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A Classic Hero, But Is Hercules A Role Model?

Millennium Films

As far as heroes go, “Hercules” probably ranks among the top of our “awesome guys” list. He is the focus of innumerable plays, books, and films, not to mention the hero of a well-known TV series. And now, yet again, Hercules will find himself at the top of the marquee in, The Legend of Hercules.

This film will focus on Hercules as a hero who is betrayed and banished from his stepfather’s kingdom. Using amazing strength and the gifts granted to him by his father, the god Zeus, Hercules overcomes his enemies to depose the king. If you watch the trailer, it appears to be a thrill ride filled with massive battles, beautiful women, brawny men, and more battles.

So here’s the question we should ask while watching this testosterone filled epic: “What does this movie tell us about heroes?” After all, the trailer reports, “He was an ordinary man.” Well, if “ordinary” means “the son of a god and the most powerful of all mortals” then Hercules is pretty ordinary.

That ordinary statement, though, reveals something about us. When we think of a hero, we think of a massive man, with his rippling, yet hairless chest, who will stop at nothing to serve justice, largely by killing people.

There doesn’t seem to be much room for a hero, at least in this film, who takes the time to talk his way out of problems. In fact, when we think of the “heroes” who do this, they tend to be portrayed as a bit shady, a bit weasel-y, almost as if they have to use their intellects to compensate for their weakness.

Have we totally rejected the Greek idea of a “moderate” hero, one who uses his, or her, brawn and brains? Well, “No!” we could reply. After all, the great intellectual Greek hero, Theseus, just had his own movie in 2011, called Immortals.

Theseus was well known as a very intellectual hero; he’s the guy who, after all, wisely used string to find his way out of the Labyrinth, rather than, say, just knocking down walls as they inconvenience him. But notice, that was the Greek creation of Theseus.

Our Theseus of Immortals actually seems a lot like Hercules. He’s a great fighter  who knocks the heads of those who oppose him. In fact, in Immortals, the battle with the Minotaur involves no string at all!

Hercules was initially laughed at a great deal by the Greeks, for being a bumbling (but lovable and loyal) idiot. The Greeks used him as a way to depict a man who, despite his great gifts, still manages to mess things up… a lot.

What was admirable about Hercules was his willingness to try to make up for what he did wrong. Eventually, though, over time, Hercules became far more revered than more moderate heroes like Theseus were, especially by the Romans, who really liked a hero who didn’t think. They liked a hero who justified ruthless violence and the misuse of superior strength.

I wonder, when we watch The Legend of Hercules, will our new version of Hercules reveal us to be a people who like thoughtful, moderate heroes, or thoughtless juggernauts of men, who crush the enemy underfoot first, and think, well, never?

Nicolas Michaud is an author and editor of numerous pop culture and philosophy books.