Putting The Glad In Gladiator: Hercules' Muses Are Awesome

Disney’s Hercules is…. interesting, to say the least. Not only is it trying to render a single coherent tale of a character who appears in so many disparate myths that the task is practically impossible, it also has to condense a sprawling, bizarre, and frankly rather adult myth system in to something that kids can not only digest easily in less than two hours, but that wont offend the parents taking them to see the film would feel comfortable exposing their children to. There are some incredible things to love about this movie - chiefly the way it treated Megara and the singularly unforgettable James Woods performance as Hades - along with a few that feel like misfires - the tone changes from moment to moment are enough to give one whiplash, and it could stand to focus on a single story and just tell it. However, this week I want to talk about something that, while it could be cited as a plot hole for the film, is most certainly not, and indeed is representative of one of the film’s most powerful successes.

There’s one moment in this sprawling romp of a film in particular that is sometimes cited as a plot hole, or evidence that there’s less to enjoy in the film than people suspect. In the film’s most famous (and arguably catchiest) song, “Zero To Hero,” the muses at one point utter the line “who puts the glad in gladiator? Hercules!” The problem, of course is that when Hercules existed (if he ever did exist), not only is he ever referenced as a gladiator, both the term and the profession had yet to be invented by the Roman empire, still many hundreds of years away. And I have to admit, when I heard this line for the first time in a while, my immediate response was something along the lines of “come on, really?” For a moment, I was convinced that this was indeed a plot hole, something that both broke the established rules of the story and “ruined” the song it appeared in.

Because, you see, this criticism does actually reveal something true about the movie; namely, that it isn’t in the least concerned with historical accuracy or faithfully rendering the myth. The film is awash with enough contrivances and deviations from the story the Ancient Greeks would have known to make a classical historian cry. To take just a smattering: The Greek hero who tamed Perseus was Bellerephon, not Hercules, the actual Olympian that Hercules had enmity with was Hera, not Hades, and Hercules in no way figured in the battles between Olympians and Titans. When you get right down to it, practically everything about the central premise, from idea that Hercules was a loser as a child to the story of him becoming a celebrity by performing his labors in an arena, is downright fabrication. A younger and less mature version of me, one that cared more about appreciating the work on its own terms, would probably have written a blog post detailing all of these departures from the myth and taking the film to task for them.

However, citing this as a “plot hole” that in some way damages the story would completely miss the entire point of the movie. Disney didn’t set out to faithfully render the Hercules myth, because doing so would result in a movie that’s definitively neither kid-friendly nor particularly fun to watch. After all, this is a character whose most well-known feats, the twelve labors, were performed as a penance for having been overcome by a bout of madness and murdering his family. Disney’s movie was meant to be a romp, a fun and joyous journey through the life of a larger-than-life figure. In this is actually approaches its subject in the same way that the incredibly successful original Superman movie did: instead of trying to translate any single story or collection of stories from the character’s mythos, simply make something akin to a greatest hits album, and let viewers just have fun on this wile ride. When we approach the film from this angle, it becomes clear why this can’t be a plot hole: at the end of the day, making a historically accurate comment about sport-fighting is far less important that having this line of the song be a hilarious play on words that’s just as fun as it is clever, and the same logic holds true for practically every other deviation from the myth, from Pegasus to Hades. This is a kid’s sing-a-long movie, not a thesis on Greek mythology. That is chooses to prioritize a catchy line (and let’s not beat around the bush about it, that one is an absolute gem) rather than historical accuracy is not a plot hole or even a problem. It’s practically a thesis statement for what this movie is trying to do and, more importantly, what works well about it.

Second, and far more interestingly, choosing to gripe about any inaccuracy presented by the chorus of Hercules is misguided because the chorus is not only the film’s most downright fun and interesting element, it’s also the one that hews closest to an Ancient Greek understanding of its inspiration. After all, Ancient Greek plays were famous for the inclusion of a chorus, which was meant to both give audiences some background exposition, as well as comment on the action of the play, helping its viewers grasp what was being expressed in terms of emotion and theme. In Hercules, that’s exactly what the muses do, giving both exposition and imparting emotional resonance through osmosis. Note, also, that the kind of music the muses sing is gospel music, and that they’re depicted as resembling the traditional American conception of a gospel choir, right down to some of their interactions with each other (in “Zero To Hero” there’s a wonderful moment in which Clio, muse of history, corrects Thalia, muse of comedy, on the correct pronunciation of vase), and the story (Thalia constantly lusts after Hercules, and treats him in a way that I recognize from my Spanish aunt, who used to call Rafael Nadal “mi novio”). At first this might seem strange or even inappropriate, but in truth nothing could fit the story more perfectly. After all, Greek Mythology was religion for that people, the exact thing we would expect them to sing gospel about if that music had existed for them. In short, the muses are not only emblematic of not just the way the film makes the right choice about what to prioritize, they’re actually the film’s strongest case for being a clever and thoughtful representation of Greek mythology and art. That they choose, at one point in the narrative, to prioritize our enjoyment over literal historical accuracy, is not a problem but a blessing.

I hope you all have your walking shoes on though, because we’ve got a long way to travel by next Monday, from the temples of Ancient Greece to the frigid waters of the Atlantic, and one of the most famous “plot holes” of all time.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex