It has not been a good year for old-style heroes. Hector (Eric Bana), Achilles (Brad Pitt) and Paris (Orlando Bloom) all died an early death at the box office courtesy of Troy. Ridley Scott's crusader epic, Kingdom of Heaven, with a budget of $US130 million ($171 million), and Orlando Bloom and Liam Neeson leading the charge, has made only $US41 million after three weeks and is fading fast.
Oliver Stone's Alexander, with an estimated budget of $US150 million and a raft of high-profile actors - including Anthony Hopkins, Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie - faltered at the US box office after earning a paltry $US34.3 million, even though it opened on 2445 screens.
Still, Hollywood persists. The people who control the comic and pulp fiction superhero franchises, which have served the American movie machine so well in the past, still believe they have a lucrative and responsive market. Will they succeed? By this time next year we will know for sure.
So what has gone wrong? What happened to the old-style celluloid epic hero? Is it true that in a digital age audiences are more excited by 20,000 digitally created warriors than a screen heart-throb standing tall and behaving honourably? Or have we simply become sick of Hollywood foisting upon us muscled men in short skirts uttering monosyllabic banalities?
These questions swirl around the recent epic film failures - especially Troy. If any film of this genre was going to succeed, surely this was the one that had "gold-plated" written over every spear, arrow and the naked bottoms of Brad Pitt and Diane Kruger. However, it couldn't retrieve its $US185 million budget; it collapsed at the US box office with returns of about $133 million.
The story of Troy, based on Homer's Iliad, was the archetype for nearly all western epics and the near-invincible and god-like Achilles was the quintessential hero. But Hollywood miscast Brad Pitt. "Oh dear!" audiences around the world thought, "If heroes have come to this, then maybe we're better off with boneheaded, pratfalling heroes such as Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) and Longfellow Deeds (Adam Sandler). Maybe we should be grateful that at least we have the spectacle of tens of thousands of spear-waving pixillated ciphers when we waste our time going to a bad costume epic."
That's the issue. Have we reached a point where the bumbling, fumbling incompetent (think of the irritating Mr Incredible in The Incredibles, which earned more than its $US92 million budget within a week of release in the US) is more attractive than the man of action? Have we, against all the persuasive marketing power of Hollywood, turned our backs on the classic heroes?
Troy and Achilles (and Brad Pitt) lie at the heart of any discussion about heroes because, as the Oxford Dictionary points out, when the word "hero" entered the English language in the 14th century it meant: "A name given (as in Homer) to men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods ... regarded as intermediate between gods and men, and immortal." A definition, interestingly, that would comfortably apply to Superman, Spiderman, Batman, the Phantom et al.
Over the next three centuries, the term broadened to include any "man who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul, in any course of action, a man admired and venerated for his achievements and noble qualities". This definition pretty much includes all those monosyllabic western heroes depicted by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and Audie Murphy, as well as characters of great moral courage such as John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) in The Crucible and Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda) in 12 Angry Men.
The most widely accepted is the hero as a man of action. This is the cliched vision of the Hollywood hero. This includes Mad Max, John J. Rambo (in the later movies), Rocky Balboa, the Terminator and any Stan Lee comic hero lucky enough to make the big screen. These heroes are invariably played by good-looking actors - although how vertically challenged people such as Alan Ladd (who, according to legend, had to stand on a box to kiss his leading lady and almost needed a ladder to get on his horse) and Tom Cruise fit the definition is a mystery. Equally vexing is the presence of Arnie Schwarzenegger, Vin Diesel, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme. Bernstein explains this love of gleaming muscles, however, when he observes, "The hero is valorous because he stands up to every threat directed against his values." The values espoused by Rocky, Rambo and their pals are nothing more than good versus evil, which, in Hollywood terms, means anyone (communists, terrorists, international criminals, psychopaths) who dares to challenge the American way.
The modern hero is courageous and moral rather than musclebound and overactive. This is probably the culmination of a process that started in the '50s with antiheroes such as Willy Loman (in Death of a Salesman), Cal Trask (James Dean) in East of Eden and Jim Stark (Dean again) in Rebel Without a Cause.
Even at the height of Hollywood's "musclebound hero" phase, Sylvester Stallone was capable of playing that great Vietnam vet antihero John Rambo in the Rambo movies. He fought against a society that he believed had betrayed him.
So, what about the new Batman, new Superman and a new James Bond? The orthodoxy suggests that they will be little different than their old models. They will deal with contemporary baddies (no prizes for guessing that Islamic terrorists will be high on the list) and their basic modi operandi will be the same. But now they will have all those fancy digital enhancements to ensure the explosions are bigger and the enemy is capable of mustering an army of tens of thousands.
The hero has been around since Homer's time and we really don't want to tamper with him/her too much. Heroes fulfil our fantasies and ease our fears. And that always ensures that cinemas are full.