As another foray on the Once Upon a Time Challenge‘s cinema quest, I’m going to review Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. I recently watched Hercules and the Underworld, which fulfills the goal for the challenge. It was a pretty good movie, but I think we’ll be better off here if I talk about the series at large.
If you’re not familiar with it, Hercules was a TV show in the nineties following the adventures of the mythological hero, as he journeys through ancient Greece. There was a six-season TV show, plus five made-for-TV movie prequels, and two spin-offs (I’ll get to them later).
Hercules is basically the greatest guy you could ever want to meet. He has super-strength from his father, Zeus, the king of the gods, “a strength surpassed only by the power of his heart,” as the opening sequence puts it. And he’s brave, noble, thoughtful, ethical to a fault…but without ever being annoyingly nice. Some characters come off as too good, and he’s not that–he’s just a really great guy.
Hercules’ wife and children were killed by his evil stepmother Hera (in a careful revising of the original myth), and now he’s decided to dedicate his life to fighting evil and helping people. How exactly he makes a living at this I don’t know–but it’s great premise for a TV show. Generally each episode features a new monster, or a new band of brigands threatening a village, or a new plot by Hera. Hercules comes in to help, risks his life in feats of daring, and eventually saves the day…to go on to help the next group of people. And there’s often a lot of humor mixed up in there too–sometimes campy, always fun. The episodes rarely follow a particular myth, but they frequently weave in elements and ideas from mythology.
Usually Hercules is accompanied on his travels by another character who’ll play the major supporting role for that episode. Sometimes it’s a character with a one-time appearance. Most often it’s his best friend, Iolaus, who joins him fighting in battles and defeating monsters. I was thrilled, reading Greek myths years ago, to discover that the original myth records an Iolaus who helped Hercules fight the Hydra. I thought he was strictly an invention of the TV show. Iolaus is a pretty great guy too–a little more flawed, a little more apt to lose his temper or do something foolish, but absolutely someone you’d like to know.
And here’s something I think is important–I think anyone watching the show can pretty clearly see that Iolaus is Hercules’ sidekick. After all, Hercules is the one with his name in the title, and usually he’s the one who does just a little bit more, and is just a little bit better. BUT–I don’t think Hercules knows that Iolaus is his sidekick. I think he would maintain that he and Iolaus are equal partners. It wouldn’t be false modesty–it would be very sincere. I think that makes a difference in the character, and in the feel of the show. Hercules never makes much of his own importance–he just tries to help people. It adds a lightness to the show. More on that later.
The other most frequent supporting character is Salmoneus, who is basically an ancient entrepreneur. He always has a new get-rich-quick scheme, which he always wants to get Hercules involved in. Hercules always declines (although you’d think that maybe he ought to join forces with Salmoneus some time, since he has no visible means of support himself). It’s pretty much a guarantee of a comedic episode if Salmoneus turns up.
There’s also Autolycus, the cocky and exceedingly self-confident King of Thieves. And of course the Greek gods turn up now and then too: particularly Ares, the surly (but very handsome) god of War, and Aphrodite, the beautiful and flirty goddess of Love.
As I said, Hercules has two spin-offs, the possibly more famous Xena: Warrior Princess, and Young Hercules. I enjoyed Xena, but never as much as Hercules, even though it had a cool warrior girl for a hero. I think it was that Xena took herself too seriously. She was just never as much fun as Hercules. And I think Xena and Gabrielle both knew that Gabrielle was the sidekick in the relationship, and I don’t like that as well as Hercules and Iolaus’ equal friendship. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a great show too–but if you’re picking one, watch Hercules. As to Young Hercules, it had a younger target audience so they made it more simplistic, and personally I could never get past the fact that young Hercules did not look like he could ever grow up to be Kevin Sorbo (the actor for the main show). And I was right–he grew up to be Ryan Gosling, from The Notebook.
There are four novels as well, a couple of them pictured above, which are also great. They’re not novelizations of episodes; they’re original stories, and it’s fun to get inside the characters’ heads more than you can in a TV show.
Hercules was my favorite show for a period as a kid. I’ve been rewatching them recently, after years of not seeing them, and I’m convinced I had good taste. They’re all available streaming on Netflix. If you have any interest in Greek mythology, or funny adventure stories, check them out!