Why settle for just one Hercules movie in a single year when you can have two? 2014 has now served up a pair of epics about the lion-strangling Greek hero — January’s The Legend of Hercules with Kellan Lutz, and Dwayne Johnson’s new Hercules, which opens in theaters today. The accidental doubling up is another examples of Hollywood’s serendipity/groupthink that gave us No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits in 2011, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman in 2012, and Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down in 2013.
But why is 2014 so primed for brawny mythological types? Chalk it up to a fondness for old-school escapism and beefy men in skimpy clothing, or the fact that 2010’s Clash of the Titans and 2012’s Wrath of the Titans made money.
But if you’re going to have two similar movies released so close together, you really ought to have a winner and a loser. So here’s a point-by-point comparison of this year’s Hercules movies, with the champion going on to live forever in Hollywood Elysium, and the loser doomed to Hades (where, The Rock’s Hercules suggests, “the fun people are”).
Kellan Lutz vs. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Let’s start with the $70-100 million question…but was there ever really a question to begin with? Twilight alum Kellan Lutz has an impressively square-shaped head and can flex a mean pectoral muscle, but he’s not what most would describe as a world class leading man. And while Hercules is a character who’s more prone to action than emotional complexity, he does require enough charisma to convincingly rally an army. Lutz can serve as an onscreen beefcake just fine, but he’s nowhere near the artist formerly known as The Rock, who, in Hercules, once again shows off his underappreciated skills as an awesome B-movie star.
Johnson’s a guy who can mutter a line like, “Look at me — do I look afraid?” with perfect gravitas while also showing a sense of humor. He commits to the material without looking ridiculous, and he’s able to insert a wink without ever coming across as feeling like he’s above the film he’s acting in. His Hercules is capable of showing moments of vulnerability and soulfulness, while also being able to throw a horse and to forehead punch someone to death.
Winner: Johnson (Hercules)
Kellan Lutz vs. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Part II
While Johnson does eventually doff his armor (which comes with built in abs!) to reveal he’s this massive, veiny, upside-down Great Pyramid of muscle, Lutz commits to going topless and getting oiled up for what has to be at least 80% of The Legend of Hercules, and that’s the kind of initiative that has to be rewarded.
Winner: Lutz (The Legend of Hercules)
Daniel Giat, Giulio Steve, Renny Harlin, and Sean Hood vs. Ryan Condal, Evan Spiliotopoulos, and Steve Moore
The Legend of Hercules writers Giat, Steve, Harlin, and Hood try for a more straightforward take on the hero’s origins, while attempting to smooth over its various problematic elements — so Hercules is fathered by an invisible Zeus, who makes the fully consenting Queen Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) squirm with delight rather than get tricked by the god in the guise of her husband. Hera, who hates Hercules in the myths as yet more proof of her divine husband’s unfaithfulness, is also invisible and also gives her OK in this version.
On the other hand, Hercules, which is written by Condal and Spiliotopoulos, draws from a graphic novel by the late Steve Moore and is set in an ancient world without evident magic. Hercules has deliberately cultivated his own personal legend with the help of his storyteller nephew Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). He may be strapping and an imposing fighter, but he also gets by with the help of his fellow mercenary friends, the Amazon Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal); the seer Amphiaraus (Ian McShane); the traumatized, silent Tydeus (Aksel Hennie); and sassypants knifeslinger Autolycus (Rufus Sewell). It’s an unusual enough take on the myths to make the story a little more unexpected.
Winner: Condal, Spiliotopoulos, and Moore (Hercules)
Joseph Fiennes vs. Johnathon Schaech
Fiennes sports a fantastic combination mullet-sausage curls look in Hercules, but he can’t measure up against Schaech’s cornrows-into-wrapped-ponytail in Legend.
Winner: Schaech (The Legend of Hercules)
Renny Harlin vs. Brett Ratner
The Legend of Hercules, directed by slowly fading studio-helmer Renny Harlin (of Deep Blue Sea and The Long Kiss Goodnight), goes for a 300-aping, speed-ramping style of action that looks curiously dated, if such a thing can be said of copying a movie from eight years ago. It also makes obvious concessions to the 3D in which it was shown in theaters that, on home video, looks a little weird.
Ratner may not be a standout filmmaker either (his X-Men: The Last Stand was a very frustrating installment in a mostly strong franchise), but he allows the grounded nature of the Hercules premise to translate to its action. Hercules looks like a very expensive episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but that’s not such a bad thing. Its shield-and-spear battles are visually coherent. Johnson, wielding a club, is given fight choreography that befits someone who’s supposed to be improbably strong, and it’s entertaining to watch him muscle his way across a battlefield.
Winner: Ratner (Hercules)
Gaia Weiss and Roxanne McKee vs. Ingrid Bolsø Berdal and Rebecca Ferguson
Hercules’ story may not be one that lends itself well to female characters of any substance, but Hercules manages to acquit itself better by including an ass-kicking Amazon (Berdal) on its protagonist’s team as well as giving its queen character Ergenia (Ferguson) a smidgen of nuance. Noticing Ergenia’s prettiness is the closest Johnson’s character gets to having a love interest — he’s still getting over some personal trauma. The Legend of Hercules, on the other hand, makes romance more of a priority, but princess Hebe (Weiss) is mostly an ornamental trophy for Hercules and his brother to squabble over.
Winner: Berdal and Ferguson (Hercules)
The Legend of Hercules vs. Hercules
Hercules famously killed the Nemean Lion, the Lernaean Hydra, and the Stymphalian Birds. He also famously cleaned the Augean stables, which were filled with immortal livestock and their immortal poop. Shockingly, neither The Legend of Hercules nor Hercules includes this riveting installment in their tales of adventure.
Winner: It’s a tie!
Despite being unceremoniously hidden from critics until the last minute, Hercules is a scruffily entertaining sword-and-sandles movie that people will eventually happily watch on basic cable while hungover some weekend a year or two from now. It’s also another reminder of Johnson’s reliable star wattage. He may not be playing a confirmed demi-god, but he’s consistently watchable in a way that sure looks like its own divine talent.