NEW YORK — In the grand scheme of things, there are heroes and superheroes. And then there are super-superheroes.
"The last 'Superman' I got offered," Will Smith revealed recently, reminiscing about the time he passed up the "Superman Returns" role that eventually went to Brandon Routh, "the script came, and I was like, 'There is no way I'm playing Superman!' Because I had already done Jim West [of 'Wild Wild West'], and you can't be messing up white people's heroes in Hollywood!"
Laughing, the king of the 4th of July weekend added, "You mess up white people's heroes in Hollywood, you'll never work in this town again!"
Though he has the physique (as seen in "Ali") and action-movie credibility ("I Am Legend," "Independence Day"), Smith has watched the superhero-cinema revolution of the last decade from the sidelines, keeping one hand firmly on his cape. In 2005, the A-lister came across a nine-year-old script called "Tonight, He Comes," which offered him the chance to personify a new hero, in the film we now know as "Hancock." (Read Kurt Loder's review of the film here.)
"Hancock is dark, but he's fun," the former Fresh Prince (who reunited with DJ Jazzy Jeff at the film's premiere this week for an old-school rap performance) said of his character. "You can get away with all kinds of things if it's funny. It's like staying on that edge of comedy, which is what I think is the beauty of this movie. [Director] Pete Berg, he shoots it in a way that is really authentic-looking. He's not setting up jokes with those camera shots, so the comedy is really coming out from a true, authentic character place, which is hard to do with these kinds of movies."
Now, instead of taking up residence in the Fortress of Solitude, Will Smith has a park bench. Instead of blue tights, he's wearing shorts and a tattered knit cap. He still gets to stop bullets with his skin, fly through the air and engage in his own Man of Steel heroics — but when Hancock goes dark, he makes Christopher Reeve's "Superman III" bar scene look like a "Teletubbies" rerun.
"I was attracted to the idea of this self-destructive, drunk, nihilistic beast of a man fighting crime inebriated and terrorizing the people he was supposed to protect," Berg said of his film. "I like that idea. I thought it would give us the ability to find a fresh way into the superhero genre."
Jason Bateman, who appears in the film as a publicity expert eager to give Hancock an image makeover, insists that films like "Fantastic Four" and "Daredevil" fall short when they don't explore the darker temptations of superpowers. "I would probably not be a very good good-guy; I would probably go the Hancock route," he reasoned. "I would love to fly and bang into things. It would be nice to bounce off a building, and bounce off the other one, instead of flying straight through — that's kind of boring."
"I like [superhero movies] when they push the envelope and they give you something different," leading lady Charlize Theron said. "And I feel like this one is as different and unusual as they come."
But if there's one thing we all know about comic book geeks, it's that they must rank everything. So, in this summer when "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight" are battling for the title of best superhero movie ever made, where does "Hancock" fit in?
"It's a really interesting time," Berg said. "Jon Favreau did a great job on 'Iron Man,' and Downey was fantastic. It was an interesting spin, had a nice flavor. ... 'Hulk' was also an interesting film.
"Hancock is his own animal," Berg said of the character, trying to place him among the onslaught of DC and Marvel comics legends who've hit the big screen in the past decade. "He's probably somewhere, but not on the hill all the rest of [the superheroes] are on. He has to be on the hill in back. He smashed the hill up a little bit, so it's more of a mound, because he got drunk and flew through his hill."
At long last, Will Smith has finally found a role that lets him leap tall buildings in a single bound. And by avoiding the expectations of the super-superhero who would have weighed him down with 75 years' worth of baggage, perhaps the star has finally figured out the best way to create a performance more powerful than a locomotive.
"I don't really want to compare it to other superhero films, because I think this one just kicks the ass of all other superhero films," Theron insisted. "And by the way, Will paid me to say that."
Check out everything we've got on "Hancock."
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