A real American hero: the superhero-ification of Disney’s Hercules
Today’s superhero narratives are often referred to as the modern equivalents of classical mythology, tales of larger-than-life characters engrained in the public consciousness and reinterpreted by generation after generation. In recent decades, however, as common awareness of superheroes surpasses that of their ancient forebears, adaptations of classical legends are now filtered through the lens of DC and Marvel’s comic book canon. An extreme example is Disney’s Hercules (1997), a film which places the mythical Herakles into a plot which discards its source narrative entirely in favour of a storyline indebted to a text as ubiquitously American as DC’s Superman.
Like Superman, Disney’s Hercules is sent to earth from a supernatural world where he is adopted by a human couple and raised on their farm. As an adult, the mild-mannered hero moves to the big city and has to protect it from his devious archenemy. By imposing upon the Greek myth both the origin story and personality of Clark Kent, Disney also infuses it with the quintessentially American values which he represents. The result is a clash between classical European and contemporary American culture, played out through the merging of their respective monomythical narratives and the archetypal heroes at their centre.
This chapter addresses in detail the deviations from the plot of the source myth which bring Herakles’ story further in line with that of Superman. These elements each provide a useful starting point from which to identify the aspects of American ideology which emerge in the film as a result.