Why Do So Many Mythology-Based Movies Suck?

For generations, the myths and legends of the Greek pantheon have been studied and revered by many-even those who don’t worship those gods. Norse and Egyptian mythology are also quite well-known, too. Since these mythos are so widely known and studied, it’s no wonder people have wanted to make movies based off of them.

Only…it seems like a lot of them turn out bad.

Okay, admittedly, I’m mostly referring to the newer cinematic adaptations of Greek mythology. Plenty of people seem to like the 1963 Jason And The Argonauts movie, the 1981 Clash Of The Titans, and the Disney animated Hercules. But nowadays, it seems like every movie based on or inspired by ancient mythology turns out to be a dud. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, we’ve got:

Immortals
Beowulf
Catwoman
The 2014 Hercules movie with Dwayne Johnson
The Clash Of The Titans remake
Its sequel Wrath Of The Titans
Gods Of Egypt
300: Rise Of An Empire
The Percy Jackson movies

There’s also the Thor movies, which…are really more based on the Marvel comics, but then again those were in turn based on Norse mythology. And two out of the four Thor movies (Dark World and Love And Thunder) are pretty big punching bags for MCU detractors.

To be fair, not all of these movies are necessarily awful. But the pattern I’ve seen is that all these movies got ripped apart by critics and didn’t even do that well at the box office. It’s like basing your movie on ancient mythology dooms it to turn out bad. So what’s the problem? Do ancient myths just not translate well to film? Are modern-day filmmakers just too obsessed with impressive visual effects as opposed to a good story?

Does anyone have any thoughts? Because I’m literally at a loss.

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I’ll admit that I haven’t watched any of the movies you’ve listed here except Gods of Egypt, which I thought was sub-par at best, but I do have some thoughts on this.

Mythology is a bit of a tricky subject - the original material is shaped by individual cultures and thus some things can be strange or foreign to some audiences. Take, for example, original Norse mythology. All the gods of the Aesir (or most of them, at least) struggle against the inevitable Ragnarök. This fight is tied to a key Norse “virtue” (for lack of better term): bravery and resilience in the face of impossible odds. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why Odin is trying to prevent Ragnarök despite knowing it’s inevitable, but without this key tidbit, it would seem that Odin is crazy.

It’s very easy to understand and even adapt Norse mythology if you keep that in mind. Films could be made in which that special virtue is made out to be some sort of desirable goal. However, audiences may not be well-educated on Norse mythology (the only reason I know this is because I’m taking a theology class!) and thus would view Odin as unrelatable and artificial. He would have to be insane or poorly-written - why else would he be doing these absurd actions?

I think similar things apply to just about every other mythology out there that was “thrown out” (in other words, mythology human civilization did not integrate into the bigger picture). The concepts are too foreign for us, especially in mythology with values contradictory to Christian doctrine.

I know Christianity isn’t exactly popular at this point, but it is impossible to say that culture as we know it was not formed by Christianity. So, Christian values are more or less at the heart of everyone’s worldview and thus we have certain vague notions of what virtue is, or what evil is, or what is brave versus suicidal. This makes certain mythology incompatible with modern audiences. Sure, a producer/writer could try to overcome this by rewriting the mythology, as seen in Gods of Egypt and presumably the Thor movies, but now you’re dealing with Christian or semi-Christian values in a pagan setting, where it doesn’t fit. Not to mention the new fusion would be highly inaccurate to the mythology.

As an extreme example, that, as far as I’m aware doesn’t exist, it would be like turning gladiatorial combat into a Sunday football game - and then having the movie portray this in a positive, normal way. Romans certainly enjoyed the barbaric games, but to our Christian-influenced eyes the practice is grotesque and cruel.

Long story short, I think the reason so many of these mythology-inspired movies fail is because they are trying to make these stories palatable for modern audiences, but the stories they adapt already tell a message that can’t be changed. Then again, I might be crazy, I’m still interested what everyone else’s ideas are.

[EDIT 12/27/2023: I just watched 300: Rise of an Empire and have some follow-up thoughts.]

300: Rise of an Empire (hereon “RoaE”) was a poor adaptation of the history of the Greco-Persian War. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an expert in this area of history, but they took severe liberties that made the entire thing more of a fanfiction than an actual movie about heroes of the past. Granted, they were not trying to make an accurate movie, but it seemed while watching it they were conflicted between a historical sci-fi movie and a normal historical fiction movie.

The entire thing seemed to hinge on the recognition of the original movie, 300, as well. 300 was a decent movie with some good memes and an actually acceptable story. Sure, as a history nerd, I did not appreciate them making Xerxes some sort of freak and adding in all kinds of grotesque images to make Xerxes even more of an antagonist, but I can recognize it was all done for a purpose - to make the Spartans look more “natural,” more “relatable.” Overall, the movie wasn’t my style, but it was acceptable I suppose. This does relate to my thoughts on RoaE, by the way.

RoaE was trying to make Themistocles into a sort of Athenian parallel to the Spartan Leonidas. Spoiler alert - it does not work. The reason 300 was good was because the value they were trying to convey is something we in the modern age can understand - die standing rather than live kneeling. Everyone knows the Spartans as well - they were the war-hungry and ridiculously good warriors. The Athenians, on the other hand, were the scholarly artsy types, and yet somehow, their character development is made to be the same as the Spartans. My genuine first reaction was “They made a knockoff of their own movie!”

I think this may be a problem with a lot of mythology adaptations: the formulas in said mythology are the basis of essentially every other story, making their plots predictable. When producers try to rewrite them, they all of a sudden have loose ends and miscellaneous characters, or have to add in historical inaccuracies to cover up their poor writing.

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I agree with Minethusela, and have a few other reasons why some of these movies failed. The Thor movies, in particular, suffered from the addition of humor for humor’s sake in at least one movie (Love and Thunder), which made that particular movie feel out of place in its tone. It didn’t match with the slightly darker movies made previously (and Ragnarok also suffered somewhat from this, as comedy and inevitable doom don’t quite go together in mythology).

On a different note, sometimes newer mythology-based movies fail due to modifying the inspiration: the Percy Jackson movies had that flaw, as their whole plot was revolving around the mythological events taking place in modern time, with the main character being a typical teenager (this plot seems to be a bit overused at this point in fiction).

I think, though, that most audiences now just don’t know enough about myths and legends to really grasp the point of movies based on these stories. With current trends, less emphasis is placed on understanding legends in context and much more is placed on admiring them as a literary work, or deconstructing them to show how they influenced later writings and cultural traditions. As such, people don’t read them for entertainment or because they see them as a vital thing to know about, but rather as “this is what people believed 1800 years ago. It’s no longer relevant to modern people.” At least, that’s the impression I got from a course I took last semester in college. Even the History professor didn’t really care about the myths he was teaching for their own sake, they were more of an attribute tag for the cultures we studied (ie. Ancient Greece and Rome had these beliefs, Judaism had its own, etc.).

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I think there’s a few exceptions to the criteria of a mythlogy movie just in the examples you’ve cited.

The only Catwoman film I can find anywhere is this awful one from 2004, which after looking at the wikipedia description is actually somehow related to mythology instead of the actual thing it’s based on. In the case of Catwoman, there’s a lot that went wrong, but a big part of it was having absolutely nothing to do with Catwoman.

Likewise, Thor from Marvel is about as related to Thor from mythology as Batman is to actual bats - nothing more than a costume and name with a smattering of vaguely related elements. Thor being a mythological figure has basically no impact on MCU Thor, who only stays ties to Norse mythology if it serves the plot or if the writers can’t come up with anything else on their own.

Anyway, I had seen this post before I went to sleep and figured I would reply tomorrow, but then Minethuselah went and said everything I was going to say :dizzy_face: so I’ll add this instead.

Remember the era most people refer to as Classic Disney? This seeps into the renaissance a bit, and the timeline for what is and isn’t Classic Disney differs depending on who you ask. But you know which one I’m talking about; Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, Lady and the Tramp, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the list goes on and on.

One thing remains true about all those beloved classics, something undeniable and irrefutable: Disney didn’t come up with any of them. They’re all royalty-free stories already familiar to the general public in America, and were at the time of release, but unlike most companies Disney didn’t just lazily grab the ball and run; they put actual time and effort into producing high-quality (and costly!!) animation, propelling their versions of these stories so far into the zeitgeist of the modern era that other versions of these stories, and sometimes even the originals themselves, are swallowed up by this cultural behemoth.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. While Minethuselah is correct, assuming briefly that the appeal and integration factor simply doesn’t exist for a moment, you still have the issue of creatives deciding that it’s okay to put forth the minimal effort and produce a slipshod product if you use the training wheels of well-known mythology. Good writing and film making are simply ignored or skimmed over because you have the story there, already existing; why put any extra effort in to make a cohesive piece of cinema?

Disney is still doing exactly this, except now instead of writing over existing mythology and banking on cultural perception being broad enough that it’ll sell, they are now writing over themselves. But that’s a topic for another time, I suppose.

One other thing I will add, although this affects film as a whole rather than just the mythological ones, is when directors and producers refuse to argue. You need a debate of concepts between the eggheads that come up with them and the little people that have to carry them out, otherwise the end result will be contrived and obnoxious to sit through, like Catwoman is, because someone in the chain of command said “What if we made it about mythology?”

You’re on the TTV Message Boards of course you’re crazy :goo:

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Now that I think about it, that’s basically all of the Thor movies in the MCU.

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OK but Stargate and it’s spin-off SG-1 are good. :stuck_out_tongue:

I would make an argument that the latter two Pirates of the Caribbean films in the trilogy are mythology films. (What do you mean there was a 4th and 5th one? Those are fake.) Particularly with their use of the Kraken and the use of folklore like Davy Jones’ Locker.

One might argue Biblical epics are mythology in the category too, and if that is the case, the argument sort of falls apart because there have been TONS of good films based off of the Bible. (The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur are films I particularly list as my favorites of all time.)

There seems to be a plague in Hollywood right now where they are afraid to portray classical ideas of heroism because they don’t mesh well with what they call “modern sensibilities” (which is an argument for another day, but I personally call bull).

The heroes you listed, such Beowulf, Hercules, and the heroes of the Iliad have an sense of masculinity and courage. Strong, quick witted, charismatic, and bold. However, these things are seen as archaic to film makers for some reason, despite how these personality traits guide so much of mythology. Something the 90s Disney Hercules portrayed well, but others continue to miss the mark on.

Hence why I liked The Northman so much. Though a work of historic fiction, the film explores Nordic Asatru spiritual themes that align with their mythology. The film’s main character is Amleth, who would later be portrayed by Shakespeare as the titular character Hamlet. The film is set in a period of mythical Scandinavia and the North Sea. It’s a pretty impressive and violent epic.

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It’s not as complex as it may seem. Many of those movies use Mythology as a way to cheap out on the world building. Throw in a couple already known myths and names, that makes it easier to gain an audience.

The writers commonly ignore the important parts of myths, the structure. To create a good mythology-based movie you need to understand the way the corresponding myths are structured. The adaption should at least try to stay close to the myth it is inspired by, mythology shouldn’t be a way to cheap out on world building.
The reception will be better when it is closer to what it is inspired by, be it by the story, structure or at least just the general vibes.
But another option is the other extreme, take it and make it something new, subvert expectations, while also honouring what you based it on.

These kinda fall out of the line as their bad reception was mostly by fans of the books. They are a not particularly good adaption of the PJ book series, which themselves were pretty good mythology adaptions.

They can. The creators should just be interested in adapting what they adapt. They should just try.

Partially. Many of them are obsessed with maximising the monetary gain.
With a setting that is already widely known you can save some money for the writing and are guaranteed to gain an audience. It is an easy way to make money.

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Again, that seems just about as related as Thor is to Thor.

(you get what I mean)

Asgard is the land of the gods, but the gods are all just normal people who are somewhat superhuman and the land is a big flat earth in the middle of space and Loki never got pregnant.

(Disney if you’re reading this why are you reading this)

I will also add that mythology films have been wildly successful outside of America, even if most of them boil down to CGi camp and some uniquely interpreted action sequences. Most of the ones I’ve seen are related to the Monkey King, where there’s enough grey area in the stories that people basically do whatever they want with the character and lore and it ends up being a little mind-numbing but overall not Love and Thunder so we good.

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I’ll admit, I’m not too well-versed on Norse mythology, either. Yeah, I’ve read Rick Riordan’s series that adapts Norse mythology, but I didn’t find myself getting “into” it as much as with Greek and Egyptian mythology.

Actually, I don’t think it would be that hard to make Odin’s character work in that sort of context. If you show that he has something to fight for and preserve-such as a family that he loves-then that might give his motivations more credibility. That, coupled with the honor of virtue that you mentioned, would help make Odin an admirable character unless it’s the Odin from the God Of War games

Even though it’s the most common religion

I’m not so sure about that. While it’s true that too many yes-men can be detrimental, studio executives and filmmakers should at least be able to come to some sort of agreement. Because if the director and executives have conflicting visions over what their movie should be, it often results in a hodgepodge of a finished product.

Case in point: the Star Wars sequels. J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson certainly had their own distinct visions, but those visions didn’t necessarily jive with one another-not to mention the executive meddling from Kathleen Kennedy and company. The end result was a trilogy of movies that got backlash for not feeling very cohesive with itself.

The fifth one did make use of the Trident Of Poseidon, though.

Yeah, because everyone in Hollywood these days wants to push a feminist message. :roll_eyes:

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I am.

TTV Boards member @Samtastictogo started a project to animate the entirety of Bionicle’s storyline - a very lofty and unrealistic goal which is impossible both on and off paper - and I volunteered not only to assist with the project, but to be one of the people in charge (because that was one of the options available). I am now the man running the entire project.

There are ideas brought up constantly by the Scripting department, the Concept Artists, the Storyboard team, that need to be weighed and have alternatives than can be weighed against them. And if I’m not there to ensure only the best ones get through - ones that line up the most with the consistent vision for the project - the cooks in the kitchen will go from a handful of Directors of various areas of the project and the two Executive Producers (of which I am one as well as project head overall) to waaay too many.

There exists a need for a balance - a way for people to object to awful ideas I might produce while still understanding I’m the one ultimately in charge and I do have the right to put my foot down about a given issue. And you would not believe how successful that system has been, as it’s allowed the Editors and Voice Actors as well as the Story team to weigh in on concepts if they have an off-the-wall idea which they think would fit.

Now granted, most creative projects and studios in Hollywood and beyond don’t have that kind of absurd luxury, and having too much debate leads to a Super Mario Bros. situation, where the directorial team had to get locked out of the editing room and would have actual fights frequently. That’s the recipe for a disaster and nobody wants that. But this kind of process saved the original three Star Wars films from its creator, and the lack of said process is what destroyed - to George Lucas’ immense regret - the prequels.

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Well that’s part of it, but the main thing is that there are a lot of hacks that run hollywood. They cannot write to save their life.

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Good point… I guess I should clarify - atheism or other non-Christian worldviews are more popular or less hated-on than Christianity. It was just some poor wording on my part I guess :/

I’d agree with this. Problem is, he knows he cannot save the Aesir so either the prophecies would have to be removed or in some other way he shouldn’t know that the Aesir has to die.

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That’s what i thought you meant, so thanks for the clarification!

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