It’s no exaggeration to say that the superhero movie is one of the most popular (and profitable) forms of entertainment today. Leading the charge – both in quantity and quality – is Marvel Studios. That’s why Disney bought the studio for a whopping $4 billion back in 2009. But the House of Mouse was playing the superhero game long before Iron Man changed the genre forever in 2008, or even before The Incredibles in 2004. To find the beginning of Disney’s relationship with the modern superhero movie, you have to go all the way back to 1997, and Hercules.
In the grand scope of the Disney Renaissance – that glorious period in the 1990s that saw the studio release a string of acclaimed films – Hercules tends to be forgotten. It’s not really considered an all-time classic like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, but nor does it have the appealing strangeness of, say, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It’s not even a faithful adaptation of the Greek legends it’s based on; if it was, Hercules would be called Heracles. But look at it in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its real purpose becomes clear. Hercules is not just a superhero movie, it’s that most well-worn of superhero movie narratives: the origin story.
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: a baby from another world with incredible strength is adopted by a pair of simple farmers, and grows up feeling like he doesn’t really belong. When he discovers that he’s actually a god among men (by travelling to an isolated building and talking to a projection of his father), he decides to become a hero; training himself in the art of combat, donning a colourful costume and travelling to a bustling metropolis to help the people.
After making a name for himself by beating bigger and bigger monsters, our hero finds himself drained of his powers by the villain, who reveals his true plan: to unleash a group of undefeatable monsters and plunge the world into darkness. But Hercules manages to regain his powers, save his love interest, defeat the villain and is celebrated as a hero. There’s even a “great power, great responsibility” moral at the end courtesy of
Jor-El Zeus: “A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.”
Even by the high standards of the Disney Renaissance, Hercules is a film bursting with visual creativity and a real sense of scale. From the floating city of Mount Olympus to the centaurs and satyrs of the world below, everything is drawn in a blocky, almost Mike Mignola-esque art style that’s evocative of ancient Greek pottery while remaining unmistakably a Disney product. And while the CGI that went into creating the many-headed Hydra is definitely starting to show its age, its appearance still feels undeniably epic.
Still, a true Disney classic isn’t measured by the size of its special effects, but by the strength of its story. And while Hercules is by far the snarkiest ’90s Disney movie – it even takes the piss out of its own tie-in marketing – there’s an undercurrent of surprisingly refreshing earnestness running through it. Hercules may look like Thor at a toga party, but Tate Donovan’s voice performance makes him feel like an amalgam of Steve Rogers and Clark Kent; a man too good by half for the world he finds himself in. The film even succeeds where many of its contemporaries have failed: few films in the MCU have a villain quite as memorable as James Woods’ version of Hades.
Of course, any fan of superhero movies will know that the best examples of the genre also belong to other genres. Ant-Man is a heist movie. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a spy thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera. By the same token, Hercules is both a romantic comedy and a musical, and it excels at both. The gospel-inspired songs, courtesy of Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel, are some of the most distinct and memorable in all of Disney’s back catalogue. But it’s Susan Egan as the wonderfully sarcastic Megara who gets the best of them: a doo-woppy little number about falling in love despite herself. It really begs the question: why hasn’t Marvel done a full-on musical yet?
The problem of so-called “superhero fatigue” has been around for years now, with many complaining that the Marvel movies (and the genre as a whole) are all starting to bleed together into an homogeneous mush. If you’re looking for something truly different in your superhero movies, it’s time to revisit Hercules. After all, how many other superhero movies can you name that have gospel music, flying horses and a weird man-goat voiced by Danny DeVito?