The persistence of the hero

We often look for media that is grounded and “relatable”, glossing over the millennia of personal drama present in our founding stories, and the way our existence prepares us to believe, relate to, and enjoy them.

Hercules might’ve been strong, but that didn’t stop the gods from ruining his day.

It’s easy to dismiss the fantastic. Especially in the era of information, poor-quality media surrounds and drowns us. The rise of fan fiction, the heaps of second-rate fantasy authors flooding the market, and the omnipresence of the Marvel blockbuster seems like it should be a great source of fatigue. Why, then, do we continue to eat this shit up? The answer is twofold. Firstly, the myths that modern pulp derives from are far more “relatable” than anyone wants to give them credit for, and secondly, modern popular and genre entertainment, from sci-fi to fantasy to comic books (and their movies), is simply the latest iteration of the same few stories being adapted and rehashed, ad nauseam.

Think for a moment about Hercules. Sure, he’s the son of Zeus, god of thunder. Your dad isn’t. But he probably thinks he is, and has acted like the dickhead Zeus we know from the myths at one point or another. Hercules is in your spot. His dad is an ass. Sure, he’s super strong. Insanely strong. He held the sky up for a spell. But Herc lives in a world of gods. The tasks he undertakes can’t be solved by strength alone. He has to use his wits. In that way, he’s the classic underdog, the shrimpy kid on the playground who has to pit the bullies against each other and hope he doesn’t get caught in the crossfire.

You know when life deals you a shit hand? Well Herc was playing at a table with a deck of twos and threes. Zeus’s wife, Hera, tried to kill him repeatedly from the moment he was born, and when he beat the odds and grew up, got married, and had kids, she couldn’t stand it, so she drove him mad and had him kill his family. Now stricken with grief, the gods sentence him to the famous Twelve Labors to atone for Hera’s crime. So Hercules, the underdog, still gets crushed underfoot, even though technically, he’s the best of us. Doesn’t that make you feel a little bit better about where you’re at knowing a demi-god had to basically earn a Medal of Honor, then win every major sports championship, and earn a Nobel Prize in every category just to break even? We aren’t just bugs getting smashed by metaphysical toddlers on a playground, we’re a bunches of Herc‘s.

Now tell me that Hercules isn’t still around. He was actually in a pretty recent movie. He went by Steve Rodgers in it, but I’m pretty sure that was our boy Herc. Think about it. Steve is the underdog. He’s the literal shrimpy kid on the playground. So he’s strong for a slightly different reason. Oh well. He does the hero thing, and fights for his country in World War II, eventually making the ultimate sacrifice. Well guess what? That’s not enough, because just like in Ancient Greece, life likes to throw curveballs at the undeserving.

Steve wakes up in a modern world he doesn’t recognize or particularly like. Everyone needs something from him, and he isn’t really allowed to say no. He must fight the good fight, often for people he doesn’t particularly agree with, like Nick Fury in The Winter Soldier, or Tony Stark in any film, because those people, the powers that be, won’t let him rest until there are no more bad guys, according to their definitions. And all he wants is to rest.

There’s a recipe to all this, you see. The strong man can’t get by on just his strengths. This is a tale that’s been rehashed more times than can be counted, and every new iteration adds another version to the canon that we are all raised to know. Steve Rodgers didn’t come straight out of Hercules, and Hercules wasn’t even the first. Before him, there was Gilgamesh, who had to learn to be a wise king and not just a mighty warrior. Steve Rodgers isn’t even the first American version of the tale. Remember all of the weird feats attributed to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln? What about John Henry, the strongest, fastest steel-driver ever to work for the railroad? He had to work faster than the damn steel-driving machine just so the company would leave him alone and allow him to collect his paycheck. We’ve been through this cul-de-sac many times, and we will return to it many more.

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