The other week, I had an uncharacteristic amount of free time amid a very busy season. So I went wild and had a full-out Redbox spree: four movies, three different Redbox machines, two days. Included among the four movies I rented were Hercules and The Legend of Hercules. I had thought it curious that there would be two big Hollywood movies about the same subject in the same year, and it was even more curious that the one, Hercules, did so much better at the box office. Since I hadn’t gotten around to seeing either in the movie theater like I had wanted to, I thought it would be fun to rent both and watch them back to back for comparison. I went in with low expectations, particularly for Legend of Hercules, thinking that the movies would be dull or outright bad, but bearable due to the lead actors’ Herculean physiques. In fact, I ended up finding both films genuinely enjoyable and even thought-provoking. Now, maybe my thoughts are just easily provoked, but each film was an intriguing blend of the political and the personal, and there were elements of both stories that stuck with me and kept me thinking long after they were over.
Major spoilers for both movies after the jump.
I watched Hercules, starring Dwayne Johnson, first. This is the more recently-released one, and had brought in roughly four times more money than its predecessor at the box office. What do you know, it was kind of a novel concept to see Hercules and some other characters from Greek mythology being played by actors who weren’t pearly white. Unfortunately, for every actor with a darker, more Mediterranean complexion, there was an equal or even greater number of very fair skinned people, including a very Swedish Amazon archer. Nice try, Hercules! Despite this, I really love the angle of this movie—it could have been subtitled The Man Behind the Myth. The film takes a very human look at Hercules and explores the whole process of myth-building. In this version, Hercules is extraordinarily strong, all right, but is he a demi-god? Much of the movie is about truths being re-written and expanded into myths by people like Hercules’s nephew, Iolaus, a verbose and dramatic storyteller. We see in fact that most of Hercules’s prior labors were not quite as epic as the legends would have us believe, and he hardly accomplished them alone—this movie gives Herc a rag-tag group of companions assembled from Greek mythological miscellany, from Autolycus to Atalanta. While I tend to love rag-tag groups of companions, I was a little let down with this crew; sure they had a few zingy one-liners, but with the exception of Amphiaraus, a spear-wielding seer, I found myself not really invested in them at all.
The lack of character depth on most of these side “main” characters was probably the price to pay for all the action scenes. As I mentioned, the movies were a mix of the political and the personal, and this one probably leaned a little more towards the political. The main plot of this movie, based on a graphic novel, was that Hercules and his group of mercenaries were being paid to train Thracian soldiers. There, of course, ended up being political intrigue amongst the city states, rival leaders set up as red herrings, and tons of clashing armies. There is probably a large segment of the population who just loves those huge battle scenes, because from Lord of the Rings to well, almost every period piece, it seems we have epic battle sequences where an incredible amount of people stab each other repeatedly. These scenes do nothing for me. The first big army battle scene in Hercules felt like it lasted twenty minutes and I almost lost interest and turned it off, but I’m glad I soldiered on and watched the whole film, because overall I really did enjoy the examination of myth-building that the movie provided.
Next I watched The Legend of Hercules, starring Kellan Lutz, which garnered an abysmal $61.3 million at the box office (compared to $243.4 million from Hercules); it’s always sad when a film’s earnings do not even fully recoup its production budget. So maybe it was my exceedingly low expectations which left room for nothing but being pleasantly surprised, but I actually liked this one better. Okay, so pretty much everyone in this movie was as white as the day is long, but I found the story quite compelling. This film also took an angle that is not generally the focus of Hercules: that of family. I had totally forgotten (if I had even known in the first place) that in the myths, Hercules had a half-brother, Iphicles. I love a good family drama, and in particular I am a sucker for sibling stories. This is also a more traditional mythological story, as there are actual gods and such, as opposed to the more agnostic/skeptical worldview of the other film. This particular adaptation of the myth, however, deviates pretty greatly from standard sources. Hercules’s mother, Alcmene, prays to Hera for a child who will one day grow to stop the tyranny of his father, King Amphitryon—Hera intercedes, allowing Zeus to impregnate Alcmene. While the names are the correct ones from the myth, this version makes things a lot less skeezy than Zeus just being an uncontrollable horndog and gives a nobler sense of purpose to Hercules’s birth.
While in the myths, Iphicles and Hercules—called Alcides by his human family—were twins, here Iphicles is older, and we see some characteristic mythopoetic family dynamics: Iphicles is the favored son who will carry on the crown of their father, while Alcides is the bastard second son who has no real place in the current system of things, unwanted at best and problematic at worst. After the princess Alcides loves is betrothed to Iphicles for political reasons, Alcides tries to flee with her and then is sent on a military mission by his father, which is really just an excuse to get him killed. Alcides and one companion survive and make their way back to Greece via gladitorial style fighting; I think it’s worthwhile to note that even this supports the more personal and intimate feel of this film—rather than huge armies clashing, most of the fighting/action is between duos or small groups.
The fact that I overall tend to like stories that are a little smaller-scale and more intimate is a big factor in why I liked this movie better, but I was also very captivated by the personal and family drama. It honestly felt Biblical at times; the second son is a big deal in the Bible, and the Iphicles/Alcides antagonism brought to mind the likes of Esau and Jacob. Alcides himself grew up agnostic, unaware of his true nature and skeptical of the gods, but later as he learns of his true heritage and power, and well as his destined role of deliverer from tyranny, he takes on his divine name Hercules, and this whole Son of God thread that runs throughout the movie makes for some interesting Jesus parallels. But most of all, I found the critical portrayal of patriarchy the most tragic and powerful thing about the film. King Amphitryon is everything wrong with the patriarchal/kyriarchal man; he is greedy, violent, misogynistic, and oppressively controlling. The passing on of this kyriarchal legacy is shown through the character of Iphicles; he is the next in line in this patriarchal dynasty of tyranny and bloodshed. Iphicles was born and bred for this—raised up (through no fault of his own) to this ideal, and now actively taking his place as his father’s successor. We see Iphicles becoming the exactly same man his father is: possessive, wrathful, and destructive. This passing of the torch of patriarchy is here literally from biological father to son, but I believe also represents the passing of this harmful modus operandi from all men to the next generation of men throughout all of human history.
Hercules represents the breaking of this seemingly never-ending chain. All it takes is one person to not take up the reins, to say no to continuing the oppressive and destructive power structures of the past to begin to make a change. Was this the only or best way to show change? Not really; while I think it is important to show a man can be an active agent of dismantling destructive patriarchy rather than perpetuating it, the emphasis on the male characters in the movie led to the women in the film having little roles at all beyond wives and potential wives and mothers. Also there was a sort of divine imperative behind Hercules and his destiny that might come across as unnecessary to agnostic/atheist viewers or anyone really who could easily, and rightly, say that ending kyriarchy doesn’t need a divine mandate to spur us to action. It’s a humanistic calling to end human tyranny.
In short, I recommend seeing both Hercules and The Legend of Hercules. Love lengthy and intense clashes of armies? Do you have a skeptical view of the supernatural feats of heroes? Are you intrigued by how extraordinary people are raised to new heights by the myth-making of others? Definitely watch Hercules. Are you easily drawn in by family drama? Moved by a tale of two brothers, raised in the same house, whose circumstances of birth lead them to vastly different destinies? Check out The Legend of Hercules. Do you like watching very muscular men fight and lift heavy things? Check out both! They may not be the greatest cinema out there, but they are more than worth a Redbox rental fee.