My wife and I are both big fans of the overall Alamo experience, and the longer it’s been since we’ve gone the more open-minded we become in our definition of what’s worth going to see, given that we need to pay a baby-sitter and drive half an hour each way &c. So we made up our minds that we were going to go see Hercules, the one with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, therefore aka Rockules, which would seem like an unnecessary disambiguation except for the fact that there was in fact a movie that came out this year (back in January) called The legend of Hercules, so clearly we are living in the best of all possible worlds wherein there is a superabundance of cinematic Greek myth to choose from. My wife and I are fans of the classics, and also big unironic fans of The Rock, and the timing worked out, so Hercules seemed like a better choice to justify the big screen experience, rather than a rom-com we could Netflix at a later date or somesuch. Once we settled on the movie, we had to align our schedule of availability with our sitter’s, and the first Saturday of August became the date night of choice.
But of course the first weekend of August was opening weekend for Guardians of the Galaxy, and I have been salivating for that movie since it was first announced, which my wife both understood and I appreciated but also established early on was one that she would be fine skipping, because it looked weird. I tend to go see the major comic book movies with my geek buddies, anyway, so making other arrangements was perfectly acceptable all around. And as it happened, a late Friday night showing worked best for me and a couple of friends, so my weekend plans were set: GotG on Friday night with the guys, Herc on Saturday night with my wife.
Interesting side note, the storyline and the particular take on the legend in Hercules were adapted from a graphic novel that was published about six years ago. So technically, both of the movies in this week’s double-feature were comic book movies. GotG might be more recognizably branded as a Marvel flick, part of their overarching cinematic universe, but the source material for that one is also only about six years old (as opposed to the original Iron Man and Captain America and Thor movies which looked back at the earliest Marvel comics from the 60’s).
Another side note: look, I’m not saying I’m a giant nerd or anything, but I did go see Guardians of the Galaxy on opening weekend, and I showed up at the theater in a t-shirt emblazoned with a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy joke, and met my two buddies who were both wearing t-shirts promoting the Marvel-themed collectible card game they are both into, and we grabbed drinks before the movie and one of my friends ordered the GotG character-themed cocktail (Drax the Destroyer Rum Punch) and we sat around talking about comics, which segued to manga, and segued again to novels based on role-playing games, which led both of my friends to ask me “Oh, hey, are you still writing that fanfic series based on the superhero roleplaying campaign we all played together in college?” (Why, yes. Yes, I am.) So basically I am saying I am The Giantest of Nerds. Represent.
One more side note: once again, the pre-show clips at the Alamo did not disappoint. GotG was fronted by trailers for extremely dated-looking Star Wars knock-offs, YouTube videos of raccoons, and Spider-Man and Avengers cartoons which were fairly recent and included cameos from the current Guardians reflecting the lineup for the movie. Marvel Comics does in fact have their own version of public domain Hercules, much like their Thor, although the graphic novel The Thracian Wars was not published by Marvel but by the much smaller Radical Comics. But! The Marvel version of Hercules, who did appear in at least one very crudely animated cartoon from the late 60’s, was fair game for the Alamo pre-show of the Hercules movie, along with clips from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (non-documentary) film debut, Hercules in New York. (By “non-documentary”, obviously Hercules in New York would never be confused with a documentary, I just mean I’m well-aware that Arnold’s film debut was the documentary Pumping Iron, and Hercules in New York was the first time he was called upon to act. From what we saw, Hercules in New York is pretty atrocious and Arnold’s acting while fairly terrible is far from the worst thing about it.) Also an old Popeye cartoon in which he tells his nephews how Hercules was really powered by spinach, and every three clips or so it would cut to the bit from Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor where Mama Klump is chanting “Herk-a-LEEZ! Herk-a-LEEZ!” as the younger son flexes his flab. This kept getting funnier every time.
Actually, the pre-shows are a good entry point for talking about the movies themselves (finally, geez) and the differences between them. The similarities are numerous: both big budget action flicks full of combat setpieces, both team movies (Hercules leads a six-member troupe of mercenaries), both based on comics as mentioned above, both featuring former professional wrestlers (Dave Bautista plays Drax in GotG). And both headlined by charismatic leading men. I skipped over another category of pre-show clips that applied to both showings: snippets of interviews with Chris Pratt and Dwayne Johnson on talk shows, mostly older stuff where they were promoting something completely different from the movie we were there to see. For Pratt, he was on Conan O’Brien talking about how he got in shape for Moneyball (the answer was “Hip Hop Abs” dvd’s, which led to him showing some core-strengthening dance moves in front of the couch). For Johnson, there were multiple clips of him singing on foreign talk shows, one for Spanish tv and one for Japanese tv. In Japan, he even played a little ukelele.
So, the thing is, these are two exceptionally charming cats. As I explained a thousand words ago, the mere presence of Dwayne Johnson in/as Hercules was sufficient justification for my wife and I to take an interest. Dude is hilarious, magnetic, electrifying, pick your descriptor. And Chris Pratt has also become someone I would watch in just about anything (which may or may not be related to The Lego Movie and its current reign as King of the Kids’ DVD’s at home) because he just has that perfectly balanced star factor and everyman appeal.
In GotG, Pratt gets to play Peter Quill, the legendary Star-Lord, the reluctant leader of the ragtag group that becomes the Guardians. He doesn’t play his standard goofball schtick, not the overgrown hyperactive manchild of Andy Dwyer, not the goodhearted earnest naif of Emmet Brickowski, but a more cynical, cool, and world-weary guy, who also is a little bit of a goofball. It’s a variation that’s more fitting for the sci-fi adrenaline blockbuster setting, and it works. The supporting characters are alternately bad-ass and hilarious (often simultaneously) and the special effects and action sequences are as top-notch as we’ve all come to expect from Marvel movies, but Pratt holds the whole movie together. He’s the POV audience surrogate character, who gets an actual emotional arc, and makes the machinations of alien empires fighting over some doomsday maguffin something worth getting invested in.
In Hercules, Johnson plays the eponymous glory of Hera, the legendary demigod, as a combination of noble soul and damaged goods, smart enough to have figured out that if his reputation precedes him and scares the hell out of his enemies, it makes his job and his life significantly easier. He’s a mercenary falsely accused of murdering his own family and therefore a rootless wanderer, fighting for gold, and collecting other broken people to fight at his side. Seriously, you guys, Hercules might as well be called Guardians of Ancient Greece. Quill and Hercules both never knew their fathers, and just as Herc is hinted to be the actual son of Zeus, Quill is implied to be the product of a liaison between his Earthling mother and an alien “angel of light”. Both leads have tragic backstories, Quill losing his mother as a child and being abducted by space pirates, Hercules the aforementioned family massacre. And both become de facto leaders of bands of violent misfits, with us-against-the-world mentalities, until they have to take sides in a war with bigger personal stakes than how much they’re getting paid.
The major difference, then, is that Dwayne Johnson’s vaunted charisma more or less goes to waste given the way that Hercules is written. Pratt’s charm is how easy-going he is, even when he gets in way over his head and succeeds almost in spite of himself. Johnson, on the other hand, can be incandescent when he’s turned loose. Back in the WWE days he could work the crowd like no one else, and a crowd was something like fifty thousand screaming fans in an arena, with The Rock all by himself, pacing around an empty ring and monologuing into a microphone. Sometimes he was the villain and could make people all they way up in the cheap seats hate his guts, and sometimes he was the hero and could make those same nosebleed denizens absolutely adore him. But Hercules (the character in the movie we’re talking about) is defined by his seriousness. He doesn’t crack wise, he doesn’t lose his temper, he barely seems to be enjoying what he’s doing. He’s haunted by the past and deals with it by burying everything under a stoic, all-business exterior.
Johnson looks the part of Hercules (and as my wife rightly noted, this includes his fantastic beard) but all I could think was what a wasted opportunity it was to let The Rock just be himself. The problem, I think, is that the filmmakers took the premise, which involved undermining the myth of Hercules to examine what the man underneath would be like, trying to live up to his own hype, and they became very enamored with the pseudo-profundities they attached to that idea, and put them forth in an extremely straight-faced manner that blatantly demands respect for being oh so deep. And yet they could have brought up almost all of the same ideas with a hell of a lot bigger sense of fun, and it was right there for the taking. A man who has legitimate skills but also puts on a show selling himself as bigger and badder than he can possibly be in real life - that’s what they were going for in Hercules and that’s also an apt description of any main event wrestler worth watching. In full-on People’s Champion mode, Johnson could have portrayed Hercules as cocky, boastful, impetuous, basically an anti-hero. But he also could have made that just one of the many layers of the character-playing-a-character, portraying him as smart enough to know that you make money by giving people what they want, hooking in the rubes, and so on, while trying to maintain a grip on understanding how dangerous it can be if you start to believe your own hype. Instead, what was onscreen was a Hercules who was sad, reluctant and restrained. Again, not that that’s a completely invalid approach, and not that Johnson didn’t do it well. But it could have been done differently (read: better).
So that was Hercules’s tragic flaw. I can’t say that GotG was flawless, but at the same time I’m hard pressed to think of a specific tweak that would make it much better. I am of course fully in the bag for Marvel movies, and they have yet to disappoint me. I was slightly worried that GotG would be their first misstep in terms of mass appeal; the concept amused me to no end, but I am an easy mark for sci-fi goofiness. Yet if critical reviews, box office receipts and CinemaScore are any indication, the mass appeal is undiminished. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now much closer to truly deserving that nomenclature. Yes, we’ve seen other dimensions like Asgard and an alien invasion of New York, in addition to all the high-tech armor and super soldier treatments and other fantastical elements that have been added to the mix. But GotG throws caution to the wind and asks the audience to suspend disbelief for a multitude of alien races*, cosmic artifacts, hyperadvanced technology, and essentially limitless possibilities out among the stars. And as one of my buddies pointed out, the suspension of disbelief is earned so much that what stands out as an illogical anomaly is the fact that Peter Quill has a cassette tape from 1988 that he plays all the time and yet has never worn out or been eaten by his Walkman. A mining colony inside the floating skull of an intergalactic giant? Yup, fine, no problem, but come on, where is Quill even getting AA batteries out in that quadrant 26 years later?
(* So a big noteworthy aspect of GotG is that two of the characters are CGI, one a talking cybernetic raccoon and one a talking (sort of) tree. Again, part of the movie’s mission is to embrace the weirdness of comic books and the fact that not all aliens need to look like humans with prosthetic faceparts and body paint, although the movie has its share of those, too. One thing that gave me pause early on was Quill looking at some hologram projections of an alien society. The aliens look more or less like humans, which is such a well-established trope at this point I didn’t bat an eye. Then at one point a little alien girl stops to pet a dog, and I thought “why would some other planet have domesticated animals that look just like dogs?” Alien beings indistinguishable from Earth people I swallow, but alien animals indistinguishable from Earth dogs, I balk. How odd.)
Nick Fury doesn’t show up at the end of GotG to ask Star-Lord and company if they’ve ever heard of the Cosmic Avengers Initiative, but they are all characters in the same mega-story nonetheless, and I for one am more geeked than ever to see how it’s all going to fit together a few more waves of movies down the road. If you are at all on the fence about seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, I’ll just add my voice to the growing chorus of people extolling its virtues. It took its sweet time waiting until August to bow, but it’s everything a great summer movie should be.