Plus: Sex, violence and the secretive ratings board

Given the global clout of Will Smith, some imposing numbers will doubtless be rolled up over the July 4th weekend by his latest tentpole, “Hancock.” At the same time, the movie has stirred some questions among movie marketers about the limits of the superhero genre.

Surely the genre has come a long way since the era of Christopher Reeve?

The early “Batman” was curiously androgynous and even a bit kinky. By “Spider-Man,” superheroes had begun to develop self-esteem problems. And who knows what oddball traits Seth Rogen will infuse in the “Green Hornet”?

“Iron Man,” as depicted by Robert Downey Jr., was perhaps the first superhero to display both a sense of humor and a sense of irony — risky traits for a genre action figure.

And now along comes “Hancock,” who has uniquely bad manners, smells terrible and has a serious drinking problem. Further, he’s a black man who, at some point in the past, was married to a white woman — a story detail that, in generations past, would have sent the movie censors into a panic.

Arguably, however, “Hancock” also has more serious obstacles. His movie is, on one level, a sendup of superhero movies. Will Smith’s character isn’t really committed to heroic deeds. He kind of stumbles into them and his execution is both klutzy and chaotic.

The last time Columbia tried a semi sendup of superhero pictures was a movie called “Last Action Hero,” and the studio doesn’t like to think about that. Arnold Schwarzenegger was then at the top of his game, but the film was such a giant turkey that it helped dispatch him into politics.

That yarn involved an 11-year-old who was handed a “magic ticket” into the world of an action hero named Jack Slater. Whenever the hero was threatened by an enemy, he always replied, “Big mistake.”

Needless to say, “Big mistake” became a label for the movie.

There’s no doubt “Hancock” will perform better than “Last Action Hero,” which ended up grossing $50 million in the U.S. Smith’s clout is greater than that of Schwarzenegger, even at his crest. “Hancock” also is a better movie.

Still, insiders point out that the superhero genre is dangerous to toy with — the stories can be violent and occasionally funny, but they must still play to the sensibilities of their teen and tween audience.

“The superhero genre tells us something about our needs,” observes Stan Lee, the fraternity’s father-figure.

It also tells us a great deal about the needs of the studios.

* * *

The ratings rollercoaster

Second-guessing the rulings of the ratings board has always been a favorite indoor sport in Hollywood, but this summer’s offerings are especially inviting.

The heavyhanded sexual innuendos and aggressively penile humor of “The Love Guru” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” were not sufficient to earn them an R rating. On the other hand, an indie movie like “The Wackness,” which is downright gentle by comparison, got slapped with an R by the MPAA board (it’s a Sony Pictures Classics release).

In years past, members of the ratings board (who remain anonymous) have been accused of being tougher on sex than on violence. “Iron Man” opens with some pretty violent scenes, yet it still cruised to a PG-13. Will Smith’s “Hancock” is an especially violent and noisy movie, but still a PG-13. The raters managed to overlook one heartwarming scene in which a prisoner’s head is stuck into the butt of another prisoner. Cool stuff, said the board.

The possibilities for debate are endless: Were the comedic cominglings in “Sex and the City” rougher than Adam Sandler’s involvements with the senior ladies in “Zohan”? (None of the guys in “Sex” had swollen crotches either). For that matter, were the poignantly clumsy encounters of the teen hero in “Wackness” really rougher than the scrotal jokes in “Love Guru?” (Its R rating revived the common conclusion that small indie pictures are judged more harshly than big studio pictures.)

Maybe it’s just as well that none of us knows the identities of the members of the ratings board. Given all the inconsistencies of their rulings, they’d probably turn out to be a bunch of former IRS accountants.

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