Hercules is no stranger to the silver screen, and between the wave of Marvel superhero reboots over the past decade and the post-Gladiator resurgence of the sword-and-sandal flick, the stars were aligned for the son of Zeus to make a comeback. Make that more than aligned: Brett Ratner’s film, which opened this week, is the second Hercules-themed movie of the year.
Based (controversially) on Steve Moore’s comic book series Hercules: The Thracian War, Ratner’s film occupies a middle ground between the blood-soaked grime of 300 and the murky ethics of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. There’s violence aplenty, but Ratner’s film is about dismantling a myth rather than stylizing it, and its troubled hero manages to avoid the moral queasiness I’d expected of a modern treatment of his madness myth. (More on madness later.)
You know the story. Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) completes his famous labors, singlehandedly slaying the hydra, defeating the Nemean lion, etc., as the jealous goddess Hera single-mindedly pursues her husband’s illegitimate son. But, as the movie informs us after two minutes of CGI-heavy adventure, most of this is…exaggerated. The real Hercules is a skilled mercenary, strong, but not a demigod. After finishing up a job clearing out pirates in Macedonia, Hercules accepts a commission from Lord Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt) and his daughter Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson). The task: eliminate a charismatic and deadly sorcerer, Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann—the character seems to share a homeland and a love of horses with Homer’s Rhesus, but little else). The reward: Hercules’ considerable weight in gold. It’s too good to pass up, and Hercules and his loyal gang set out for Thrace.
This gang was, for me, one of the most startling departures from tradition. Aeneas plays well with others, as can Odysseus and even Achilles when it suits them. Hercules works alone. Even in the one major myth where that is not the case, the voyage of the Argonauts, Hercules quickly leaves his shipmates behind and starts traveling ahead of them, having adventures of his own.
Nevertheless, the gang is, in this version at least, a second family to Hercules and key to his success. Ian McShane has a wry humour as the seer Amphiaraus, and Askel Hennie is truly terrifying as a severely traumatized, berserker-like Tydeus. Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) is there to make snide remarks, Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) provides archery support, and Hercules’ young nephew Iolaus (played with delightful swagger by Reece Ritchie) manages PR.
Iolaus is, to me, the most interesting addition to the ensemble: his skill as a storyteller not only guides the growth of Hercules’ legend, but inspires troops far more effectively than Hercules’ occasional Nikias-like pep talks. Eager as he is to be allowed to join the fight instead of cheering from behind, Iolaus realistically holds more power than any of his companions. In an age of mass media, controlling the story, controlling the spin, is a vital part of controlling any situation, and imagining Iolaus as an iron age spin doctor allows the filmmakers to explore modern problems of image control and public relations in a way that marries well with older tropes of Rumor and the hero as storyteller. Judging from Hercules’ evident popularity, Iolaus has handled his greatest challenge admirably: he has explained away the fact that Hercules seems to have murdered his wife and children.
The story of Hercules’ madness, most familiar from Euripides’ Heracles and Seneca’s Hercules Furens, is usually an opportunity to reflect on guilt and personal responsibility. At what point do we declare a person mad? Are we still responsible for our words and actions while ill or insane? Do we blame fate? The gods? What are the responsibilities of those of us witnessing such crimes? Before seeing the film, I had been looking forward to seeing how this modern interpretation handled the problem. I expected the gods to be removed from the equation—standard practice for the modern sword-and-sandal—and speculated about influence from modern theories of mental health. It was, I think, the film’s greatest missed opportunity: as successful as Hercules’ PTSD-style flashbacks are as a device for exposition, the final version of the event in this film completely removes responsibility from Hercules’ shoulders.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in this genre, the long-dead Megara (Irina Shayk) is one of few women with any screentime in the film. Atalanta, though handy with a bow, has little dialogue and is dismissed by her comrades as not quite female. Ergenia has a bit more depth to her, but much of it is disappointingly clichéd: she selflessly works to heal the wounded, is motivated primarily by her love for her son, and, in the end, needs rescuing. I was most shocked, though, to find that about 90% of the women in the cast were billed in the credits as either “vixen” or “tavern vixen.” Perhaps the target audience is expected to be as preoccupied with “buxom Amazons and exciting bondage” as young Iolaus?
The battles were, predictably, a “best-of” tour of breakthroughs in warfare from the bronze age to well past the Roman conquest. Alexander’s chariots were there, along with hoplite formation, Roman tortugas, and some exciting cavalry action. In spite of the grab-bag, battles were harmonious (if that is a word one may use about battles), well-paced, and exciting. The one thing that really bothered me was the rate at which the Thracian army changed shields: they went from square Roman-style shields to more oval models before finally switching to round hoplite shields for the final showdown. You would think the costume department hadn’t read Lysias.
In the end, although I was disappointed in the treatment of the madness theme, Ratner’s Hercules is an entertaining and enjoyable summer adventure. No performance is perfect, and historians may wish to avert their eyes during battle scenes, but between Johnson’s warm-hearted and earnest portrayal and the revisioning of Iolaus as storyteller extraordinaire, the film is well worth an afternoon at the cinema.