I took yesterday evening to watch Hercules, the latest installment in this decade's Greek mythology blockbuster rampage. And it was alright, as a film. It was corny as hell, packed with oiled musculature, two-dimensional characters, and over-the-top, predominantly bloodless violence. It was pretty, that's for sure. It was also an immense disappointment. I watched this film to experience a legend that has existed in the Western consciousness for thousands of years, a core part of the mythology of the ancient Greeks. Even as a modern, Canadian kid the story of Hercules and his twelve labours was one of the first I knew. The Nemean Lion, the Hydra, this son of the gods and the monsters he defeated by his supernatural strength. I could go on, but you know the stories, right? They're with you, too. Those are the stories I expected to see on screen, as I suspect you will as well. The trouble is, those stories aren't there.
What the film offers us is a flimsy frame-narrative-esque structure, introduced and concluded by the voice of a storyteller (Amphiaraus) who is also a character in the main story (a seer laden with stoner references), but including a second storyteller character (Iolaus) whose role is essentially to propagate exaggerated stories about the feats of Hercules. He's the hapless spin doctor for this party of adventurers, all of whom are well aware that they're riding on the legendary reputation of...a man, and nothing more. The movie runs through the Twelve Labours of Hercules in its first five minutes, short, epic bursts of battles with The Nemean Lion, The Lernaean Hydra, The Erymanthian Boar, before cutting to Iolaus who is clearly telling these stories with the intent of putting the fear of the gods into the crew of pirates who have him prepped for a gravity-assisted castration. As the film progresses it becomes apparent that not one of those deeds was what the stories made it out to be. Iolaus only role here as a character, despite his place in Greek mythology as a great hero, is to provide comic relief while making a mockery of the cultural role of Storyteller. That reverential position, this movie says, was actually occupied by hacks and opportunistic frauds. It even mocks the viewer, offering glimpses of real wonder before revealing them for optical illusions or plain old craziness. How silly you were to believe in that! The lion and the boar were nothing but monstrous wild animals. The visions of Cerberus that haunt Hercules are, in the end, flashbacks to a drug-induced hallucination during an attack by three wolves. A scene which has Hercules returning to court bearing the heads of the Hydra in a sack takes a turn for the mundane when he pulls King Eurystheus aside and reveals the severed heads of men wearing snake masks. No wonder, he says, the people thought it was a many-headed monster terrorizing the villages. By the time the film is finished with the Labours of Hercules, the story resembles nothing so much as an episode of Scooby Doo.
The result of all this is that the story isn't offering us true mythology, but rather "meta mythology". This term may already exist in academic discourse, but I can't seem to find a concrete definition of it so I'll adopt it for this article. Rather than tell us the stories that the Greeks were telling the filmmakers have opted to tell us their "what actually happened" version, a behind-the-scenes to Greek mythology. What actually happened, they would have us believe, is that a couple of storytellers pulled the wool over the eyes of a whole culture of suckers, and that the stories those poor saps believed went on to become the most enduring narrative tradition in the Western world. This does the storytellers of old a great disservice; it takes Homer, Apollonius of Rhodes, Hesiod and the rest for utter fools. It waters down their tales into propagandist drivel while preaching a modern, individualist message of "the strength within" that has no bearing on the stories it claims to adapt. The film closes with Amphiaraus narrating; he asks rhetorically, "Was Hercules the son of Zeus? I don't think it really matters."
Doesn't it, though?
In the latter half of the 1930s, Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel were working their arses off in Cleveland to work the kinks out of a character they were calling "Superman". The premise of the character was that he was part adventure hero, part science fiction wonder, part biblical figure, part sideshow strongman. He was Charles Atlas, Doc Savage, Moses, and Flash Gordon rolled into one. Nobody has ever come along and proposed that these two Jewish kids were delusional and actually believed in the character they were writing, nor that the millions of fans who have grown to love the stories of Superman over the years are all hapless saps who are falling for some elaborate farce. It is well recognized and widely accepted that Superman is two things. First, he is fictional. Second, he embodies the cultural values of his creators and reflects the context within which he was made. Why we can so easily accept this about superheroes and be utterly clueless about ancient myth is beyond me.
Now, imagine a Superman movie that takes the Hercules route. Imagine DC making a movie that starts out as Superman, but slowly reveals that he's not bulletproof, he just wears Kevlar all the time. He's performed some crazy staged stunts in Metropolis to win the favour of the people, making sure nobody gets hurt. As a newspaper reporter he's spinning his own image, expanding his own feats in print to cultivate a legendary persona. He's even hired stunt doubles so he can be reported "saving" people at impossibly separate location around the city. "Was Superman actually Kryptonian? I don't think it really matters." Remember, viewer! Because he believes he's a hero, he really is. Oh, and DC announces at Comicon that this version of the character is now official canon.
People would hate that movie.
At this point, go read this article about the nature of mythology by Joshua Unruh. It's great, which is why I'm going to quote him heavily. Josh focuses on the point that this movie deliberately circumvented, that the power of mythology comes from the values that the stories communicate through their figures.
Mythology’s primary purpose was never to explain how but instead to explain why. To give a meaning to the world outside the window that had absolutely nothing to do with the mechanics of how things worked.
As I’ve said too many times, mythology is the stories a culture tells about itself. Nobody who does any scholarship about myths sees them as serious attempts to explain the natural world except in the broadest, most philosophical sense. They are educational tools meant to tell someone within the culture how to behave within the culture, how to excel in the culture, and what to beware about the culture...
To assume that these stories so full of profound cultural relevance and revelation (and constantly refilled and re-revealed for each new culture that discovers them) are just what the poor simpleton ancient people used as “science” is to miss utterly the point of them. It also makes you a bigot against everybody who lived on this world before you.
There is no self-reflexivity in Greek myth. Homer didn't write The Odyssey with quantifying statements of, "or so it is said". It is simply written as though it happened, and when the audience willingly suspends their disbelief the stories become a window onto the world. So, what drives a writer to want to suck the power out of a cultural narrative? Maybe pride, the "Anachronistic Elitism" Unruh proposes (We modern folk can have our heroes, but damned if we'll let you primitive savages keep yours!). Or maybe it's some postmodern need to refresh a story by deconstructing it. I don't know for sure, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.
In the end the film loses any power it could have had by slipping into ambiguity. By this point we all know the monsters were fake, the stories were lies, there are no gods, and Hercules is just a man...but damn is he strong. Like, mythically strong, to the point where he topples a monumental statue of Hera and brings down the temple, just by putting his back into it (remember, he was able to do this because he believed in himself). This is the one moment in the film when you feel like you might actually be witnessing a mythic feat, even if collapsing the temple on top of your wrongdoers with strength granted by the gods feels more like Samson than Hercules. At the same time, it's mundane. The wrath of the patron goddess upon her city is reduced to the sheer ballistic energy of her massive marble head as it careens down the temple stairs and obliterates the corrupt king. The movie ends up being about a war, a people who believe in a bunch of crazy fairy tales, and one really buff guy with a great motivation speaker. The result is nothing short of insulting to one of the richest narrative traditions in human history.
(This article was originally posted to Watercolour Horizons on July 30th, 2014)