Hancock is the 2008 superhero movie starring Will Smith and Charlize Theron about the interesting intersection of the superhero and the… homeless?

Or something like that. The movie is actually way more interesting than it has any right to be, not only for the obvious premise, i.e., a superhero who has to deal with property damage and people not being thrilled to see him, and the more mythological premise, which is a surprisingly creative take on the superhero concept. It also has the rather unusual benefit of not being an origin story. We first see Hancock passed out on a public bench, apparently mid-way through a multi-day drunk. We eventually learn his background, but it’s not the point of the movie.

But this being the blog that it is, we’re more interested in the former than the latter. Mythology is great and all, but we’re interested in the nitty, gritty, legal logistics. We’ll try to keep this mostly spoiler-free, but you have been warned.

I. Hancock Goes to Jail

There are an unknown impliedly large number of outstanding warrants for his arrest, only no one’s figured out how to do that, or to serve him with one of the hundreds of subpoenas he faces. As a plot point, Hancock voluntarily surrenders himself to the police. This is supposed to be a first step towards rehabilitating his image. And it’s probably what would need to happen for a superhero who has been acting outside the law before he could become “legit”.

The process is a bit abbreviated, as we basically just see Hancock go from a press statement at his surrender straight to jail. There are a few steps missing here, but with one exception, the process could go about as quickly as it seems to.

First, turning yourself into the police, even if you have an outstanding warrant, is not a ticket straight to jail. It is, at best, a ticket straight to a holding cell. In the United States, there’s a difference between “prison” and “jail”. “Prison”, which is where Hancock goes, is typically where you go after you’ve been convicted (or pled guilty to) a crime, and generally a felony. You need to be serving a sentence of at least a year. So the fact that Hancock ends up here before he’s even sentenced—he has a conversation about what his sentence is going to be after he’s in prison—is a mistake. He’d probably go to “jail” first, which is where you sit if you’re waiting to be tried or you’re serving a sentence of less than a year, often a misdemeanor conviction. Even people who are going to plead guilty to a felony don’t go to prison before that happens.

But it can happen pretty quickly. The movie doesn’t discuss exactly what charges Hancock is facing—nor does it deal with the civil side of things at all—but the DA has presumably got charges all drawn up. If, as in Hancock’s case, the defendant doesn’t intend to contest the charges, even a little, one can go from indictment to prison pretty quickly.

Still, it may well take a few days, even if everyone’s trying to speed things along. The issue of bail would then come up. Hancock would seem to be the very definition of a “flight risk”. But his lawyer, whom we don’t meet, could point out that if Hancock decided he wanted to leave, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t do jack about it. He’s there because he wants to be. Bail is specifically and solely intended to create an incentive for defendants not to flee before trial. Hancock doesn’t have any money, so it’s not like it’s going to matter to him. And the fact that the cops couldn’t really arrest him even if they wanted to might be good reasons to just let him out on his own recognizance. Then again, because Hancock is cooperating, he may just have waived any request for bail, which would get him into jail immediately.

So other than the fact that Hancock seems to start serving a sentence before he even pleads guilty to anything, the process seems more-or-less okay. Most of the legal stuff happens off camera, but the results are mostly plausible.

II. Necessity

The other thing the movie does really well is show the limitations of the “necessity defense.” We discussed this in the context of Superman stealing a bunch of iron bars to shore up a burning chemical plant in March.  Necessity is often described as a “lesser of two evils” defense.  The basic idea is that there are many actions which are tortious or even criminal which can be “justified” by the circumstances.

But however conceived, necessity isn’t going to work for Hancock in most of the property damage claims that have been leveled against him. Why? Because he didn’t really have to cause the vast majority of the damage he causes. He doesn’t need to shatter the pavement when he takes off or lands. He doesn’t need to crash into and through buildings when he flies around. And when he saves Ray from the train? He totally didn’t need to smash his car onto three others or cause a train wreck because he was too lazy to get out of the way.

This is something that more superheroes should probably take into account. Hancock is an obvious example because he’s a jerk about it, but even characters like Superman and the X-Men would be well-advised to take note. Just because you’re “fighting crime” or whatever does not automatically justify property damage. Nor is the fact that lives are in danger. It can serve as a justification, but there has to be some proportionality and connection with the underlying crime-fighting. At root, property damage has to be reasonably necessary to preclude liability. So if there is any less-destructive way of accomplishing the goal, a superhero could potentially be liable for any damage he causes, particularly if the damage is out of proportion to the threat. The movie really picks up on that, and the writers deserve credit for it.

III. Other Issues

The movie also raises several other issues which we’ve talked about previously. For example, Hancock is apparently immortal. We’ve done several posts on the subject. We’ve also done quite a few posts on insurance for superhero-related property damage. This seems like a situation where there probably would be coverage because Hancock’s activities would be really hard to characterize as war, civil unrest, nuclear-related, terrorist, or any of the other common exclusions found in property insurance policies. We’ve even got one on superhero spouses, which is not entirely unrelated.

IV. Conclusion

If you didn’t catch the movie the first time around, you really should. It’s one of the more under-rated superhero movies out there, and one of the very few that isn’t connected to either Marvel or DC. Its take on the relationship of superheroes to society is refreshing, and its mythology is compelling. It’s not a perfect movie, and the tone shifts rather abruptly in places, but in a genre that’s given us Green Lantern and Electra, it more than holds its own.

15 responses to “Hancock

  1. Nice to see Hancock mentioned here, and great review of the issues as always. It really was a pretty cool film and a neat examination of what it means to have power and what it means to be worthy of that power, among other things. I enjoyed it quite a bit–and I wondered if you’d end up doing it here, as those really were some good legal issues!

  2. I don’t know why Hancock gets all the blame considering all the property damage towards the end seems evenly split between him and Charlize Theron’s character, Mary. In the end, Mary goes back to her domestic life with no indication of her being charged for nearly destroying the city. Neither does Hancock either apparently since we don’t see him back in jail.

  3. In terms of damage while fighting crime, I wonder if something like this opens up the possibility of people suing the police force for damage from high speed car chases. Statistics show that car chases cause a surprising amount of damage, to property, other cars, and to pedestrians, and all for fairly negligible value (most car chases involve people accused only of minor crimes who might be more easily caught if the police simply showed up on their doorstep the next day). Could one then sue the police force for reckless endangerment despite their charter to uphold the law?

    • The police officers usually do not now the whole picture at the beginning of the chase. Simply ignoring the criminal might be negligent if the criminal then goes on to do dangerous actions. Most police forces have changed their policies on chases over the last decade. Orignally, they were very aggressive with the driver – PIT maneuvers, roadblocks, etc.. This caused the drivers to drive more aggressively. Now they leave more space and essentially just keep watch on the driver. They only take more aggressive moves if the driver’s actions are a danger beyond just the high speed. These changes have reduced the incidental damage without simply ignoring the suspect.

  4. I believe you can sue or even charge individual police officers but I don’t know if you can sue the police force because they are part of the government. Mind you, in TV and movies you hear about people filing a lawsuit against the police and, in those fictional cases, the police pay whether they are liable or not because the police face public scrutiny indirectly when district attorneys and local politicians run for re-election. (It’s not going to look good for a local mayor if the police force is seen as running amok.) I think the big question is whether or not the police were simply doing their job: if the police see a man running out of a store and they open fire and shoot the guy then it’s going to make a big difference whether or not the man was carrying a gun and cash or a pepsi and skittles. Police forces do have offices of internal affairs but I think that is mainly for public relations and not because the police are liable for the actions of individual cops.

  5. Right at the end of the movie Hancock does something that might be considered as an immense act of vandalism – it’s difficult to describe without spoilers, so I’ve used ROT-13:

    Ur qrsnprf gur zbba gb qvfcynl gur ybtb bs n punevgl.

    Given the location, does this actually break any laws?

  6. Sorry, another question – another thing that happens towards the end of the movie is that Hancock re-locates to New York. Given his track record of destruction and criminal record, would it be possible for the NYPD or Mayor etc. to oppose the move? And if not, are they implicitly condoning his vigilante activities?

    • Sounds like a freedom of movement issue, which the courts do take seriously. If my recollection serves, the leading case involved California attempting to impose a length of residency requirement for anyone attempting to collect state welfare benefits after moving from another state. The Supreme Court struck it down, saying that such a restriction of a citizens freedom of movement was a violation of the privileges and immunities clause.

      So, assuming Hancock doesn’t have some legal obligation to stay in California (court order, house arrest, etc), I doubt there’s anything NY could do to oppose him coming.

  7. Yes, it was an entertaining film, coming from an odd direction in terms of superhero movies. Still I found the coincidence of who Mary was, and why she was where she was when we first meet her a bit hard to swallow

    I imagine bail didn’t come up because the whole point of Hancock giving himself up was to rehabilitate his image. Refusing bail would likely be part of their strategy.

    Marcus, I totally forgot about that! I haven’t seen the movie since it came out. Best running gag (from various characters): “don’t call me XXX.” 🙂

  8. Yes, Hancock was far more interesting for the questions it raised than the rather hokey main plot. So often we see superheroes that are paragons of unassailable virtue and intelligence–Hancock just kind of did what sounded good and, well, oops.

    (“I don’t remember that….” “Greenpeace does.”)

  9. Pingback: Hancock and Defense of Others | Law and the Multiverse

  10. Hi, I didn’t know about this website. I like your coverage about what laws authority’s might try to apply to superheroes.
    What I’m interested in is your opinion about air traffic security related to such superheroes who poses abilities like flight and invulnerability.
    I mean Hancock might crash into an airplane by accident. People often search for guarantees (more than necessary) and what guarantees Hancock offers related to that? He might be a pro but accidents happen – not even him is perfect. Auto traffic is regulated through laws to minimize the risk (like getting a driving license) , and the air traffic is regulated: certain operators are licensed to practice it, and also some licenses for individuals in specified conditions. We should not forget that all flight aircrafts (as far as I know) can account for one another through radar technology. But a new “element” like Hancock may not account so well for the aircrafts and vice-versa.
    The reason I’m asking this is because I believe that if a super-hero were to appear today, may be “grounded” because will be viewed as a threat to air traffic, and in this case, that he doesn’t comply, I don’t think it will leave it like that and may attempt to bring him down with military aircrafts. What do you think? Or you covered that somewhere? If that please post a link and sorry for me not noticing. Other people asked them-selfs that? 🙂

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