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Did 'Hercules' just hurl his club at Christ?

Walking out of the theater after watching the new “Hercules” movie, I felt suddenly deflated, disheartened even – as though I had just gleefully eaten a delicious and satisfying apple, only to look down and see half a worm in the apple’s core.

For everything “Hercules” has going for it, there’s something rotten in its final effect.

Now, from an entertainment perspective, “Hercules” is a pleasant surprise. The storyline is unexpectedly clever; the ensemble cast of characters is well developed, each with an engaging personality of their own; the acting is decent; the battles are exciting; the imagery and sets and costumes are captivating; and the movie strikes just the right combination of heroism, action and self-deprecating humor. It’s a fun and pretty movie with a mostly positive message.

But there’s an unsettling worldview thread that weaves its way through the tapestry of the entire film.

At first, this thread is curious, and I picture an audience member slowly pulling at the thread, discovering it to be long and lovely and wrapping it around his or her arm to hold on to it, while gently tugging just a little bit more and more as the movie unfolds. After a while, the thread forms patterns on the arm. It’s pretty and engaging. It even seems like it may be of value. Right up until the very end of the movie, it seems a welcome thread. But then the last words of the movie are spoken, the end of the thread is revealed – and it’s revealed to be the head of a snake. Yikes!

Allow me to explain.

The film follows the adventures of the ancient Greek hero Hercules after he’s completed his legendary 12 labors, with the clever twist that he’s not really the son of Zeus, as Greek mythology would teach, but only a hardened warrior who has gotten by with the help of his friends. The stories of his conquests, however, grew to mythical proportions (with a bit of help), until people believed him the “son of a god.”

Each “magical” event and “monster” in his life is revealed by the film to be a perfectly natural occurrence only inflated to its supernatural reputation by a bit of trickery and the help of the grapevine.

And so long as we’re talking only about the mythical Hercules, this naturalist explanation for an ancient, supernatural hero is not a problem. Discerning audiences could enjoy the action and imagery and celebrate the movie’s messages about heroism, integrity and the measure of a man.

But if, by chance, this thread theme of the movie – that ancient heroes were not really supernatural, but at best overblown legends and, at worst, frauds – were to apply to Jesus Christ … why, then we’d have a different message to the movie after all.

And that’s where I found the half of a worm.

No, Jesus is never mentioned by name in the movie, nor are any direct parallels made. There’s a companion who betrays Hercules, the son of a god father and human mother, for money – but it’s still clear we’re talking about Hercules, not Jesus and his betrayer, Judas.

Yet the final line of the film feels way too much like finding the head of the thread was a snake all along.

“The world needs a hero they can believe in,” explains Hercules’ companion Amphiaraus. “Is he actually the son of Zeus? It doesn’t really matter.”

Then the final credits roll, with the song singing, “Ain’t no God on these streets, in the heart of the jungle. Won’t you follow me into the jungle?”

For me, the moment just felt a step too far.

I can’t say the filmmakers meant the movie in any way as a reference to Christ – “Hercules” does nothing to really justify that conclusion. But I do think audiences, especially undiscerning audiences culture-wide, will all too easily find their minds greased to swallow the humanistic idea that Jesus was a heroic figure, a good teacher, even if he wasn’t really divine. They just watched, after all, how all magic and monsters and miracles aren’t really real, but legends that grew into supernatural malarkey over the passage of time. If it was true of Hercules …

“The world needs a hero they can believe in. Is he actually the son of [God]? It doesn’t really matter.”

Doesn’t matter? Doesn’t matter! It’s all that matters!

If Jesus was just a man, then he wasn’t a hero or even a good teacher, but a freaking lunatic. Oh, his Golden Rule and “love your neighbor” stuff sound fine, but his “eat my flesh” and “turn the other cheek” and afterlife assurances and prophecy of his own resurrection and claims of divinity make him nothing but a cult leader with empty promises. If he wasn’t actually God, then his statements have no authority, his religion has no unique claim to truth and frankly is nothing but a lie. If he’s not God, he’s not a good teacher – he’s dangerous.

So when “Hercules” paints the portrait that miracles are but myths, myths but legends and legends but overgrown stories of perfectly natural events, while concluding with a song signing, “There ain’t no God,” I’m left wondering: Just what did the moviemakers mean to say all along?

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