Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Hancock, the Blue Pill, and the Study of the Hero

There is an idea that’s entered the vernacular from the Matrix film series. It’s been adopted most actively by mystics and conspiracy theorists, but there are times where it applies across the board. In the first matrix film the lead character is offered a choice, to take the Red Pill which will allow him to see the world as it really is for the first time, though he is warned this won’t be pretty and it will be very difficult on him. He is also offered the choice to take the Blue Pill, a pill which will erase from his memory any idea he may have had that something was wrong with the world or that it wasn’t quite what it seemed to be, and he would be able to continue for the rest of his life in blissful ignorance.

This summer, as I detail in a previous entry I saw a film that was the best “red pill” experience I’d had in a long time. It didn’t pretend to have the answers but it admitted that something was drastically wrong, and it didn’t insult me by trying to force my thinking into a narrow and failing framework like many other films have.

I also had a very distinct “blue pill” film experience this summer. Ok it wasn’t so much a generic blue pill experience as it could best be described as taking a bottle of Viagra ® while attending a show at the House of Blues in the blue state of Illinois, where the night’s entertainment would be the all female heavy metal band Phantom Blue, opening for Blue Oyster Cult, with the Blue Man Group headlining, as my meal of blueberry pie and a glass of blue Kool Aid was served to me by a Smurf. And then Andrew Dice Clay showed up and…. you get the idea.

The film that inspired more references to blue than a Colts game, Hancock.

This film is exactly what’s wrong with today’s culture. And don’t get me wrong I did enjoy it when I saw it, and I’m certain the filmmakers had no secret agenda in making this film. AND THAT’S THE PROBLEM! I don’t mean to say that it should have possessed some secret agenda. The whole problem is that everything it gave into, every idea it gave credence to it did so, automatically, unthinkingly, matter-of-factly. It seemed like the idea that some of the ideas stated in the film were so obvious that there couldn’t possibly an opposing view to them. Morally, there was nothing controversial.

The film starts with a crime being committed and a young boy telling a drunken vagrant that the vagrant needs to stop it. The vagrant wants to continue sleeping but the child basically orders and insults the vagrant into waking. This is our hero “John Hancock.”

Over the next several minutes it is shown that Hancock has a very reckless style of crime fighting. He causes millions of dollars of property damage, he attacks people with the full use of his powers if he is too offended by them (at one point launching a schoolyard bully nearly into orbit just to scare him and then catching him safely), and he is HATED by the people he protects.

This is how his life goes until he meets Ray Embry. Mr. Embry is portrayed by Jason Bateman, who, thanks to this role, is now my first last and only choice to play Peter Keating if a new adaptation of the Fountainhead is made. That being said, Mr. Embry works in PR. Throughout most of the film he’s seen trying to shop around a seal of approval called “All Heart.” The standards set for this seal of approval he wishes to be sought after is suicidal altruistic business practices such as giving away every unit made of a drug company’s most sought after drug. Big surprise, nobody’s buying.

On the way home from a failed business meeting he’s saved by Hancock and offers him a chance to come home and have dinner with his family. Around this point Embry gets the idea to totally make over Hancock’s image. Hancock will be more pleasant to talk to, less reckless, wear a costume, and serve jail time to pay off all of his property damage and give the city a chance to miss him when the crime rate goes up.

You might think this could have potential allusions to Atlas Shrugged, but no. Imagine John Galt and the other’s going to the valley and then when the world wanted them back they were all mealy mouthed appeasers who would make Peter Keating look like a rugged individualist. When Hancock returns his dialogue seems eerily reminiscent of the scene from Robocop 2 where the directives that control what Robocop could and could not do were taken from the simple and objective and rewritten by committee with predictable results.

Hancock spends 5 minutes explaining that he isn’t trying to sexually harass a woman he’s saving and thanks everyone excessively by telling them they’ve done a “Good Job.” This was under direct advisement from Embry. When first given this advice he responded with “If they did such a good job, why do they need ME there?” But Hancock saves the day, sells his soul and gets some cheers.

At this point in the story Hancock becomes a beloved celebrity and you learn the first things about whom and what he is. In the beginning Embry makes it a point to play up the sadness and loneliness of being the only one of his kind. You soon find out this isn’t true.

In one of the most convenient twists of fate in history, Embry’s wife Mary is Hancock’s Wife/Sister (don’t ask) who is more than happy to pretend to be a weak little human. The truth is that there used to be an entire race of couples like them, created in twos paired with an opposite. At one point they were called gods, another time angels, and today they are called superheroes.

This leaves a puzzling situation on many fronts. Embry is mad to find this out now after years of marriage. Mary is conflicted over whom to stay with (or to just wait on her current hubby to die which ever is more convenient. And Hancock soon learns why they’ve never stayed together in the past. When the two of them are together they each become simply human, vulnerable and able to grow old and die. The problem with this is that there’s always something that tries to speed along that dying part when they get together.

In the past the fact that Hancock is black and Mary is white lead to all kinds of problems. And by problems I mean lynchings. The process became too painful for Mary and after the last attack left her lover with amnesia she simply let him go on in peace. This explains the name for anyone wondering. When he was discharged from the hospital after a miraculous recovery from a near fatal beating, his amnesia was so bad that when someone told him to “put down his John Hancock” he thought that was his name.

But the problem in this timeframe is that he’s a famous superhero and there are a number of criminals out for revenge on a powerless Hancock.

This part didn’t bother me like the rest of the film did; it mainly just shows the writing staff did their homework. The film covers every major idea and theory on heroism in this section. The idea that a hero has to go into the sunset is taken in an interesting direction when Hancock has to go to the Moon to leave Mary and get his powers back and save her life by restoring hers. The idea of the softening female influence is taken to its logical conclusion by the fact that when Hancock and Mary are together they have no powers and can be nothing but ordinary mortals. And the idea of the tragic hero who must continue on his quest to do his great deeds while separated from the woman he loves possibly forever.

But then Hancock carves the All Heart logo on the moon and everybody collapses into an orgy of self sacrifice that would put any orgy of another sort to shame even if said orgy was led by Larry Flint, Hugh Hefner, and Caesar Caligula all in their prime.

I do however recommend this film as a good study of the hero in fiction if for no other reason.