Today in film history, July 2, 2008, the $150 million "Hancock" opened in USA theaters for what would become a 10-week run, grossing roughly $228 million domestically, and close to $400 million overseas.
While it was a commercial success, the critics were mixed on it, giving it a 41% rating (via Rotten Tomatoes), with the consensus reading: "Though it begins with promise, Hancock suffers from a flimsy narrative and poor execution."
And I would agree with that. Simply, a fallen, disillusioned superhero in need of a PR makeover. But then it falls apart about halfway through and becomes something else entirely.
I think Morgan Freeman summed it up for a lot of folks, when he was asked in an interview with The Daily Beast in 2012, while he was on the promotion trail for "The Dark Knight Rises." The interviewer asked him what he thought about the possibility of a (coincidentally) Black Panther movie finally being made after years of chatter about it. Freeman's reply: "Well, if the movie is done well. Will Smith did one ... 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."
Released in a year (2008) when the possibility of a Black Panther movie was only a fanboy/girl's dream, very far from the reality that it is now becoming, I haven't watched "Hancock" in a few years, and I might revisit this weekend - if only it was streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu (it's not).
But it is, in effect, the last black superhero movie Hollywood has produced, and, sadly, it's a film that I think many 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. Yes, black superheroes like Falcon have appeared in Hollywood superhero movies, but I'm referring to those black superheroes who've starred in their own movies, not playing sidekicks in others.
But each time I'm reminded of "Hancock," I'm also reminded of the movie that it could have been. So I'd like to take a trip down memory lane and revisit the film on its 8th anniversary, especially in light of what feels like a renewed interest in black superheroes on screen; but I don't want to talk about the film that was released, that we all saw. Instead, I want to take a look at the film that it could have been (long-time readers of this blog will remember this).
What many probably aren't aware of is that "Hancock" was a project that had been in development for 12+ years before it was finally made and released in the summer of 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 far more interesting and ambitious than what ended up on screen. And that is what I want to revisit 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 what the studio ended up using. It could be interpreted in a number of ways.
During the 12+ years that the script spent floating around, at least 5 different directors were attached to it at one time or another (some big names actually, like Michael Mann and the late 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 a script's detriment.
I re-read the script again; and while it’s far from perfect, 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 original 1996 script, and completed 2008 film, but I was surprised at how very different the combined effect of the words on the page are, to what I saw on screen.
By that I mean, the tone and mood of the script contradict what we experience in the film. The original Hancock is a dark, brooding, tormented soul – nothing at all humorous about this fella. Nothing comedic about him at all. Despite his vices – he smokes and drinks heavily, spending nights in shitty dives, drowning his ills in alcohol and cigarettes, while picking up prostitutes, somewhat similar to the movie – he has taken it upon himself to be humanity’s savior.
There are moments when he flies into action, and performs super-heroic acts like foiling a bank robbery attempt. But, surprisingly, those moments are very few. There are very little of the usual “Superhero” motifs you’d expect in a superhero movie, 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?
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The original 1996 script is as much about superheroes, as E.T. is 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. 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; but I was ok with the mystery).
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 (housewife Mary), Jason Bateman (Ray, public relations pro) and the kid who plays their son (also a target for bullies).
The Longfellows in the script are clearly a couple of notches lower on the socioeconomic ladder, compared to the middle to upper middle class Embreys in the movie. In the script, 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 actually, 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 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 somewhat depressing 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, point, theme, or message that guides the plot from “FADE IN” to “FADE OUT.”
At its core, "Tonight, He Comes" wants to deconstruct traditional definitions of masculinity as I see it, asking age-old questions like, “what does it mean to be a man?”
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 happens at least twice in the script. 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 it isn’t fully explored in the script, which is where it falters. That alone – a besieged superhero and his desire to be human, intersecting with a wimpy human man 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, grimy 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 recent Batman movies – 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 super-heroics.
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 here that could have been explored further, but at the finish, he favors convention over invention.
Both bullied father and son, 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 typical 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 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 initially 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, without enough action; essentially a superhero movie that’s missing one key ingredient: the superhero being super-heroic.
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 was talk of a sequel to "Hancock," although I don't really see that happening at this point. But you never know, as studios continue to mine their catalogs for older titles to revive/reboot/sequelize/etc. And if it does happen, I'd like to see something closer to the original script.
I recall, in 2014, when it was revealed that "Breaking Bad’s" Vince Gilligan actually also worked on the screenplay to "Hancock," when it was still called "Tonight He Comes." Apparently Gilligan was one of the many writers who revised the script through its many drafts, and, as he shared, what was actually supposed to be a rather dark drama ended up being a rather silly comedy.
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 "Hancock" as silly, wondering why it was ever even made, per his above quote. I'd like to see what it could've looked like (the script) after another polish or two. Maybe in the reboot-happy Hollywood studio period we're currently living in, Sony might opt to bring "Hancock" back, but differently.