What makes someone a hero? Is it performing mighty deeds? Besting an enemy in battle? Defeating a villain? Rescuing someone from terrible danger? Protecting another person? Standing by your friends in a fight? Taking down a monster? Being superhuman?
Is it also heroic to learn from your own mistakes? To admit you were wrong, and make amends for something you shouldn’t have done? Is giving shelter to a lost child heroic? How about facing death without flinching? Is it heroic to use your skills in the service of others, even if those skills aren’t appreciated or even asked for?
Hercules (2014) explores these options. For a summer action flick, it digs surprisingly deeply into the nature of heroism. It does this by twisting the Greek myth about Hercules to make his mighty deeds all plausible. Instead of Hercules being the demi-god son of Zeus and a human woman, possessed of godlike strength, it gives us Hercules as a muscle-bound mercenary followed by a small group of skilled warriors and one somewhat irksome nephew. Together, they accomplish mighty deeds that are then ascribed to Hercules alone. By building up the legends about his power and prowess, they ensure that more and more people will hire him (and his warrior friends).
Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) is a mild-mannered, quiet man who’s haunted by half-repressed memories of a terrible atrocity in his past. His goal in life is to earn enough money to retire to a remote bit of countryside and live out life in peace. To achieve that goal, he’ll take on just about any messy, brutal job someone offers, and all the better if he gets to champion someone who’s been oppressed while he’s at it.
Amphiaraus (Ian McShane) is a wry, grizzled veteran who sometimes receives glimpses of the future and has foreseen his own death. He’s never at a loss for a salty quip or a snide aside, and he’s as fierce a fighter as they come. Because he’s foreseen his own death, he’s very calm in battle, since he knows his time is not yet up. And because he’s older than all the others, he knows the most wily tricks and tactics for winning those battles.
Autolycus (Rufus Sewell) can match Amphiaraus wisecrack for wisecrack. He’s the most skeptical of the band, always quick to spot a flaw in a plan. He doesn’t trust outsiders and is often suspicious of people’s motives. If something makes little sense to him, he’ll object to it, even work against it. But for the people he does trust, he would do absolutely anything. There’s not really anything lukewarm about Autolycus. He’s either your devoted friend or your bitter enemy.
Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) is an Amazonian warrior who enjoys an equal footing with the men in Hercules’s little band of misfits. They respect her the same way as they respect each other. She takes on a sniper-like role for battles, picking off enemies with her bow from a vantage point a little removed from the fray. But she’s perfectly adept at hand-to-hand combat as well, making up with speed for what she lacks in bulky muscles.
Tydeus (Aksel Hennie) is the enigma of the group. He never speaks. Berserker-like rages sometimes consume him. He’s unpredictable and wild, yet also timid and shy. His loyalty to Hercules has a ferocity that you do eventually come to understand, though I won’t spoil that plot point for you here. The rest of society would easily reject Tydeus as a lunatic or a menace, but in this makeshift family, he finds protection and companionship.
Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) spins all their victories into full-blown legends. His uncle, Hercules, refuses to let him fight in the big battles, and Iolaus chafes under this restriction. Hercules just wants to keep him safe, but Iolaus thinks the others see him as still a little boy, not a capable man. He can’t see his own worth as a storyteller for a long time, thinking he needs to be a warrior like the others.
Individually, each of these six characters does heroic things. Each of them defies stereotypical hero behavior in some ways while embodying the characteristics of a mythical hero in others. The movie plays with this dichotomy in some really fun ways, often giving someone a big, heroic moment and then letting another character verbally puncture their glory by pointing out something flawed or humorous.
Throughout, the movie asks viewers to ponder whether heroic actions make a person a hero, or whether an action is heroic because it’s performed by a hero. It’s a concept that we’ve debated for as long as humans have told stories, of course. But, it’s explored in some unexpectedly deep and interesting ways here, especially considering that Hercules is considered just another throwaway summer action flick.