2008 was a pivotal year for superhero movies. In the span of a few months, Marvel Studios launched its cinematic universe with Iron Man while DC hit a high-water mark with The Dark Knight that it’s arguably never managed to top. But sandwiched in between these two industry-defining films, another superhero movie offered a different perspective. Over a decade later, maybe Will Smith’s take on the genre was right all along.
Years ahead of its time, Hancock was a rebuttal of superhero movies before the genre became so big it needed to be rebutted at all. And while this Will Smith vehicle falls apart slightly in its lore-heavy final act, it’s still worth watching if you need a break from the current Marvel/DC offerings.
But before you click over to Netflix, here’s why Hancock is worth a watch (or rewatch) and what you need to know first.
Directed by Friday Night Lights co-creator Peter Berg based on a script from Vince Gilligan (yes, that Vince Gilligan), Hancock tells the story of a superhero whose main character trait is being terrible at his job. Will Smith’s John Hancock may have super-strength, invulnerability, and the power of flight — but he also has a serious drinking problem. The people of Los Angeles (where he does most of his “crime-fighting”) hate him, and he hates them back.
Things take a turn for the better when Hancock meets Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) a public relations expert who offers to help restore the superhero’s image. As part of the plan, Hancock agrees to go to jail, which backfires when crime in the city skyrockets in his absence. He’s soon released and violently stops a criminal, earning the praise of a now-adoring public.
The first half of Hancock is endlessly fun to watch. Will Smith plays a superhero with a mix of cockiness and pathos that only the Fresh Prince of Bellaire could pull off. You’ll both hate and love the character, who borrows the most interesting ideas from icons like Iron Man and Batman (their internal demons) without bothering with the more complicated stuff.
Until, in its third act, that’s exactly what the movie does.
After saving the day, Hancock celebrates by having dinner with Ray and his wife Mary (Charlize Theron), who, it turns out, is also a superhero. She then proceeds to reveal their complex origin story. I won’t bore you with the details, but the basic gist of it is that the longer these two stay in close contact, the weaker their powers become. This gives the movie some real stakes in its final scenes, but it also muddies the original concept of a belligerent superman by weighing everything down with ancient lore. Ultimately, it’s not enough to ruin the movie, but it is enough that you’ll mentally check out before the credits roll.
But that doesn’t mean Hancock isn’t worth watching. In a world where we’re literally being served up every conceivable version of the superhero story at all times, it’s fascinating to watch Will Smith call his shot a full decade before superhero saturation. Before Deadpool and the Boys, there was John Hancock.
Over the years, there have been various reports of a potential sequel, with Charlize Theron expressing interest most recently while admitting that no actual progress has been made. But maybe that’s for the better. Hancock 2 would likely only dive deeper into the lore of this universe, undercutting what made the original such a clever rebuttal of all the superhero movies that were soon to come.
Hancock is streaming now on Netflix.