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Revisiting ‘Hancock’ – What The Last Black Superhero Movie Could Have Been…

Revisiting 'Hancock' - What The Last Black Superhero Movie Could Have Been...

Well, if the movie is done well. Will Smith did one [Hancock] that was kind of silly. I don’t know why they even did that movie. But if they do Black Panther with some class and some creativity, I think it would go over big-time.

Morgan Freeman’s reply to an interview question about black superhero movies, specifically, the potential for a Black Panther project. That interview was with The Daily Beast, done while he was on the promotion trail for The Dark Knight Rises. The interviewer asked him what he thought about the possibility that a Black Panther movie will finally become a reality after years of chatter about it.

BUT, what got my attention was his terse, blunt rememberance of what was in effect the last black superhero movie Hollywood has produced, 2008’s Hancock, which starred Will Smith, a film that I think many of us would rather forget even existed, sharing Morgan Freeman’s thoughts. 

Blade 2 is probably as good as it’s gotten for black superheroes in their own big screen movies.

I haven’t seen Hancock since 2008; I was disappointed in the effort, and just hadn’t felt the urge to rewatch it, until last night, after Morgan Freeman’s thoughts reminded me of it.

So I’d like to take a trip down memory lane, and revisit the film, especially in light of all the talk about the lack of black superhero movies, but not the film that was released, that we all saw; instead, I want to take a look at the film that COULD HAVE been.

What a lot of folks probably didn’t realize is that Hancock was a project that had been in development for some 12+ years before it was finally made in 2008. And over that period, the original 1996 screenplay, penned by Vincent Ngo, had gone through several revisions… unfortunately.

I say unfortunately, because, his original script was more interesting and ambitious than what ended up on screen. And THAT is what I want to look at today… like I said, what could’ve been.

In 2008, I read the original 226-page script for what was then called Tonight, He Comes, the screenplay that the film Hancock was based on – a title that I actually prefer over the title the studio ended up using.

During the 12 years that the script had been floating around, at least 5 different directors have been attached to it (some big names actually, like Michael Mann and Tony Scott), and almost as many writers; although Will Smith attached himself to star in the film in 2005. So, it went through several rewrites by different writers, which, history I think will show, is often to the script’s detriment.

I re-read the script again yesterday, and while it’s far from a perfect script, I must say that what I read appealed to me much more-so than the film that opened in 2008.

Yes, there are a few similarities between script and finished film, but I was surprised at how really different the combined effect of the words on the page were, to what I saw on screen.

The tone and mood of the script contradict what we experience in the film, but I think it works. Hancock is a dark, brooding, tormented soul – nothing humorous about this fella. Despite his vices – he smokes and drinks heavily, spending nights in shitty dives, drowning his ills in alcohol and cigarettes, while picking up prostitutes – he has taken it upon himself to be humanity’s savior.

There are moments when he flies into action, and performs superheroic acts like foiling a bank robbery attempt. But, surprisingly, those moments are very few. There’s very little of the usual “Superhero” mechanics you’d expect in a superhero story, which, I’m sure, irked the studio execs who likely preferred a little (or much) more opportunities for spectacle. After all, it is a superhero movie, right?

Not quite.

The script is as much about superheroes, as E.T. was about alien invasions. Each grand idea attracts you to the story, but as you read/watch, you realize that there’s a lot more going on than originally advertised.

As I already stated, Hancock is a dark, brooding, tormented, mercurial soul. Unlike the film, he’s the ONLY one of his kind (if you’ve seen the film, or read the spoilers, you know what I’m referring to). And he’s taken it upon himself to maintain peace and order on earth (or specifically, New York, since that’s where the entire story takes place). However, his choice has become his burden. He realizes he has a “gift” (although we never really learn where he came from, or how he got his powers).

He’s certainly no Superman – the pure, practically perfect superhero, or Jesus Christ in leotards and a red cape, if you will – far from it. But he believes in something – truth, justice, altruism – despite his many vices, which are exploited repeatedly within the 226-page script.

The only coda he seems to live by, which is voiced many times over by several different characters in the script, is, “I gotta do what I gotta do.” In essence, do what you must with what you’ve got, to get what you want. Or make the most out of the cards that life has dealt you. No complaining! No regrets!

What Hancock ultimately wants is to be free of his burden. There are a handful of dream sequences in which he’s drowning in the cries and tears of the “simple” men and women, wanting to be saved from whatever troubles ail them, but he can’t silence the noises – something akin to Deanna Troi in the Star Trek: The Next Generation television show, the telepath who’s able to sense and feel the emotions buried within others. So, when others feel pain, their sadness becomes her sadness, and there isn’t much she can do to stop it, even though sometimes she’d like to. But it’s her burden to bear… it’s her “gift”… she’s “gotta do what she’s gotta do.”

Hancock wants to be saved, a request he places on Mary Longfellow, the wife of Horus Longfellow (a security guard at a local mall and all-around wimp), and mother of Aaron Longfellow (an 8-year old replica of his father, and frequent target of school bullies); in the filmed version, these 3 characters are instead represented by the Embreys: Charlize Theron (house wife Mary), Jason Bateman (Ray, Public relations pro) and the kid who plays their son (also a target for bullies).

The Longfellows are clearly a couple of notches lower on the socio-economic ladder, compared to the middle to upper middle class Embreys. Horus almost became a “real” cop, but failed out of police academy. So he becomes the next best thing, a security guard – one lacking big enough testicles to stand up to his bully next door neighbor, who regularly steals his daily morning paper, to the dismay of Horus and Mary.

Horus is rather pathetic, and his son, Aaron, hates that his father is without a spine. Aaron himself is no tough guy either, taking after his father, allowing 3 school bullies to make his life quite miserable as they find new ways of tormenting him, usually ending in a group beating.

Mary is simply wife and mother, providing man and boy with as much emotional support as they need to survive one day after another. She is the rock that keeps the household stable – as stable as it can be in its current state, anyway.

As expected, their rather mundane lives change when their paths cross with that of Hancock’s. Whether it’s for the better or worse isn’t entirely certain to me, even after reading the script through to the end.

A common question that script readers ask screenwriters is, “what is your script REALLY about,” hinting at the fact that at the heart of every story, no matter the packaging, is some basic idea or message that guides the plot from “FADE IN” to the “FADE OUT.”

At its core, Tonight, He Comes wants to deconstruct traditional definitions of masculinity – asking age old questions like, “what does it mean to be a man?” But it doesn’t quite succeed, as this theme isn’t necessarily carried throughout the script, making it feel inconsistent, much like the film.

Is Hancock the ideal man? We see him, all-powerful, indestructible and confident, the kind of man that women swoon over, as they throw themselves at him, even if it’s just for a night of physical pleasure, which we see happen at least twice. Yet, despite all of those “perks” as some would call them, inside, he longs to be a simple man, living a simple life, free of his “burden.”

Clearly Horus isn’t the ideal man – certainly the script doesn’t think so. Hence, while Hancock essentially longs for Horus’ kind of life, Horus wishes he had Hancock’s abilities. So, who’s really better off here? Who’s the real man? Trading places wouldn’t solve their individual problems entirely, but it’s clear that both wouldn’t mind walking in the other’s shoes, even for a day. The conundrum created by this dynamic is actually quite fascinating I think, but unfortunately isn’t fully explored in the script. That alone – a besieged superhero and his desire to be human, intersecting with a wimpy human and his desire to be a superhero – could have been developed into something substantial, but the writer ignored that premise mostly, unfortunately.

Like the movie, I was intrigued during the first half – the overall Dark Knight tone of it kept me interested. I remember imagining the city and sites as the writer described them in the script, and my mind’s eye frequently reverting to Gotham, right out of the last Batman movie – seedy, unwelcoming, Hades on earth. I loved that. It worked for me, especially given Hancock’s M.O. as I described above. For those first 60 pages, Hancock (the character) was interesting to me. I wanted to get to know him a little longer. His mercurial nature kept me wondering what was going to happen with him next.

The Longfellows in their individual roles were familiar; but their normality provided a useful contrast to Hancock’s troubled superheroics.

Also like the movie, the script loses its way in the second half. It becomes “regular,” relying on old favorites to push the story forward, which annoyed me a bit actually. It’s perplexing when a writer/filmmaker starts off with refreshing promise, building up expectations of a strong, rewarding finish, but then throws it all away in the end. The writer introduces some really interesting ideas early on that could have been explored further, but at the finish, he favors convention over invention.

Both Horus and Aaron (thanks in part to Hancock’s intrusion in their lives), finally decide to fight back against their “oppressors,” and I guess we’re supposed to cheer for them, in proverbial happy ending fashion, as each apparently becomes a man, displaying some testicular fortitude. However, Hancock is left still carrying his burden, unable to see his wish realized at the hands of Mary. So, Hancock essentially becomes the catalyst that Horus and Aaron needed to change, with Mary acting as not much more than a decoy; Horus, in a primordial way, fulfills his wish. He becomes a superhero of sorts – at least to his son.

As I read, I could see why this version of the script didn’t go into production. At 226 pages, it meanders too often, and carries with it other problems that I think could have been fixed in a second or third draft, while still maintaining the mood and ideas intact, creating what may have been a really strong finished product! I can see why a filmmaker like Michael Mann was intially drawn to it; just consider quietly intense films like Heat, The Insider, and Collateral, films he directed, and in 2 cases, wrote the screenplays for.

Tonight, He Comes, even in its 1996 form, is right up his alley. Although, that version wouldn’t have seen the light of day. For a summer superhero movie, it’ll have been considered too profound – too philosophical/not enough action – essentially a superhero movie that’s missing one key ingredient: the superhero being superheroic.

The comedic tone of Will Smith’s Hancock is likely closer to what the studio execs preferred, which is ultimately what we got, unfortunately. Although I’d like to think that a happy medium exists somewhere between both extremes.

However, in closing, if I had to choose between Hancock in 2008 and Tonight, He Comes in 1996, without hesitation, I’d choose Vincent Ngo’s original script! Despite being 12 years older, it’s a more superior and ambitious package than what Sony eventually gave us.

There has been talk of a sequel to Hancock over the years, although I don’t really see that happening. But if it does happen, I’d like to see them create something based on the original script, not the film that we got.

But in the end, while not what I’d call a great script, I think we would’ve been much happier with Ngo’s original ideas on film, and Morgan Freeman probably wouldn’t be remembering it as silly, wondering why it was ever even made. It was closer in mood and tone to a film like The Dark Knight, and I’d like to see what it could’ve looked like (the script) after another polish or two.

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