Amazing what a little editing can do. In the hands of some of the industry’s trailer maestros, various clips from Hancock look like a promising antidote to the summer superhero movie grind. Slotted into Avids overseen by director Peter Berg and editors Colby Parker Jr. and Paul Rubell the same material plays stagnant. Watching Hancock is like trying to play with a dead animal; the experience is simultaneously disjointed and interesting, odd and uncomfortable.

The degree to which this movie lacks any real depth is almost admirable. Not that it is particularly simple or overly dumb in the summertime scheme. It’s just that the story is content to be a curious little thing, almost like a single issue of Marvel’s old series What If?. As in, what if a drunk superhero met a nice PR guy with a hot wife?

Hancock (Will Smith) is the drunk superhero, Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) the PR guy, Mary Embrey (Charlize Theron) his hot wife. Perhaps the reason that much of Hancock feels so awkward as a feature film is that the story literally is all in the advertising. Hancock fights while drunk and breaks stuff, the people hate him, PR guy decides to revamp his image, things get a little out of control. Even if we haven’t seen this all in trailers, there’s that part of the experienced superhero movie-watcher that gets all this stuff, and without further character depth to justify the process wonders whether we really need to see it spin out for an hour.

I can almost enjoy imagining a future in which movie advertising has so permeated our culture that it is indistinguishable from the movie and serves as the baseline narrative. You didn’t watch the ads? Then you don’t know the first part of the story and might be confused when Hancock is willingly jailed by the city of LA as part of a plan to make people like him.

But we’re not there yet, so we have to endure the awful, tone-deaf first half of this movie, a limp, halting homunculus that feels so worked over by corporate wizards it can’t even stand. Until Hancock’s world is fully established and he goes to jail, two out of three jokes misfire, characters seem to be moving in slow motion and the lack of polish on the visual effects is abrasive rather than charming.

There’s a sense that this is meant to be the ‘real’ dark knight – a superhero movie that shows life on the spandex street. It’s a great concept, but that’s all it is. The movie’s commitment is half-assed, whether you’re talking about its intent to be abrasive, a comedy, an adventure story, whatever. There’s a lot of cussin’, a real lack of responsibility and even some pretty hard-hitting violence (though most of that takes place towards the end) but it never creates the sensation that this is more than a hastily assembled sketch comedy show. And I get Robot Chicken for free at home.

(I got a kick out of this, though:  when Hancock first takes to the skies, the ridiculous Ludacris track ‘Move, Bitch’ kicks in. It’s almost funny, but ‘bitch’ is excised from the vocal track. Later, the word is printed right in the credits. In general the music choices are either silly or baffling. The Meters’ ‘Tippi Toes’ almost redeems the soundtrack, but even it struggles as laid into this cut.)

Once Hancock has been in jail for a while, things start looking up. The script (whatever tatters are left, anyway) isn’t so eager to please, and the abject lack of tone that characterizes the first half turns into a tug of war between action and plot development that, while not so very compelling, is at least a familiar part of the summer palette. The nod towards producer Michael Mann’s infamous heist scene in Heat is fun, even though it plays out like one of those movie tributes people make with video game engines to put on YouTube.

Not that the story makes any more sense as the movie goes on. In fact, the more we know about the hero and all those sidelong glances Mary Embrey has been throwing his way, the less everything adds up. The premise remains interesting — it’s a superheroes as gods concept that could really go somewhere — but the concept isn’t even leveraged into good character drama, much less a Big Tale about what we worship and how they fall. There’s a glimmer of internal logic, based mostly on a few conveniently inserted lines of dialogue, but for the most part you’re just supposed to milk whatever entertainment you can and move on.

All that being the case, I hope that Hancock won’t fare far less well than I Am Legend. There’s bad, and there’s bad with character; here Smith is acting well rather than just coasting on his physical presence and nearly indomitable charisma. I say ‘nearly indomitable’ because Smith significantly dampens his appeal. And that’s a good thing. This is no tour de force, no cinematic revolution, but it is often a nice piece of work by an actor who seems determined not to fall back on his easy tricks. He’s not nice, and he’s not likable, but you want to see more of what’s happening with Hancock. If other options didn’t include Wall-E, Hellboy and The Dark Knight, that might even be enough for a recommendation.

5 out of 10