Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Dwayne Johnson as Hercules is not at all bad.

The first 5 minutes of Brett Ratner's 2014 Hercules (I) conveys a remarkable point succinctly: This is not an entirely conventional Heracles narrative. A handful of divergences begin to flow quickly by. The Radical Comics graphic novel by Steve Moore clearly deserves closer inspection. Where the screenplay diverges from Moore's creation will reward analysis; in this quick blogpost I focus on details in the screenplay by Ryan Condal and Even Spiliotopoulos directed by Ratner.

OGCMA0551NOTHeracles_Ratner: Hercules (aka son of Zeus) is flanked
by Iolaus and Atalanta.
     The Maecedonian Coast in 358 B.C. is an extraordinary time — if not also place — to set a mythic narrative. The year 358 B.C. is well within the frame of history, half a century after the demise of the Athenian Empire and well within the period of Maecdonia's meteoric rise under Philip. It is hardly the period one might assign, if one had to, to the time when a demigod roved upon the earth.

The film opens with a partial explication of the Heracles' canonical labors. Three alone are needed to get Ratner's narrative under way. And the three are told in a rather inverted sequence with dramatic crescendo: Lernean Hydra, Erymanthean Boar, and the Nemean Lion. Typically, in Classical mythology, the Lion that roves the hills above Tiryns near Nemea comes first, the Hydra bred in the swamp of Lerna comes second, and the Boar on Mt Erymanthus is the fourth canonical Labor. 

We soon learn that the three labors are being narrated by a young captive, who is presently afflicted with a bit of hero worship and the vicious designs of his captors. This narrator will turn out to be none other than Iolaus, a nephew of Heracles who canonically helps Heracles slay the Hydra (but not here).

Before Iolaus' identity is learned, though, the most remarkable element of Ratner's Heracles narrative comes clean: this brawny hero is accompanied by a cast of super-heroic sidekicks. The team is a remarkable hybridization from the myths that deal with the generation before the Trojan War.

Autolycos — played with deft comic timing by Ian McShane, Autolycus is mythologically the maternal grandfather of Odysseus; by some later accounts he is the son of Hermes; in Homer he outstrips all mortals in "thievery and (ambiguous) swearing" (Od. 19.394ff) and one perpetrated a memorable theft (Il. 10.367).

Atalanta — brings a strong female to Heracles' supporting team, Atalanta is mythologically a veteran of the Calydonian Boar Hunt, the defender of her chastity against the advances of centaurs Rhoecus and Hylaeus whom she slew, and sworn to perpetual virginity as hunting companion of Artemis. If I have seen Ingrid Bolsø Berdal in a previous film, I have not notice her.

Amphiaraus — a participant in the Seven Against Thebes expedition, Amphiaraus is a rather shadowy character in classical mythology. He was bribed by Polynices with the necklace of Harmonia to march against Eteocles' Thebean defenders; other myths have him killed by Zeus' thunderbolt and swallowed with his chariot into the gaping earth. Since Rufus Sewell plays him in this film, people will notice him closely.

Tydeus — a berzerker with a menacing headwound, in this film, and a propensity for dog-like behavior, Tydeus also — as the others here — technically antedates the Trojan War. The father of Diomedes in myth (not overtly in this film), Tydeus is so bloodthirsty that he slew Ismene (Aesch. Septem 377ff.) and impiously devoured the brains of Melanippus. Aksel Hennie plays this character with convincingly crazed demeanor.

and Iolaus — the boy here who strives to be like Hercules is in mythology the nephew of Heracles who assists in one Labor (the Hydra) but forebears from assistance when Eurystheus disqualifies any of Heracles' tasks that include assistance. Reece Ritchie is amusing in this part.

Why the side-kicks are so intriguing to me may be summed up in one particular observation pertaining to Heracles' canonically assigned Second Labor, the slaying of the Lernean Hydra. According to Apollodoros Libr. 2.5.2, "Eurystheus ordered Heracles to kill the Lernaean Hydra, a water creature bred in the swamp of Lerna, which invaded dry land destroying livestock and ravaging fields." Though heroically successful in "overcoming the growing heads, then cutting off the immortal one", Heracles' effort was disqualified by Eurystheus who said that Heracles "had not conquered the Hydra alone but with the help of Iolaus." From that moment forth, Heracles always acted as a soloist. In classical mythology it is typically the far inferior hero Jason who assembles a dream-team of helpers to foster his great quest.

So, where does this leave me? I'm at the "that" part of my consideration of this compelling film. It's clear that the narrative belonging to Moore, Spiliotopoulos, Condal, and Ratner is aware of classical mythological ancestry. The development of a hero-with-sidekicks narrative seems right for the comic-book age. I need to turn the corner and explain now the "why" of all this remarkable alteration. And especially intriguing will be answering why Hercules now in a sceptical post-9/11 age needs helpers and why these helpers especially come to the fore.

—— RTM

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