In this new era of superhero movies, has telling one champion from another become a Herculean task? If so, here are a few tips to help you remember the name of the latest hero to smash his way onto the big screen: he’s big, he’s brawny, he’s got a bad attitude, and he very well may have been the first superhero to ever capture the imagination of the public at large, having made his debut, oh, about 2,300 years ago.
That’s right, after a parade of movie super-characters that’s included (among others) a man of iron, a man of steel, a Spider-Man, a Dark Knight, and a Norse god of thunder, audiences will be re-introduced to the iconic demigod on July 25 when Hercules opens in theaters across the country and around the world. But this Hercules is substantially different from the one you grew up reading about in Edith Wharton’s classic Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.
In the new movie, we meet this Hercules (played by a particularly bulked-up Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) long after he has completed his infamous 12 Labors. And if you think that slaying the Nemean lion or cleaning out the Augean stables in a single day wasn’t enough to put him in a foul mood, this is a Hercules who has lost his family and turned his back on the gods, according to Radical Comics (the publisher of the graphic novel upon which the film is based). This Hercules is a “world-weary soul” who leads a crew of mercenaries who “never question where they go to fight or why or whom, just how much they will be paid.” Now, the King of Thrace has hired Hercules and his band of warriors to train an army, an act that will force the Greek demigod to confront his own ruthless, bloodthirsty reputation and face up to just how far he has fallen.
Not exactly Bullfinch’s Hercules, is it?
This, of course, isn’t the first time Hercules’s story has been rebooted to suit the tastes of a contemporary audience. After all, in his earliest tales in ancient Greece, he was Heracles, the greatest of the Greek heroes, son of Zeus (father of gods and men, ruler of Olympus) and the mortal Alcmene. Heracles was a paradigm of courage, strength, sexual prowess (he had as many as 51 sons), and wisdom, often using his brains to get him out of particularly sticky situations when his brawn wasn’t up to the job. He fought evil whenever it reared its ugly head (or ugly nine heads, in the case of the Lernaean hydra). In short, if there had been an IMAX theater in the Parthenon, Heracles would have been the center of Greece’s most beloved film franchise.
That being the case, it’s hardly surprising that the ancient Romans adapted Heracles’s tales for their own use. Having been renamed “Hercules” (maybe the new name tested better with focus groups), the hero was a particular favorite of emperors Commodus and Maximian, and was even the subject of his own Roman cult. Social media at the time may have been written on parchment and carved in stone, but the adventures of Hercules was often a hot topic of discussion.
Jump ahead a couple thousand years, and Hercules remains not only a household name, but the template upon which many modern heroes are based. In fact, when Superman ushered in the Golden Age of Comics in the late 1930s, he had many of Hercules’s traits: the Man of Steel had indomitable strength and courage, he claimed parentage that originated from both the heavens and the Earth and, like Hercules, he was a benefactor of mankind, beloved by adults and children alike.
Not only have countless heroes shared the qualities of the Herculean archetype, but modern storytellers also have been known to dip into ancient mythology to create other contemporary champions as well. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby borrowed from Norse mythology to craft Marvel Comics’ version of the Mighty Thor (the subject of two successful movies of his own and a member of the Avengers, the super-group that starred in the third-highest grossing film of all time). Wonder Woman is an Amazon princess, based on the Amazons of Greek mythology. The titular character of Rick Riordan‘s’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series of novels is a young American boy who also happens to be the son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. And not surprisingly, modern-day re-interpretations of Hercules himself are long-running characters in both the Marvel and DC comic universes.
Time will tell if the new, darker version of Hercules will capture the hearts and minds of today’s movie-going audiences as handily as Heracles captured the Cretan bull more than 2,000 years ago. In any event, though, the big guy certainly deserves his due. In addition to being the father of dozens of his own children in ancient mythology, Hercules proudly stands as the spiritual father of many, if not most, of the heroes whose adventures we enjoy today.