Monday, July 07, 2008

The Unsympathetic Superhero


Two points I’d like to make about Hancock.

ONE

There is in Hollywood a zeal-like mind-set about sympathetic protagonists, that all protags must be sympathetic and/or empathetic, which found its origins in the teachings of Mr. Robert McKee.

But that’s not what he said. Here’s what he said:

"The PROTAGONIST must be empathetic; he may or may not be sympathetic."

Empathy was the requirement, not sympathy. By empathy, he meant, a shared human quality that we can all recognize, that strikes a chord in all of us. Yet, Hollywood continuously tears down scripts if there are any traces of un-sympathy in the lead characters. What is overlooked, in the process, is one of the most beloved, fun ways of telling a story – the transformational character arc, such as we saw in my three favorite examples: Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, or Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler in The Lives of Others.

Those are great stories! They work so well!

Hancock should end the debate about unsympathetic protags. With the audience I sat through, the worse Hancock treated people, the more everyone laughed, because they knew a transformational arc was on its way, and he’d ultimately redeem himself.

TWO – WITH SPOILERS!

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Hancock is a script worth studying, because it’s not. I completely agreed with the critics that slammed this film for its poor execution. It’s not a good movie.

I think
James Berardinelli was closest to nailing its problems:

Hancock is two films. The first, the tale of the anti-hero learning to be a defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, is by far the more entertaining of the two. The movie's second piece is muddled and disjointed as the screenplay provides revelations about Hancock's origin. This aspect of the production has the scope of a Shakespearean tragedy and cannot effectively be addressed in the 45 minutes allotted to it. Both halves could have worked if properly expanded with the gaps filled in, but by compressing them into a single unit, the story as a whole suffers…

Hancock's tone becomes more subdued, although not entirely downbeat, during the second half as the main character faces the sad truth about himself and his past. The ending is a complete mess. In order to achieve a balance between tension, tragedy, and smiles, the film doesn't play by its own rules. Much of what occurs during the climax makes little sense, and the supposed "villain," a thug named Red (Eddie Marsan), is about as intimidating as a warm cup of butterscotch pudding. Part of the inherent problem with Hancock's structure is the lack of a dramatically viable opponent. Since there isn't one, one has to be manufactured on the spot, and Red is the unfortunate result.


Let me just address one other aspect that no one else has mentioned. I love how they took a page from Mario Puzo’s Superman and aimed for a greek tragedy of sorts with Hancock and his love interest. Great idea. But the execution is piss poor. He doesn’t even remember her, so why should WE or even HANCOCK care? You know it’s bad writing when a superhero’s backstory is nothing more than a long-winded piece of verbal exposition in a hospital room. It’s NO FUN!

Hancock was also missing a clearly defined emotional logic to his behavior. Everything in this story was either coincidence or explained verbally as some untold mystery that keeps drawing them together. Ho hum. We would’ve cared more if Hancock had a solid reason to be bitter, he knew why he was bitter, and she was it. It was his feelings about her that defined his behavior and who he was and he knew it and she knew it. You don’t buy it that he doesn’t remember. You don’t buy it when it’s presented as a twist, because it’s too coincidental.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna download this one. Thing is worse than a good script turned into a junky mess thanks to muddled fingers.
You could say I'm going to download it to 'stick it to the man'. Since Hollywood hasn't gotten its act together with the current loads of pirating going on, maybe a little more will help kick them in the ass.

Anonymous said...

Nothing is worse*

Kevin Lehane said...

Well, I will strongly disagree. I found the film to be very satisfying. I really enjoyed the ending and the speech by Charlize was beautiful. The mythology was inspired. I will agree that the bad guy was lame and dumb.

But I cared about Hancock and I cared about what happened to Mary and Ray. I don't understand why people wanted this to be just a comedy. I found the evolution of Hancock and his delving into past to be plausible. He cared about Mary because she was like him. They had a connection and he was drawn to her. He felt alone, and it was his greatest pain ... that no one cared for him.

I can only say it worked for me on many levels. I laughed. I was excited. I believed in the main three characters and I was misty eyed in the hospital scenes. I think the film is excellent and the critics are absolutely, fundamentally wrong.

Like they were with saying Indy IV was a great movie.

Kevin Lehane said...

Also, they didn't just take a page from Puzo's Superman (which was a crappy script, by the way. God bless Tom Mankewicz), but they riffed on the Superman theme for Hancock's first rescue in his eagle suit.

But again, Hancock was great.

Scott said...

I was wondering MM if you had read the supposed original draft by Vy Vincent Ngo? Having read the script, and watched the movie, it is hard to believe that one came from the other.

I enjoyed the movie as well, although it felt a little slapdash and a bit incoherent. For sure there was more to be explored, but I felt the movie was pretty good. Will Smith, always amazed by how well he can act.

Christian M. Howell said...

Wow, I loved it. I thought it was a fun piece of fluff and I took it for nothing more.

I actually liked the way they handled the backstory as it fit with the theme of separation; from society and his "other half."

I never take movies like this seriously as they aren't meant to be. It's funny how no one noticed that if they had stayed together, they would have died.

Perhaps that was, as I've heard, just shoved in, but it seemed pretty plausible to me.

I thought it was interesting that they used a "mortal" as the antag, especially AFTER he became "mortal." It reminded me of Superman Returns.
And hey, the damn thing pulled in close to $200M worldwide, so I guess somebody liked it.

I LOVED IT.


I also got a copy of Tonight, He Comes and boy did that thing suck. It's so boring you can't get through the first 10 pages.

Here's to Hancock II: Back to Rehab. LOLOLOLOL.

Emily Blake said...

I thought Tonight, He Comes was the best spec script I ever read. Stylistically and plotwise and chock full of subtext, it was amazing to read. It made me cry.

This film made me laugh a few times and it had its good moments but it never made me really feel anything as deep as the spec made me feel.

I'm sad that the original script will never be made. It was much better than this film turned out to be. And he was way more unsympathetic there, so clearly the studio was afraid he wasn't heroey enough.

Mystery Man said...

Anon - Oh, come now. Illegal downloads are unacceptable under any circumstance.

Kevin - You must agree, it could've been SO much better, one of the best, particularly this relationship with Hancock and Mary, but sloppy screenwriting sank this battleship. Why is it necessary for him to not remember? How many times are we going to be wowed by the twist? Only once. Why even reveal his backstory? Why not focus on his transformational arc and leave it at that? Did they reveal Harry Potter's full backstory in one film? No. The twist was a cheat.

Of course, the critics are all having the same debate we're having now.

Scott - I have not. I have the '07 John August revision, which I never read. I have mixed feelings about scripts for big summer blockbusters. They don't satisfy me, usually, and I'd rather wait until the film comes out. I prefer to read specs that'll win awards, ya know, the Oscar contenders, etc. Haven't found any yet this year. I recently read Gilroy's "Duplicity" and Coens' "Burn After Reading." Uninspired, both of them.

Christian - You LOVED it? Are you kidding? You should check the batteries of your internal shit detector. This was nothing but cheats and sloppy writing. It could've been SO much better!

Emily - Really? I heard a lot of good things about that spec. That's very sad, and ya know, at the heart of the revisions had to be ridiculous concerns about unsympathetic protags. Come on! People love it! It's SO MUCH FUN!

-MM

Kevin Lehane said...

Because if was just a curmudgeonly comedy with a strong transformational arc people would have gone batshiat crazy slamming the film -- calling it stupid and unbelievable version of As Good As It Gets.

I agree with a lot of times, MM. Almost 99% of the time, but this worked for me ... I guess I just loved the characters, the dynamics and the simplicity of the story. It felt like a breath of fresh air. And I have heard very mixed things about the original spec.

But I am a popcorn cinema connoisseur. I fall in love with movies that trigger emotional responses. I don't ever feel the same about movies that are smart, but lack any emotional resonance with me.

I went to the movies for a good times and a fresh story and I got that in spades. And whether anyone believes me or not, I was moved by the ending. What more can I ask for? It worked for me. I had issues with it, but it worked on an emotional level and I love it, imperfections and all.

If I had seen a montage or flashbacks of Hancock and Mary throughout the ages I would have hated it. Instead, I felt it was so tender and beautiful.

But this is the beauty of cinema. One man's meat ...

Kevin Lehane said...

B'ah. Typos, typos, typos. If you can decrypt what I wrote you get a medal. :-/

By the way, I'd love to read the August revised spec if your willing to shoot us an email, MM. kevin@kevinlehane.com

Go raibh maith agat.

Christian M. Howell said...

Yep, I loved it. I didn't go to analyze it. I went for some laughs. The whole theater was laughing throughout the whole movie and it got an ovation at the end.

The guy you linked actually said it should be considered a satirical comedy. That's what I saw it as.

Some movies don't need a lot of reason or "oscar-caliber" storytelling; just a lot of flying and stuff.

And some of the jokes were just too much. I mean the image of a guy's head shoved up another guy's ass is just classic.

The only thing I didn't like was the opening song. The opening scene was hilarious with him getting his bottle shot up.

I just think people are over-analyzing it. Just roll with it.

Mike Le said...

HANCOCK was a narrative mess for many reasons.

1) The set up leads the audience to believe this movie was going to be a comedic buddy film between Hancock and Bateman's character. But by the second half, the narrative shifts its focus and becomes a tragedy between Hancock and Theron's character. The tonal changes are way to abrupt and inconsistent. The narrative was poorly handled.

2) I believe it was Shakespeare who once said, and I am paraphrasing, "You are only as good as the enemy you defeat." The flaw with HANCOCK is there is no strong opposing force, hence you never feel like Hancock is ever in any danger, no real suspense. The villains that show up at the hospital are lame, and their game-plan to take out Hancock doesn't make any sense. Hancock is an indestructable superhero. What were they hoping to achieve by showing up with guns, when they are aware bullets won't hurt him? They didn't know Hancock's powers were weakening when he was around Theron. So the fact that Hancock was weak when they showed up is nothing but a cheap coincidence. We also don't know what drives the villain, other than the fact that he is a bank-robber seeking revenge. Really? With a creative team that involves Peter Berg, Akiva Goldsman, Michael Mann, Jonathan Mostow, John August, etc. -- this is the best they can come up with?

3) The IMPORTANT back story is vomitted out in one long expository scene in the hospital, and is as cringe worthy as the cafe scene in INDY 4. And the mythos it tries to create is murky at best. Who created them? Why? Why were they created in pairs? And what is the purpose of creating them in pairs only to have their powers weakened when they're together? If the Gods created them to protect the world, why must Hancock and Theron have the ability to be human? Why can't they just be powerful all the time if that is their purpose? The Gods already created humans to be humans. And if it's their purpose to protect, why did Theron decide to be a housewife instead?

Hancock and Theron are each other's kryptonite. They become humans and grow old but yet they've been together for thousands. This doesn't make sense.

Hancock has the scars to prove the numerous times throughout history he saved her from danger. Then why would Theron choose Bateman's character over the man who loved her enough to continuely save her over thousands of years? Aren't they soul-mates? She selfishly chose her youthful beauty and immortal power over true love. If so, then why should we care for her plight.

4) Christian Howell said he doesn't take movies like this seriously as they aren't meant to be. The problem isn't that I took the movie seriously, but that the creators of HANCOCK took it too seriously. They forced a pseudo-tragic story line that made no sense and was not properly explored -- but yet expected us to feel rapturous by Hancock's emotional "sacrifice" in the end. Even the way it's directed feels false, with all the tight intimate hand-held shots, as if it's a Cassavetes film (and I usually love Berg's work).

-Mike Le

Kevin Lehane said...

Mike Le, I was in the audience, and I didn't feel that, nor did anyone else with me. So speaking in generals like that is not accurate.

It felt very fluid and the story made sense and worked. It's too easy to knock things. It's much harder to defend something, but the criticisms leveled at it are justifiable when you speak for everyone, because it's simply not true.

And Mike Le, I took the movie seriously and it delivered. Sometimes you have to enjoy a film for what it is. This had a great story, great characters and was entertaining and engaging the whole way through. I feel sorry for some who cannot just enjoy something when it works rather than tear it down because it's so easy to do -- especially using such ridiculous terms as "vomited out".

That moment was tender and sweet for me, and was far from vomited.

*sigh

Kevin Lehane said...

*are not justifiable

I wish blogger had an edit button.

Mystery Man said...

I gotta say, I respect Kevin and Christian immensely, but I wholly side with Mike Le. I just wasn't feeling the passion yesterday to articulate as well as that.

Hitchcock had a similar quote in that a "film is only as good as its villain." In a Superman film, though, there's a double angle - it's only as good as its villain and it's only as good as Lois Lane.

Give it a couple of weeks, guys, and we'll be debating how GREAT is the Dark Knight. Hehehe...

-MM

Kevin Lehane said...

I have no doubt about that, MM. But I couldn't live on just a diet of dark, brooding suspense. Sometimes a movie that makes me laugh and wears its heart on its sleeve and has a lot of fun -- just gets me.

But listen, I've been here before. I will defend Temple of Doom to my dying breath. And actually rate X3 as the best of the X-men movies, so I am used to people thinking I'm nuts.

Joshua James said...

X3 better than X1 or X2?

Kevin, I love ya, but DAMN son, I mean . . . I don't wanna fight or nothin' but I gotta say GODDAMN . . . whoa nelly. I hope to hell you didn't think BATTLEFIELD EARTH was underappreciated.

Kevin Lehane said...

I hear it all the frickin' time and I still ... still ... can't work out why I am so wrong on this one.

Maybe it's the fact, the movie had consequences and it felt like all bets were off. The Xavier death scene alone gives me chills. And the final throwdown -- "HOLD THE LINE". I also loved John Powell's score and a good score moves me to love a film even when it has flaws.

But yes, when I look at what I like in X1 and X2 ... I'm sorry to say there is more in X3. I like X2 a lot, but I am not a fan of Singer's cold clinical eye. Again I am not blind to a film's flaws. I see them as clear as others, but I tend to overlook them if I enjoy myself.

I happily put a bag over the movie's face and just enjoy the rest of the show.

And as I've been taking the shame on X3 for a few years now I just gotta say ... MAN, WHAT AN AWESOME MOVIE!!

:-)

P.S. My comments to Mike Le seemed harsher in review, so my bad if they came across as combative. Not meant to at all.

P.P.S. I have never subjected myself to Battlefield Earth.

Anonymous said...

"Some movies don't need a lot of reason or "oscar-caliber" storytelling; just a lot of flying and stuff."
Is this a joke? Are you writing your own satirical comedy right here?

Jesus Christ, people say that about Indy 4, yet the first three movies were excellently told stories. Maybe you should stop telling yourself that "movies can suck as long as they are fun." Fun movies have no excuse for being shitty. Even guilty pleasures and campy genre flicks should be decent in the storytelling department. What is the point of watching a story unfold if all the movie amounts to is similar in content to a weekday morning "Deadliest Pursuits Ever" episode?

Settling for less results in studios releasing more and more get-by movies. And you seem to be proof, no offense, that the more they try to show you that "This is as good as it should have to get", the more you believe the so-so passable flicks are "good movies".

A good movie doesn't need simply entertainment value. It needs competence and excellence on the creative level. If it doesn't have that, you might as well watch... well, anything. These are supposed to be classics in 20 years. I don't see that happening to the vast majority of today's blockbusters.

But as long as you're fine with watching flying people, then there's no reason to stop watching watered down movies like Hancock. By the way, I heard Spike TV aired a special episode of Deadliest Persuits - World's Deadliest Plane Crashes. It may have what you're looking for, and it may even top what you're fine with Hollywood releasing. Don't worry, no 'story' or other newfangled Oscar-only stuff is involved.

Just adrenaline.

(ps. Did you realize even Deadliest Pursuits tells you the story of the pursuit before the action starts? That's because watching action without context is boring._

Anonymous said...

And to those that think action and other 'fun' movies aren't supposed to be good in the story/character/writing department, explain Die Hard, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Star Wars 4-6, Iron Man, and many many more.


The horror...

Bill Lee said...

This movie had promise. Superhero that doesn't want to be. Apparently that wasn't a good enough concept and they got to complicating a simple fresh story in the comic book genre. When the second hero appeared I rolled my eyes.
When you mentioned villain I had to think a moment, "Red"? He wasn't really a antagonist was he? I think Hancock was. Red was a device. It was the unseen relationship between the heros that was the force to be rekoned with. I don't know what Red was even doing there in the hospital as he knew first hand guns were of no use against Hancock.
Anybody else feel the ending was tacked on? Like it was geared to have a down ending and that wasn't going to fly so they changed it on the spot.
This movie is a wash, just like both Punisher movies. I think Hollywood doesn't understand the dark side of comic characters. I'm not really into comics but I like the Punisher but they can't get that to save their budgets.

Christian M. Howell said...

What can I say? It gave me what I went to see it for. Even since I've been writing and studying directing, I still like the simple and the goofy sometimes.

But again, $200M worth of box office in a week means they did something right.

I really appreciated bringing in an irrational mortal who really had no chance against Hancock.

It showed the power of humiliation. That robber thought himself "invincible" also yet in a different way.

But hey, at least this discussion isn't going the way some I've seen did.


Hancock II: Back to Rehab

Hancock III: The Return of Jack Daniels

Christian M. Howell said...

To anonymous:

Thank you for your excellent psychological analysis. IT'S JUST A FRICKIN MOVIE.

$200M worth of box office says I'm right and you're wrong, no offense.

Maybe they dropped the ball and the movie could have been better but IT GOT A STANDING OVATION AT THE END IN A PACKED THEATER.

I guess it's more of a fluff, movie-watcher experience than a taut, well-spun yarn. But then I still think it was a GOOD movie.

I don't remember any poignant or revealing moments in Iron Man. As far as some of the movies mentioned, they were different stories, more ground in reality, not dark satire.

BTW, $200M in box office is pretty good for a bad movie. Maybe they didn't want to dethrone Titanic.

Anonymous said...

I suppose American Idol is the most sophisticated, well-crafted piece of storytelling in our generation, then?

Anonymous said...

"Even since I've been writing and studying directing, I still like the simple and the goofy sometimes."

Apparently, silly and goofy movies cannot have well crafted stories and characters.
You have some more studying to do.

Christian M. Howell said...

Anonymous you should change your name to a-hole. You don't have to agree with me or the millions of people who have been applauding the movie since Tuesday, but insults tend to rile me up.


I LOVED IT. YOU DON'T HAVE TO. I FORGIVE YOU.

Mystery Man said...

Yeah, let's play nice here, guys. I'm all for an intense spirited debate but refrain from personal attacks.

-MM

deepstructure said...

a little late to the party as i just saw this, but i have to agree with mike le - this was a mess.

Pat said...

I think the reason why Hancock appealed to a lot of people is because they've got society nurtured ADD...hear me out.

A lot of people watch movies in the instant and only during the moments. They never take movies seriously and just like to see good looking people do special things, even if it is an unconscious thing.

Either way you can tell the director of Friday Night Lights made this because of how sentimental each scene was shot. The story may never have come together, but each moment was on cue and well done; isolated to itself each scene stands as a well done and nearly pitch perfect scene for at least the first 3 quarters of the film. The fault is the script, but the actors came strong and the director didn't mess up a thing in my book.

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