You’d be forgiven for thinking that Hollywood has forgotten how to make anything but superhero movies. They come out as regularly as the comic books that spawned them once did for adolescent boys with ten cents burning a hole in their pockets. The one that got it all started, of course, was “Superman: The Movie” — starring Christopher Reeve. Based on staying power, Superman is probably the greatest comic hero of all time and 1978’s film version “Superman: The Movie” has become the gold standard in comic-to-film translations.
In the Richard Donner-directed film, the title character soared to new heights with state of the art effects (for the day), enormous budget, and a cavalcade of talent both in front of, and behind, the camera. Its successful formula inspired so much competition that even the franchise re-boot, “Superman Returns,” had trouble standing out from the pack when it came out. So, it was inevitable that an anti-hero version would be made, as a way to cut through the superhero signal-to-noise ratio. Enter a movie star super man to take on the challenge — Will Smith. He flies high (and low!) in the Peter Berg-directed flick, “Hancock.” Apparently, it’s not easy being super, and Will suffers through his enormous power beset by alcoholism and depression. Is “Superman: The Movie” dated and old and open to being kicked around by “Hancock” or is the man in tights still The Man? Let’s see if Will Smith can overcome the giant legacy of Christopher Reeve.
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Imagine if you took a hero like Superman, gave him a drinking problem, and the attitude of a Tarantino film. Essentially, that’s “Hancock”. Boozy, lazy, self indulgent and often, just plain rude, Hancock is the kind of superhero you definitely do not want coming to save you from a burning skyscraper. Problematic rescues involving massive property damage have tarnished his reputation as a decent hero, and instead, the city of Los Angeles is seeking reparations for the damage he has caused in apprehending criminals or saving people. Yep, Hancock’s all about angst, an angry god-like man beset with the emotional growth of a pineapple. Throw in a young, not-quite-successful public relations guru in Ray (Jason Bateman), and the sparks will surely fly. Especially when Hancock gets his eyes around Ray’s wife, played with toothy relish by Charlize Theron: you just know it’s gonna get messy.
Hancock comes from a bad past: his memory is shot and he can’t remember things from his youth. He enjoys the booze, mainly due to some kind of depression about that past he can’t remember, and he finds saving people and stopping crime to be an annoyance. Plus, his seeming inability to think through things ensures he’s slowly becoming a despised figure in the community. A simple act of bravery, stopping a train from hitting Ray’s car, ends up with him managing to derail the train and cause hundreds of thousands of dollars property damage: none of which he can pay for, of course. So, the wise heads around at City Hall call for his incarceration, to pay off his debt to society. Ray, meanwhile, concocts a plan to rejuvenate the fallen hero’s public image, with a new look and attitude, something Hancock is highly resistant to. At least, initially. It’s then, though, that the film takes a sharp turn into “what the…?” territory. “Hancock” starts off being a fairly straightforward premise, with a down-in-the-dumps superhero trying to make good with the rest of humanity, even if they don’t’ want him to. Somewhere in the middle, it ends up being a massive brawl between two super-humans, and a gunfight with a couple of evil criminals with a vendetta against the title character. I haven’t seen a film with such a sharp change in direction since Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk Til Dawn” came out a few years back.
Peter Berg has a rare eye for action. “Hancock” is a bravura example of the modern Hollywood style, all razzle-dazzle and flashy effects, scraping together with a plot (of indeterminate quality) and a major star in the lead role. Berg’s best film to exploit this kind of film-making had been, until now, “The Rundown”, a relatively low-key affair with Sean William Scott and The Rock. Now, though, there’s a new kid on the block, from Berg’s oeuvre.
What “Hancock” lacks in length, it makes up for in intensity and slick showmanship. In being the sum of it’s many parts, “Hancock” is a success, whether deserved or not: the film rattles along with scant regard for logic and common sense. After all, it’s a superhero film, and with that comes certain audience expectations. Of course, Berg and Smith exploit the genre’s cliches: does Superman crack the cement whenever he lands at speed? Does Superman need to go to the toilet? Does a superhero have to worry about those skintight costumes?
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The Defending Champion
With a single scene, a film rewrote the action/adventure genre in Hollywood film-making. He swoops up, catches a falling Lois Lane, then a falling helicopter, lifts them both to safety, and creates both a legend on screen, and a legend within the film: the “he” is Superman, that mythical being from Krypton who has been with us now for nearly 70 years. Superman’s heart-stopping save of Lois in “Superman: The Movie” is one of cinema’s greatest action set-pieces, and perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring feats of effects in movie history. Just how did they do that, you find yourself asking. Lacking the digital technology we take for granted in todays CGI-enhanced mishmash, “Superman: The Movie” introduced a new take on an old character: Chris Reeve portraying both the muscular hero, and his bumbling alter ego, Clark Kent. Throw in a feisty, zesty Lois (Margot Kidder) and a villain like Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), and you have a recipe for success, surely? “Superman” has had a fair run of success, remaining at the top of most critics and fan’s lists of best superhero films. The film is essentially divided into three acts, retelling the story of his escape from the doomed planet of Krypton, his family life growing up in Smallville, and finally his flight into a larger world in Metropolis, where he encounters Lex Luthor and “saves the world.”
Richard Donner, who would go on to later success with the “Lethal Weapon” series, had a definite idea of what to do with Mario Puzo’s massive, almost unfilmable “Superman” script: he handed it to David and Leslie Newman for fine-tuning. What came about was essentially two movies’ worth of script. The energy and heart that was poured into “Superman” is palpable on screen. The imagery almost glows with a kind of reverence for the characters and scenarios you don’t get nowadays in this color corrected, desaturated, enhanced digital world. The effects, while compared with todays CGI look almost primitive, manage to overcome their dated style with sheer force of story: the effects are there to help the story, not to become the story.
As mentioned, “Superman” is a film in three parts. Opening the film is the backstory, the history of Krypton and the reason Superman was sent to Earth. Here, we meet Superman’s father, Jor El, who warns his people (and us) of impending doom, as Krypton is about to be destroyed. In order to protect his family legacy, he send his only son, Kal El, into space just before Krypton explodes. Kal El rockets through space, growing and learning, before coming to rest in a field near Smallville, a town in rural America. Kal El is raised by a childless couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent, who teach him how to become a moral man, a well adjusted individual regardless of his great power and strength.
Finally, the film moves to Metropolis, where Clark Kent is employed by The Daily Planet, a “great metropolitan newspaper”. He meets Lois, and becomes embroiled in a nuclear event with Lex Luthor, kingpin of the criminal underworld, and all-round vile villain. It is in this third part of the film, that we finally meet Superman.
Each frame of this film is simply jawdroppingly gorgeous: Geoffrey Unsworths magnificent lens-work simply and effortlessly transporting the viewer to that time and place with an ease that borders on illegality. The effects of Superman flying, crushing things and saving the day might look dated by today’s standards, yet you don’t ever feel that they detract from the story the film is trying to tell.
“Superman”, as a film, remains a legendary moment in cinema, one that still resonates with fans to this day.
With this in mind, can “Superman” finally be toppled by a drunken, all-powerful Will Smith?
On one side, an impossibly legendary film, in “Superman”. On the other, a bright, shiny new film in “Hancock”, lacking the subtlety of time and favoritism accorded to the Defending Champion. In “Superman”, you have the then-relatively unknown Chris Reeve, who once stated he put black shoe-polish in his hair to help get him the part. In “Hancock”, you have Will Smith, who, to my knowledge, had never put shoe-polish anywhere on his body. Anybody brave enough to say anything overly critical of “Superman”, regardless of your stance on “spinning the Earth backwards to reverse time” plot development, is usually pummeled into oblivion by the mass fanatics who regard this film as the Everest of superhero movies. Hancock, meanwhile, has a higher production budget ($150m, compared to “Superman’s” $55m) and about half the running time. The differences between the two films are enormous, not including the budget and production values. Scripting, most definitely, is a major example of what is substantially off-key in “Hancock.”
Smith’s Hancock is cocky, arrogant and belligerent: and the script reflects this. But underneath that should be some kind of heart, some kind of soul that we, as viewers, can sink our teeth into. Not with Hancock: he’s aloof and above humanity, and unfortunately, remains so in this scattergun approach to a screenplay. Smith manages to throw in a few jokes, some of which work; others are merely uncomfortable dross, something that will not stand the test of time in years to come. The sharp veering of the screenplay from heroic comedy/action into dark, venereal dramatics, works against the film instead of for it. The film’s opening and closing moments are poles apart, both in substance and style, and as an audience member, you want to stay in the same head-space throughout, not have to adjust half way through. Smith is in dire need of a breather in this film, his performance almost akin to that of a sleepwalking zombie: barely coherent and utterly unlovable. In “Superman”, however, the scripting changes throughout the film to the movies overall credit: the stoic, monotonous Krypton scenes contrasting superbly against the lighter, more readily accessible Smallville sequences and even further into semi-farce with the Metropolis moments. Indeed, in as much as “Hancock” changes course half way through, so to does “Superman”, although due to the audiences investment in the characters, “Superman” is a more believable and acceptable change.
As far as effects go, and let’s face it, these two films are big on effects, “Hancock” simply has to triumph. It’s more realistic, a modern look at the genre, and consequently, the flying and fighting effects as Hancock streaks through the air are much more realistic than the highly stylized “Superman”. Still, “Superman”‘s effects are, even today, magnificent to see. They take you back to a time when everything on screen was achieved by hand, not by computer. This in itself should fascinate modern viewers. In the same way “Jason And The Argonauts” still fascinates us. Yo
u can see the wires, but it’s the effort that was put into each frame that stands the test of time. Yes, “Hancock” would deservedly win the award for best effects, were that to be the sole criteria for this smackdown’s result.
In terms of the musical score, you’ve got to be joking if you think John Williams isn’t some kind of genius, comparable to Mozart or Hendrix. The theme from “Superman”, remains among his most identifiable tunes, even amongst people who haven’t seen the movie the tune is from. For me, The Superman Theme is on a level pegging with “Star Wars”. Unfortunately, John Powell’s score for “Hancock” borders on the boring, almost as if he’s riffing on Williams’ efforts himself. Powell’s use of orchestra is hardly as invigorating or refreshing, and in this instance, John Williams has laid the smackdown on Powell in a big way.
For the acting stakes, it’s much harder to determine where each film lies. “Hancock”, while having a decent cast in Smith, Bateman and Theron, doesn’t give the actors much chance to really shine; each person in “Hancock” is either a generic “lets make this guy a firefighter” character, or simply a bit-part with little to do or say other than get in Hancock’s way. Theron tries her hardest to bring a sense of emotion to the film, however this effort is hampered by Berg’s flashy direction and the fact that Will Smith is the star of the film, not Hancock. In “Superman”, each character is more fleshed out, even Kal El’s mother, Lara. The costuming, the lighting, the camerawork: all manifest themselves readily to simply assist the actor to bring something to the screen that’s pure cinematic magic. Even Marlon Brando, mumbling his way through dialogue about being the fathers son of a sons father (or something like that) manages to create a real sense of who Jor El is, rather than just a mere cameo we can all forget once the man in the cape appears on screen. Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter (especially Thaxter) are radiant in their roles of Clark’s adoptive parents: both are charismatic actors capable of great emotional range, and it shows in even the slightest of details. Chris Reeve, in his first role, is revelatory as Kent/Superman, how mannerisms and changes of personality as he changes roles simply staggering to watch. And then there’s Lex Luthor, played by a scenery-chewing Gene Hackman. Hackman out-acts everybody he’s on screen with, even if his character is a little thin on the ground in terms of development. Hackman’s Luthor is a villain simply because they need a villain in the film: his motives are ill-conceived and his existence is never fully fleshed out… he’s there because Superman needs an enemy. Still, Hackman plays him to the hilt, delivering his lines with an almost decadent syrupy sliminess.
Okay, so you probably knew “Hancock” was never going to even come close to “Superman” for sheer spectacle and warm, fuzzy charm. After all, when your central hero is an angry wino with a five o’clock shadow, Hancock doesn’t exactly endear himself to a mass audience. This then, is perhaps why most people found “Hancock” a difficult film to enjoy. Plus, add in the massive “twist” half way through, which doesn’t work at all with what’s come previously, and you have a film that feels half-baked, lacking in cohesive development and an overall malaise that’s never going to go away.With so many things working against “Hancock”, you’d be hard pressed to go against “Superman: The Movie” for sheer entertainment; it’s sheer escapist fare that feels like spending a couple of hours watching Julia Roberts smile at you.