the real work attributed to a famous novelist.
The most delightful consequence of this deliberate confusion comes after the man picks up a woman who's been abandoned at a rest stop, and she takes him home to her absurdly rustic family in the French Alps, introducing him as her fiancé. The combination of comedy and suspense here suggests a mash-up of Hitchcock and Green Acres, with a surrealist edge that makes the whole thing that much more giddy.
This sequence midway through the tale is the movie's high point; thereafter, the narrative loses a bit of focus as it gains momentum. But the pleasure of Lelouch's wild inventiveness never flags, nor does the sense that he's having the most fun of all.
Roman de Gare opens Wednesday in select theaters.