Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hancock: the A-Word

And when we’re talking “uncomfortable class imagery” there’s nothing more direct than the pervasive use of profanity. The defining word of this entire movie is…


From the very first shot of the movie, Hancock is woken up off a park bench, by a kid wanting him to stop bad guys. When Hancock responds harshly, the little six year old walks off and calls him an asshole. The point of an early morning wake up scene in the beginning of a movie is to say “every day is like this for the character.”

The film uses the word asshole 15 times in the first half. Everyone, including the two other main characters, call him an asshole.

And it’s such a banal insult. Everyone knows he isn’t a supervillain knocking off banks or kidnapping the president. In fact he’s usually saving the day. But he’s being a callous rude jerk while doing it, and that’s just as upsetting.

Instead of picking up a guy off the train tracks, he stops a train and derails the cargo. To catch some fleeing robbers he picks up their truck and pins it on a record company building’s ostentatious spire. He is almost always drunk, and drinking more. He’s unshaven and sleeps on park benches. He uses just as much foul language at others that they gave him in the first place.

It’s hard to tell the line here between what’s “genuinely destructive behavior” and what is just failing to present the polite appearance society wants. And, when you’re basically an unaccountable invincible god, there might not be much of a difference from society’s perspective.

But there’s a cycle here. We are simultaneously shown Hancock acting like an asshole, and people calling him an asshole. And being called an asshole really hurts him. Even though none of these humans present any threat to him, he is always shown to really care and be hurt when someone insults him. That’s some really solid understanding of social abjection there. The threat behind the slur isn’t where the power comes from, but the social reality of the slur in of itself. (Perhaps even more impressively, all of these characters are so sure that Hancock is a neutered dog that they don’t hesitate to call a walking wrecking ball “asshole”.)

This is best reflected in what we call the Routine, a series of lines that happens four times in the movie.

  1. Hancock on his best behavior, tries to talk someone down.
  2. The aggressive human calls him an asshole.
  3. Hancock says he doesn’t like that word.
  4. Aggressive human snidely says something like “What word? Asshole.”
  5. Hancock grimaces. “Call me asshole. One more time.”
  6. Human does.
  7. Hancock does something extremely violent to them.

Hancock, as the infinitely more powerful person in these scenes, has more responsibility.  So this is not to excuse his behavior or say that is was good to get vengeance like that (and the comedic stylings of Routine in jail are supposed to disturb us at the violation that follows.) They epitomize “Call me a monster, and a monster I shall be.”

Oh right, quick check. Hancock is often identified with Frankenstein. His current identity was created after seeing the first movie of Frankenstein in 1930, and his only piece of evidence from that past life is two ticket stubs to it. We’ll talk about how important the 1930’s are later.

So on one level, you have this parable of the gentle giant who wants to help, but because he’s reviled by society, becomes increasingly isolated and violent. But the movie doesn’t make it easy on us. His behavior is not just “sorta misguided”, but genuinely abhorrent. We can very easily see why people find him irresponsible and disgusting. He exchanges racist slurs with Asian crooks, he traumatizes a kid, and he literally shoves a man’s head up another man’s ass (one of the great things about this movie is it shows the after effects of that “joke” on those two men for the rest of the movie.)

But underneath all that, he motivation clearly is to do good and be loved. There are a series of youtubes that have defined his public perception, such as when butt-naked in disintegrating clothes, he pushes aside some kids and climbs into an ice cream truck to take the ice cream. It’s appalling. Of course, the reason he did this was he had just rescued people from an apartment building on fire, and he wanted something to cool down.

There’s an interesting note about superhero costumes here. Hancock is mostly naked in this clip because his clothes burnt off while saving people. This is such a great contrast from 99% of other superheroes who somehow always manage to have a costume that stays in one piece, while they shrug off explosions, superspeed, clawing menaces, and extreme heat. We don’t want their nakedness. We want them to save us and look good for the cameras afterwards.

Hancock does the first but not the second. So he gets called an asshole. So he gets worse and worse at both parts.

Until we meet his white male savior, Ray. Let’s talk about Ray next post.

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