What Kind of Hero?
On Saturday afternoon between Good Friday and Easter, after the Mariners game I resorted to channel surfing. I chanced to watch a few minutes of The Legend of Hercules. Other than those minutes, I knew nothing about this movie until I looked it up.
Wikipedia facts: released in 2014, The Legend of Hercules was panned by critics and quickly ignored by the movie going public. Its box office take did not cover its costs of production. The film was nominated for several “Gold Raspberry” awards, including worst picture, worst leading actor, worst director, and worst leading actress. The convoluted story line starts with Hercules’s birth as son of Zeus and a human mother, Alcmene, the wife of King Amphitryon (Hera, Zeus’s queen, approved and abetted the sexual liaison between Zeus and Alcmene). Since Alcmene never publicly revealed her liaison with Zeus, Hercules grew up as son of Amphitryon and brother of Iphicles. The story then jumps twenty years to Hercules’s adulthood, when he fights in battles, against gladiators, against his half-brother, Iphicles, and eventually against King Amphitryon himself (who meanwhile had murdered Alcmene).
In short, it’s a soap opera—sex, secrets, betrayals, alliances, surprises, reversals, and so on—with swords and sorcery thrown on top. I’m not condemning The Legend of Hercules on that ground; there have been fantasy stores made into fine movies. But by all accounts this wasn’t one of them. (It holds a 3% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, which gives a consensus judgment: “Cheap-looking, poorly acted, and dull.”) My reaction matched those of the critics; I quit watching after about ten minutes.
So why am I writing about it?
The only scene I watched comes late in the story. In this scene Hercules has been captured by King Amphitryon’s men. They chain Hercules, spread-eagle fashion, between two stone pillars. Amphitryon commands Hercules flogged and executed. While Hercules still lives, Amphitryon brings out Chiron, the long-time faithful servant of Alcmene and orders Iphicles to kill him while Hercules watches. (Chiron knew Hercules’s true parentage from the beginning and helped Alcmene raise the boy-god.) Thus physically and spiritually tormented, Hercules cries out to his true father, Zeus, who answers by giving Hercules super-strength. Hercules pulls the chains binding him, and the stone pillars break into pieces. The chains still intact, Hercules swings massive stone blocks like gigantic scythes, mowing down his enemies.
At this point I could stomach no more and surfed to another channel.
It cannot be an accident that this horrible movie played on Holy Saturday. Consider the scene I described. In it, the “son of god” is tortured in a crucifix position, having fallen under the power of an evil king. He appeals to Zeus, calling him “father.” The god answers his prayer, giving him power to slaughter his enemies. According to Wikipedia (since I watched no further), Hercules goes on to kill Amphitryon and Iphicles, save his true love from a forced marriage to Iphicles, and rule the kingdom in peace and harmony.
Walter Wink, a Bible scholar, coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence.” It’s an archetype, showing up in story after story, beginning with the Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish. In the myth of redemptive violence a great hero (the god Marduk in Emuma Elish) saves the world from chaos (represented by Tiamat and her servants) by killing his enemies in inventive and gory detail.
Our stories—on television, in films, in novels and graphic novels—repeat the archetype so often that we don’t notice it. Star Wars, Batman Begins, Taken, the list goes on and on. It’s the American way, right? No matter what your problem, the answer is to find your enemy and kill her, even if she is not yet born.
But of course that’s too simplistic. The myth of redemptive violence is far older than American popular culture, and it is found all around the world. Wink argues that the biblical creation narrative may have arisen in opposition to the violent mythology of Enuma Elish. In the Hebrew Bible, God creates by speaking; he does not have to destroy prior gods. Of course, Wink cannot deny that the Bible also contains many episodes that seem modeled on the myth of redemptive violence: Pharaoh and his chariots are drowned in the sea. But as a Christian Wink points to the New Testament for the definitive story of God’s action in the world. Real redemption came via redemptive suffering, not redemptive violence.
And that’s what made my viewing experience on Holy Saturday so jarring. Salvation came to my world not when the son of god called for super power to destroy his enemies and make everything good, but when the Son of God bore the sins of the world and endured the violence of men, dying with words of forgiveness for his oppressors.
What kind of hero do I want? The Legend of Hercules is a lousy movie, but its hero is a very familiar type. We like heroes who put things right by killing our enemies. But it seems to me that followers of Jesus would want something better.