The Evolution of Hercules in Pop Culture

This weekend marks Hercules’ return to the big screen. A staple in the hero canon, the half man, and half god has slayed lions, bedded mortal women, and even hung out with the Three Stooges. Over the past seven decades, the hero has transformed from an Italian Stallion of the 1950s to the Blockbuster Beefcake we see today thanks to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kellan Lutz taking on the title role. With the former’s film (Hercules directed by Brett Ratner) opening this weekend, we thought it was a good time to look at the evolution of Hercules on the big screen.

'50s: The Italian Stallion

A star of the “sword and scandal” genre, Hercules became a regular fixture in Italian cinema during the 1950s. These historical epics were seen as the country’s answer to successful big-budget Hollywood films, such as Spartacus and The Ten Commandments.

Subsequently, the lion slayer became an epic hero personified by the classic muscle-bound, chiseled jawed leading men of the era. Playing Hercules on the big screen made stars out of Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott, Peter Lupus, and Mickey Hargitay (father to L&O:SVU’s Mariska; pictured).

'60s: The Sidekick

Once the era of historical epics cooled, Hercules took a backseat onscreen. Hollywood relegated the hero to sidekick status in films like The Three Stooges Meet Hercules and Jason and the Argonauts featuring Nigel Green (pictured) in his sandals.

'80s: The Bodybuilder

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Hercules became a star again. Keeping with the times (and look), the hero was personified by Arnold Schwarzenegger (Hercules in New York) and Lou Ferrigno (Hercules, The Adventures of Hercules). Both former bodybuilders, they gave Hercules more bulk but less class. Consider this era Hulk-cules.

'90s: The TV Hero

After the ‘80s cheese sucked the life out of Hercules, the hero found new life on TV. Kevin Sorbo became the embodiment of the character thanks to Hercules: The Legendary Journeys that ran for four seasons and spawned the successful spin-off, Xena: Warrior Princess. Also joining the canon was Ryan Gosling, who portrayed a young version in a short-lived Fox Kids series.

'97: The Animated Hero

In 1997, Disney turned its attention to the hero to bring his story to the big screen for the animated classic, Hercules. A lean, Johnny Do-Gooder, Disney sparked a new “pretty boy” version of the man that went from zero to hero. A massive hit at the box office, the animated version proved to be the most successful U.S. attempt to bring the character’s story to the big screen.

'00s: The Pretty Boy

Following Ryan Gosling and the voice of Tate Donovan, Hercules entered a new era of young, rugged and handsome. Most notably, Paul Telfer added brooding appeal to the character in the 2005 Hallmark mini-series. Later, the blonde and lean Steve Byers (pictured) stepped into his sandals alongside Henry Cavill in The Immortals.

'14: The Blockbuster Beefcake

This year alone, two studios have pushed out new Hercules films with the intention of being blockbuster epics. While Kellan Lutz’s version in The Legend of Hercules was a box office dud, he and Dwayne Johnson both represent a new era of the hero. Now he’s a beefcake hero with studio cash for muscles and pecs for days. It remains to be seen how successful the Rock’s portrayal will do but it’s clear that Hollywood's new era of Hercules is much grittier with a heaping dash of sex.

[Photo: Disney/Getty/MGM/Relativity Media/Paramount]