July 4: Will Smith's Holiday

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Will Smith in Hancock

Hancock is the superhero nobody likes. Oh, he can fly; his chest does repel point-blank bullets. And he saves people, averts catastrophe, stops bad guys from doing bad things. But Hancock has a personality defect: he's a horrible human being/deity. He guzzles way too much Royal Crown, which puts him in a perpetually bad mood and interferes with his self-aviation skills — the man is a drunk flyer. (And then he lands so hard on a street, he digs a ditch in the asphalt.) He wrecks everything he touches. When he's finished a mission, all of L.A. has become collateral damage. Once Hancock was summoned to the aid of a whale that had washed up on the beach. When he lifted the creature by its tail and tossed it back in the sea, it landed on a distant ship. "I don't remember that," he says to somebody, who replies, "Greenpeace does."

I just realized something. None of this matters. A critique of Hancock is an essay in irrelevance. It's Independence Day Week, and six times since 1996, that's meant a Will Smith movie — a mega-giga-gigantic hit. Independence Day; Men in Black; Wild Wild West; Men in Black II; I, Robot: He shows up, people line up. Thomas Jefferson used to own this holiday, but now the former Fresh Prince does. So why should critics even bother to review a new Will Smith movie? You'll go see it anyway.

It's my theory — and I have the stats to back me up — that Hollywood is in its first ever post-movie-star era. Big celebrity names no longer guarantee box-office hits. Casting dramatic stars like Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, etc., no longer guarantees a movie's commercial success; and the more reliable comedy stars, from Adam Sandler to Ben Stiller, lose much of their audiences when they try something a little different.

To all this, Smith would say ha, and rightly so, since he's the big exception. He actually deserves that overused epithet "the last movie star." For more than a decade, he's been immune to moviegoers' fickle fashions. His films have earned $4.5 billion worldwide. And except for his pro bono work in Ali (for which he won an Academy Award nomination) and Robert Redford's The Legend of Bagger Vance, every Will Smith movie has been a hit or smash, earning at least $100 million in North America and another $100 million or more abroad. Sometimes lots more.

Start with Independence Day: $306m at home, $511m abroad, for a worldwide $817m (back in 1996, when that was real money). The following year he did Men in Black: $251m at home, $339m abroad, for a total of $598m. Last year's I Am Legend — which earned $256m in the U.S. and Canada, $328m elsewhere, for $584m — was Smith's fifth consecutive movie to earn more than $300m worldwide, after I, Robot; Shark Tale; Hitch; and The Pursuit of Happyness. No actor can come within geshrei-ing distance of those numbers. Certainly nobody who's lured crowds to different genres. He's made action films, romances, heart-tuggers, cartoons; but to audiences, what they mainly are, is Will Smith movies. And that's enough.

A friendly fellow with what's thought to be a famously sound marriage (to Jada Pinkett Smith), Smith radiates a strong but unthreatening power. His manner suggests an actor at ease with himself and his screen stature, in a way not often seen since the days of Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart (though Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood have come close). He's utterly unconflicted about his job; he likes being watched but he doesn't preen, doesn't beg or mug for our attention. He knows he's got it. It's good to be the King of Hollywood — of the entertainment world. Smith is above and apart, leaping national borders, transcending race. Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence might be considered black stars, but Smith is not so much defined by his color. He's also black — the Tiger Woods, the Oprah, maybe the Barack Obama of movie actors. He's the superstar everybody likes.

The final evidence of his flop-proofness is the movies he makes. They're not that good. Tom Hanks had a great run in making challenging movies of Academy quality. Smith's pictures deliver familiar pleasures; they work with efficiency but not inspiration, honoring the time-honored movie platitudes that will neither shock nor stretch an audience. Hancock, directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom) and written by Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, is another of those. Its only distinction is its aim to vault from one genre to another and another while keeping viewers from straying to the popcorn stand. It's strenuous, smartly made and ordinary to an extraordinary degree.

These days, the big action fantasies mostly come in two flavors: superheroes who achieve their superiority (younger versions of Superman, Batman, etc.) and superheroes in a midlife crisis (The Incredibles, My Super Ex-Girlfriend). Hancock is the second. He's lost his purpose, his mojo and his fan base. That's where Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a slick but somehow decent p.r. guy, hopes to help. He wants to repackage and, even more, remake Hancock into a good guy. After all, he figures he owes Hancock. When Ray's car was stuck on railroad tracks, Hancock stopped an onrushing train by essentially standing in the way and punching its lights out, meanwhile flipping Ray's car into the air till it landed upside down on another vehicle.

So Ray takes Hancock home to meet his loving wife Mary (Charlize Theron), who's apprehensive to say the least at the prospect of this belching, snot-blowing slob doing his act in front of their young son Aaron (Jae Head). True to his word, Ray dresses Hancock up in a trendy black superhero suit, has him serve some time for laying waste to the city and writes him his own public apology: "You deserve better from me. I can be better. I will be better."

Turns out Hancock isn't quite the rehab vehicle it seems to be. It wants to be half a dozen different films — all the kinds of movies Smith has been making. It's an action film that starts as cartoon, then detours into identity crisis, since Hancock, suffering from amnesia, doesn't know who he really is. Maybe the Embreys can help. In this uncomfortable trio of Hancock, Ray and Mary, two are alike, one is different. (The question is, which two?) As the movie changes tone, it wants you to concentrate on the sweetness in Ray's protective friendship with Hancock and in Mary's virtually celestial devotion to Ray. Perhaps she could feel that way about Hancock too. I'm trying not to give away Act 2, just to hint at a triangular romance, a potential mixed marriage.

If you're a Will Smith fan, you know that romance isn't the focus of his movies (except for Hitch). Just as he is bigger than any of his co-stars, his characters are bigger too; to connect intimately with someone else would be a step down. That's why his movies are often about him alone, slogging through homelessness in The Pursuit of Happyness, foraging as the last man in Manhattan in I Am Legend. The one true romance in a Will Smith film is between the star and his audience. And that's a match that, for a dozen years, has been made in box-office heaven.

Then again, if you're a Will Smith fan, you stopped reading this long ago. You're probably watching Hancock right now and enjoying it a little more than you would if anyone but Smith were in it.