Hancock, Obama and the summer of heroes

HANCOCK: Will Smith’s superhero has image issues.
HANCOCK: Will Smith’s superhero has image issues.
(Frank Masi / Columbia Pictures)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Sp far this summer, I’ve had my brain pummeled by Robert Downey Jr. flying around in a techno-suit, Adam Sandler as an invincible (and priapic) former Mossad agent, Steve Carell as a nerdy indestructible super spy, Harrison Ford as a Teflon 60-year-old archaeologist, Edward Norton as the incredibly angry green dude -- which I admit I missed but saw the ads. However, I did catch an early screening of Will Smith as a hung-over but still unbeatable superhero. And I still have “The Dark Knight” and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” to go.

I don’t know how many more superhero movies I can take.

Some were good superhero movies. Some were bad superhero movies. Yet, they’re all beginning to merge together as a very long series of whammies, and fireballs, and ironic quips. In my mind, which might have been addled by the decibel level in the theaters, Hancock is taking down Indiana Jones. Zohan canoodles and karate chops Agent 99. My butt is kicked. Your butt is kicked. Sigh.

With “Hancock,” which zooms into theaters next week, Hollywood has gone all meta, giving us a superhero -- Smith -- who’s lost his mojo, a drunken power ranger having an existential crisis. No fear, here’s a sunny P.R. guy ( Jason Bateman) to the rescue. I laughed at Hancock’s politically incorrect dismissal of superhero couture, and did fall sway to the cosmic time-twisting conundrums of superhero love. As superhero dramas go, I’d give it three capes.

But the pure boom-boom factor of the genre made me feel bludgeoned. Again.

OK, MAYBE it’s just me. I’m not a 14-year-old boy; so all this superhero firepower isn’t hitting me in the solar plexus. But I did take my 5-year-old son to Target last weekend and bought him a whole array of superhero underpants. He really likes wearing Hulk on his butt. Sometime he wears his underpants backward so he can just look down and see his jolly green friend more easily. Maybe it comforts him on some level. Empowers him.

I’ve been told by a bevy of pop culture watchers that my son is more in tune with the collective unconscious than me. Author Peter Biskind, who’s written books about movies and culture in the ‘50s, ‘70s, and ‘90s, assures me that superheroes return with bad times. Superman reached iconic status during World War II. The gas crisis and economic malaise of the Carter years begat Superman again -- with the Christopher Reeve incarnation. And now, well, given the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the morass in Iraq and oil prices, we need Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Iron Man, all at once.

“Who doesn’t want a superhero when the world is in trouble?” asks marketing guru Jane Buckingham of the Youth Intelligence Group, who studies young people. “Who doesn’t want somebody to come save the day when the world is a mess?

“Life is hard. We are going through bad economic times. The environment is in trouble. There are looming terrorists.”

Buckingham notes that the reason summer is all about superheroes is because of a demographic perfect storm. Generation X types (born 1965-1982) tend to be cynical, the latchkey kids with divorcing parents, who came of age during an age of hero collapse: philandering politicians, unscrupulous Wall Street types and athletes pumping steroids.

Gen Xers couldn’t believe in superheroes, though they’re more willing to get back into the groove now that they’re having kids. Meanwhile, their younger brethren, the under-25 set, are more optimistic anyway, more filled with happy talk and dreams of Google-style riches. “Generation Y is a hopeful, optimistic generation. They want to believe from the start. Not naively, but just let me believe that it could be true that superheroes are out there,” says Buckingham.

Janine Basinger, a film historian from Wesleyan University, has a slightly different take on it. “We all want a daddy, don’t we? We really want a big daddy to fix it. These are reassuring figures.”

Basinger notes that the recent wave of superheroes is in part driven by the technological revolution in movie making. “When I was little, a superhero movie was either a B-movie, or a serial. You couldn’t do it right. You didn’t have the special effects. You didn’t have the CGI. In my day, George Reeves was Superman. You could see the wires holding him up and his leotard was baggy. As kids, we found that a hoot. Now it’s different. You can make the comic book work come to life.”

Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning writer who produced “Hancock” along with action maestro Michael Mann (“Heat,” “Miami Vice”), points out that the psychology of Hollywood’s superheroes has actually deepened of late. “Our view of heroes is evolving. They used to be pretty two-dimensional, and just good guys or gals. Now they seem to be human beings that have stumbled and have to find their way again. We want our heroes a little more moody. We want our heroes to struggle a little more and earn the chance to be righteous, and not just imagine it’s a birthright.”

Indeed, as experienced with Frank Miller’s revisionist Batman graphic novel of the late ‘80s, superheroes have routinely faced crises of confidence. They cry now. They need to pop Xanax before they get back to the hard task of saving civilization. But , clearly, rescue fantasies are in the air.

WHILE I believe in hope and change, I know some cynics (mostly die-hard Hillary Clinton supporters) who think Barack Obama taps into the same collective yearning as superheroes. He might as well be called Obama-man, political wonder boy, able to leap giant deficits in a single bound, vanquish scores of angry Iraqis merely by batting his doe eyes.

Obama-man has no past. Like all caped crusaders, he is a mysterious cipher, and yet a reassuring figure, like Superman or Spider-Man. And you all know that beautiful, lanky Michelle Obama would look great in her own spandex. Personally, I have more confidence in Obama, and I’d just like to say, what’s the alternative? John McCain as the Incredible Hulk?

Of course, I might be way over-thinking this phenomenon. Maybe it’s just all about the money that showers into Hollywood coffers. I understand why more and more Oscar-caliber actors do them -- it’s a way to pump up one’s box-office clout. Just this past spring, I interviewed Robert Downey Jr., right before “Iron Man” opened.

“The whole environment is geared around what happens to this one character,” Downey explained. “The whole world is retrofitted to tell one person’s story. It’s pretty cool”

With “Hancock,” the tracking shows that the Will Smith dramedy will likely make way over $100 million this July 4th holiday. And keeping with the spirit of these depressed times, the studio behind “Hancock,” Columbia Pictures, is launching a Hancock promotional contest, where the winner gets their mortgage paid off.

Who’s complaining?

As screenwriter David Koepp (“Spider-Man,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) notes: “Hollywood is only obsessed with superheroes because audiences seem to be. As soon as audiences are not, Hollywood will scrape them off their shoe.”