So Hercules is Superman is Jesus.
It’s an interesting bit of parallelism that’s going on there, since in all three cases we’re dealing with men who find themselves in a place alien to their innate nature looking to do right by their fathers. Oh, and they all, while being alien to their environment, are simultaneously native to it. The native part relates to their sense of humanity, and I think that reflects a pretty cool feature of our own relationship to divinity (or, if you aren’t religious, things which are greater than us). For all the division we strive to create amongst ourselves so that we can put everything into comprehensible boxes, our largest cultural heroes embody a sense of unity with those things that are different from ourselves.
Anyway, drawing the discussion back down to consider just parallels between Hercules and Superman, we have the narrative of the hero being separated from his birth parents through fate, adopted by humble farmers who represent the simple, salt-of-the-earth human culture that will help temper any innate inclinations towards greatness, and the hero’s slow realization of his potential which blossoms into acceptance and celebration by the masses that fostered him.
It occurs to me at this point that this heroic archetype is kind of a sausage fest. I’m wondering if there are any female versions that we might consider as well. If anyone has any suggestions, let me know in the comments below; I’ll ponder this question myself in the meantime (also, if we can’t think of any examples, then why is this not an avenue that’s been better explored?).
The parallels aren’t limited only to Hercules and Superman, though. Like I mentioned last time, I see some similarities between Hercules and Superman’s supporting cast. Megara and Lois Lane share the rather dubious distinction of being the hero’s intrepid love interest who finds herself stuck being a damsel when everything about her character says that this is not the role she should be playing (we’re introduced to Megara when she’s in the middle of negotiations gone wrong with Nessus the river guardian; she insists she can handle things herself when Hercules shows up, but he rather ham-handedly takes it upon himself to save her anyway; as for Lois, just look at any depiction where her nose for a good story leads her to get captured by the villain). On the flip side, Hades and Lex Luthor are villainous foils who are jealous of the birthright of their opponents (Hades wants to rule Olympus where Hercules rightfully belongs as a son of Zeus, and Luthor has a pathological envy for Superman’s innate power; both villains are also immensely powerful in their own right; Hades rules the underworld and eventually holds dominion over all mortals, including Hercules, and Luthor, in his more gonzo depictions, has so much power, influence, and raw talent that he can manipulate events on a global scale in his favor).
So Hercules is a movie that cribs extensively from the Superman narrative as it explores the question of what makes a legitimate hero. A lot of the movie’s second half deals in a parody of contemporary pop culture where celebrity is synonymous with heroism, which isn’t necessarily a poor critique, though it’s not terribly well developed (drawing parallels between Hercules’s popularity and the cult of personality surrounding famous athletes isn’t bad, but the fact that Hercules really does go around helping people in concrete ways kind of underscores the absurdity of the comparison). There’s also a bit of subtle commentary on the fact that Hercules becomes a hero because Hades keeps trying to kill him (in this version of events, it’s Hades who instigates all the challenges that represent Hercules’s famous labors). It reminds me of Unbreakable, but much more lighthearted and with a less plodding pace.
Of course, this is a Disney movie, so we have to take that parody of pop culture and turn it into some kind of wholesome moral (for the kids), so eventually Hercules learns that the characteristic of a true hero is not just helping people, but selfless sacrifice as expressed in his willingness to die in order to save Megara from being dead (an act that parallels how Megara ended up in Hades’s service in the first place, which leaves me wondering why Hercules gets immortality for doing it, but Megara gets eternal servitude and an ingrate ex-boyfriend; double standard much?).
Ultimately, I think this adaptation suffers quite a bit from stylistic overload. Heracles as a subject has a lot of material associated with him (the stuff that gets referenced in Hercules is honestly just skimming the top) that could make for some really interesting storytelling opportunities. Instead, what we get with Disney’s take is something that heavily borrows its themes and structure from contemporary pop culture (the connections between Superman and Hercules strike me as too intentional on the part of the directors to simply be a product of archetypal storytelling) while using the source material as a sort of window dressing. The aesthetics of the film do some interesting things in referencing Greek art and drawing on a more contemporary musical tradition, but in the end it feels like mostly flash with little substance.