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Hancock: Not your average superhero. Directed by Peter Berg, and starring Will Smith, Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron. .

Movie Review: Hancock
Will Smith’s latest movie recounts the superhero adventures of a Lamed Vovnik.

-- Ben Burrows

Will Smith’s latest movie character, Hancock, is billed by most critics as a super-powered anti-hero. We expect the light-hearted humor of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the honorable motives of Superman, but are confused to find a careless attention-deficit alcoholic – who thinks he is doing good by suppressing evil-doers, but ends up doing as much damage in saving the day as his criminal nemeses perform for their nefarious motives. We are reminded of many attempts by public figures and private citizens to do good -- of the many neighbors who failed to call police in the Kitty Genovese murder, even as she called for help while being beaten to death; of Rusty Calley, who committed war crimes against a village in Vietnam in order to save it; even of George Bush, who undermined an entire country to rid the world of terrorism. The mystery of this movie is Who did select Hancock, and how was he provided with super powers, such as they are.

As the movie proceeds, I began to see that Hancock had much in common with Ernie Levy, the hero of Andre Schwartz-Bart’s novel, The Last of the Just. Although in the language of the movie, Hancock is “an angel or something,” the Will Smith character (like Ernie) is an unknown Lamed Vovnik, chosen to be one of the Just Men whose goodness supports the world but unware of his role, unappreciated and unrecognized. Like Ernie as well, Hancock and Mary Embrey (Charlize Theron) are in fact the Last of their kind. Unlike Ernie, his Talmud learning and social sensitivity leave much to be desired. Convinced by Paul Embrey (Jason Bateman) that he can be accepted as human, but only if he begins to take responsibility for his actions, the superhero submits to secular justice, enters prison, to learn conflict resolution and anger management through group therapy. His good behavior and cooperation with this course of treatment bring him first the trust of the police, and later of the public. There is no comparison of Ernie’s submission to the Nazi Holocaust, and Hancock’s submission to an unappreciative society, and a law enforcement regime which merely tolerates his good works. Nonetheless, the trajectory of moral growth and submission follows a similar emotional arc.

In the universe of this movie, John Hancock and Mary Embrey are an immortal inter-racial pairing, whose powers are each weakened by the very presence of the other, making them vulnerable to attack by ordinary mortals. The parallels with Ernie Levy’s relationships – first with blonde Christian German Lisl in his elementary school (for which Levy is beaten by Hitler Youth), and later with French women (who shelter his body, but cannot protect Levy from the turmoil of betrayal which Ernie feels for separating himself from his Jewish roots) – seem all the more forbidden by the liason of the South African Charlize Theron and the black Philadelphian Will Smith. The racial and religious tension are intensified as Theron explains that they are “angels or something” – immortal and “married” but doomed to weaken each other through love.

Eventually, Mary and Hancock resolve to separate, and to seek love separately, despite their divine heritage and mutual history. It is only through this voluntary separation that they are freed to help humanity (embodied by Mary’s husband Paul) to “save the world.” It is a strange commentary that saving the world can only be realized through abstinence-only hero education.

Yet it is not just the “super” characters who perform heroic moral acts in this movie. Ordinary Ray Embrey risks his life to save Hancock and Mary in their love-weakened state from the criminal depredations of the movie’s evil-doers. Hancock shows that he has learned a lesson, by placing Ray’s trademark charity symbol on the earth-facing surface of the Moon – combining a symbolic gesture with physical deeds – both as a distant act of love for Mary, and as an act of gratitude to Ray. It is certainly sensible that with super powers come super responsibilities. Perhaps in this election year, Americans can acknowledge their super power limitations, as well as their personal responsibilities to our national heritage.

I am grateful for the thoughts of my friend Paul Wolman, who contributed ideas to several drafts of this essay.

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