The Number One Movie in America: Hancock
By Sean Collier
March 5, 2021
I don’t know if you noticed, but Will Smith wasn’t really Will Smith for about ten years.
The longtime superstar had a string of hits in the late aughts, including “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “I Am Legend” and “Hancock.” That last film, while receiving a decidedly mixed critical response, was a fairly massive hit, earning more than $227 million and finishing fourth in overall box office for 2008; the only people who drew more viewers to the multiplex that year were Batman, Iron Man and Indiana Jones.
After that, things changed.
Smith was experimenting more with producing at the time; his next on-screen role was the dramatic miss “Seven Pounds.” For the decade that followed, there were projects that did well, but not well enough (“Men in Black 3”). There were badly misguided awards plays (“Concussion,” “Collateral Beauty”). There were movies little seen and less remembered (“Winter’s Tale,” “Focus”). Yes, there was a big genre hit (“Suicide Squad”), but that one wasn’t really built around Smith — and there were genre flicks that absolutely tanked (“After Earth”).
He just wasn’t Will Smith anymore. And “Hancock” should’ve been the sign.
While “Hancock” was successful, it’s a thorough mess. Nominally the tale of a drunk and disgruntled superhero learning to get himself on track through the aid of a grateful public-relations specialist (Jason Bateman), the movie makes it to about the 50-minute mark and realizes it has run out of story; Hancock is rehabilitated and has easily defeated the bad guy (who will turn up again in a few minutes, branded a supervillain by the media and no actual actions).
Without anywhere to go, the movie makes a bewildering pivot, introducing a new foil from Hancock’s past, plucked out of the roster of already-present characters.
I’m absolutely sure that one of the various writers involved in this movie over the years — it spent more than a decade in development — thought they had finished a draft, realized it wasn’t long enough and had to make up a new story to get it to feature length.
Even at that, it’s one of the thinnest superhero flicks you’ll ever see; the end credits roll at about 85 minutes. Normally, that would be an asset — and it certainly boosted Hancock’s box-office take, as movies under 90 minutes can get more showings per day than films that overstay their welcome — but narratively, it makes the entire operation seem undercooked.
And while “Hancock,” a brand-new property released in the middle of the summer, was sold on its stars — Charlize Theron rounds out the top three, as the wife of Bateman’s character — Smith is miscast. He’s too likable to be the misanthrope the role requires, making his early gruffness unconvincing and his rapid turn to nobility not as funny as it should’ve been. (Dave Chappelle was heavily considered for the role, and would’ve been perfect.)
So yes, “Hancock” was a hit. But it also served as the warning sign that one of the most bankable stars of the ’90s and ’00s was, perhaps, no longer on the right career trajectory.
Anyway, he might be back. The live-action “Aladdin” made a ton of money, and thanks to an inconvenient pandemic, “Bad Boys For Life” will stand as the top-grossing film of 2020. So what’s next for Will?
What’s that? An awards play where he portrays Venus & Serena Williams’ father?
I don’t want to speculate, but that sounds a lot more like “Seven Pounds” than “Independence Day.”
“Hancock” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: We’re a little late for Mardi Gras, but we're heading down to New Orleans.