Review of Hercules, Directed by Brett Ratner
Can we just get this out there now? This movie is awesome. It has absolutely everything that a good Hercules movie should have: fighting, good guys, bad guys, monsters, and the Rock chucking dudes through walls. It takes everything that was truly spectacular about Kevin Sorbo’s definitive artistic interpretation of the Hercules myth and puts it on the big screen. (I realize there may be a few of you out there who cannot appreciate the wonderfulness that was Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. You are wrong and your life is sad.)
If you haven’t seen Hercules yet (The Rock’s version, I mean), you should stop reading now and go watch it, because from here on spoilers abound.
With all that said, the movie Hercules is awesome, but its theme is stupid. (Don’t worry, the stupid theme isn’t really obtrusive enough to detract from the overall quality of the film.) Over and over through the movie, we’re invited to contrast the reality of Hercules with the myths that have spread about him—myths spread apparently intentionally by Hercules’ nephew Iolus and intended to demoralize the enemy before Hercules and crew even arrive on the battlefield.
Hercules, the myth goes, was the son of Zeus who killed the Nemian lion and the Hydra. That maybe the lion wasn’t quite as invulnerable or large as the tales suggest, or that the Hydra may have just been men in snake hats, or that Hercules was just another orphan who happens to be a great warrior, well, no need to bring those up in the retelling, right? Especially since the myth is so useful for mercenaries looking for employment. Who wouldn’t want to hire someone with such a backstory?
And yet, the legend is also clearly not without some foundation. Hercules is a great warrior with incredible strength. He can chuck people across the room and shake off blows that would send most of us weeping to the sidelines. He really does have a great strategic mind and knows how to use the skills of those under his command to the fullest while still caring for their personal well-being. Still, being a great warrior and leader are not the same as being a demigod.
At least, they’re not the same until the moment arrives when Hercules has to exercise the qualities of a god. Chained to the stone floor of a prison with his friends about to be executed [spoiler warning again!], Al Swearengen asks:
Who are you? Are you a murderer? Are you a mercenary who turns his back on the innocent? We believe in you! We have faith in you! Remember the deeds you have performed, the labors you have overcome! Are you only the legend, or are you truth behind the legend? Now, tell me, WHO ARE YOU?
As everyone who’s seen the trailer knows, the reply is “I am Hercules!”, followed by Hercules ripping his chains out of the rock (that’s right, the Rock rips chains from the rock—it’s a moment of deep and meaningful postmodern irony), killing everyone, and toppling a four-story statue onto an army. It is only when he finally believes in himself and in his own myth that Hercules becomes the god everyone else believes him to be. The myth becomes reality when Hercules taps into his inner hero and puts his faith in the very story he created.
And if this story sounds vaguely familiar, it should. In Christian theology there’s a particular heresy known as adoptionism. The ancient version said that Jesus was just a man who happened to have excellent teaching, so excellent that at his baptism he was adopted by heaven and became the Son of God. The modern version of this heresy says that Jesus was just a good teacher, so good that centuries later the church elevated him so that he became God. (Which works only if we ignore all the stuff in the Bible about Jesus being God.)
This shows us the two reasons the theme of Hercules is ridiculous—first of all, despite what the self-help section at the bookstore tells you, believing in yourself will not help you overcome reality. I don’t care how many people think you’re a god, either you are or you aren’t. Faith contrary to reality—especially faith in something so weak and wicked as ourselves—does no one any good and certainly doesn’t give us superpowers. Unless we have an aggressively Darwinian view of the world, none of us are going to “just believe the myth that I can fly” and then fling ourselves off a building. Likewise, the Christian religion is one of faith, but it is not a blind faith or a leap of faith or anything like that—our faith has evidence and substance focused on a historical person, historical claims, and historical events. Faith has merit not because of its strength, but because of its substance. What matters is not how passionately you believe, but what—or who—you believe in.
This leads to the second reason the theme of Hercules—it really does matter whether or not Hercules is the son of Zeus. (At least, it matters in the context of movies and stories about Hercules—if we’re talking about actual world history, that is a different question.) In other words, we do need to know whether there is any reality behind the myth. The movie concludes that it doesn’t matter, as long as everyone—but especially Hercules himself—believes it to be true. As Christians we have to deal with this sort of argument all the time, both from nonbelievers and from well-intentioned but perhaps less-than-thoughtful believers. Our faith needs to be set on something real, and we need to know the truth about reality. It is a serious thing to live according to a lie, however noble or useful the lie may be (see our friends over at “Camels with Hammers” for more on that). Reality does not become true because we believe in it; we believe what we believe because it is true. Jesus is not the Son of God because Christians in the third and fourth centuries started to believe He was; He was and is the Son of God because that is the reality of who He is.
None of this is to downplay the importance, usefulness, or delightfulness of myth and legend (I obviously enjoy them a lot!). Rather, this is to say that what we believe is not ultimately a myth made real; what we believe is reality itself.
Again, please don’t get me wrong. The ridiculousness of the theme in no way takes away from how fantastic this movie is. None of this myth/reality/faith business intrudes on the fun of seeing Hercules smash his way through, well, everything with his giant club while wearing his lion hat.
Seriously, you need to go see this movie.
Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri. He has yet to use the power of positive thinking to tip a statue on anyone, let alone a whole army. But not for lack of trying.