Last night, I saw the new Will Smith movie Hancock, which happened to be showing around the corner during the evening, despite the fact that it officially opens today. Smith plays John Hancock, a reluctant superhero who’s equally drawn to saving people and to hitting the bottle, not necessarily in that order. He doesn’t care how much collateral damage he causes, and the opening scene features mayhem on the freeways of Los Angeles that ends with a car impaled on a skyscraper. Indeed, if you’re a New Yorker, one of the pleasures of the film is watching downtown L.A. get trashed with a glee that is usually reserved for the Big Apple in big budget pictures like Ghostbusters (1984), Smith’s own Independence Day (1996), or The Day After Tomorrow (2004). In fact, in the aftermath of the opening freeway scene, the Los Angeles police chief complains to the media about Hancock, wishing that the superhero would just go bother those people in New York.

New York, after all, is a far more familiar stomping ground for superheroes than L. A. Frank Miller is supposed to have said that Superman’s Metropolis is New York during the day, while Batman’s Gotham City is New York after dark. In the “Afterword” to  Batman: Knightfall, A Novel (Bantam Books, 1994), Dennis O’Neill writes that “Batman’s Gotham City is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November.”

Electric Earthquake,” the seventh episode of the Superman cartoons produced in the 1940s by Paramount Pictures and Fleischer Studios, is clearly set in Manhattan; likewise, the earliest Batman comics are set in New York. The panels at right are from Detective Comics 31 (1939) and indicate that the setting is “the dark of a New York night.” (Click on the image to get a closer view.) The 1978 film version of Superman, starring Christopher Reeve, makes use of famous New York landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center. And other comic series, including Spiderman and Daredevil, are set in New York.

Hancock is an odd movie; after a surprising third-act revelation, it transforms itself itself into something other than the superhero version of Arthur (1981) that the teaser and trailer would lead you to expect. Hancock is a lot messier and edgier than Iron Man (2008). The early reviews have been mixed, but I tend to agree with David Denby in this week’s The New Yorker, who argues that Hancock “suggests new visual directions and emotional tonalities for pop.” And Will Smith, Charlize Theron, and Jason Bateman are all terrific. Go see for yourself.