What City-State Was This Again?


I give Zack Snyder a lot of shit on this site. He has, over the years, directed some real turd-burger films (and that's being kind). Dawn of the Dead '04 misses the entire allegory of the original film, and fails to understand what makes zombies scary. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice turns both BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. and SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. into neo-fascists, while also being a boring as shit movie, and Army of the Dead is just spectacularly boring. The man, in short, makes bad films... generally.

Everyone once in a great while, though, Snyder finds a way to redeem himself. While the story of 300 is exactly the kind of tale you'd expect Snyder to adapt -- big men seemingly fighting for honor and justice but also somehow upholding their own ethical egoism and libertarian ideals, all while dipping into some overt xenophobia -- but damn if he didn't direct it well. It's a very stylish, at time over-the-top and silly film that takes itself dead seriously. Somehow, in the case of 300, all the things that normally work against Zack Snyder and his films actually come together in a pretty damn watchable whole. Lightning struck, just right, and then Warner Bros. went crazy and thought, "this is the guy that should make all our superhero films." That didn't work out so well.

The movie is focused entirely on Leonidas (played as an adult by Gerard Butler, as a child by Eli Snyder, and as a teen by Tyler Neitzel), the King of Sparta. We learn all about him, from his time as a babe to growing up in the strict (and relentless) training as a Spartan soldier. We grows up, indoctrinated in the ways of Sparta, learning to fend for himself, to kill, to be the best warrior the city-state had ever seen. That's why he becomes King, because he was the best, the only choice for that role. He was like a warrior god and none could stand in his way.

When a messenger from the Persian King Xerxes comes to Sparta to demand their fealty, Leonidas reacts... well, in a manner than might be seen as a ad aggressive. He kicks the messenger, and his retinue, into a deep (seemingly bottomless) pit and declares war against Persia. Although he can't get the old "wise men" on board with going to war (a necessary step to make a war "legal" in Sparta), he does take 300 of his best and most capable men with him on a journey north. There they would guard the pass leading into Greece, defending that narrow passage against the hordes of the Persian army, protecting Greece with their lives. 300 men against the whole of the Persian army, but you know, in the end, who will be the true winners.

Anyone that has heard the story of Battle of Thermopylae (or seen The 300 Spartans) will know the basics of this story. 300 is based on the Frank Miller comic of the same name, and it pretty strongly follows the basics of The 300 Spartans as far as its story goes. The key difference is that instead of putting much focus on King Xerxes and the Persians, the entire center of this film is Leonidas and his men. That helps to make sure you know who the "heroes" and "villains" are, much more than in the 1962 adaptation of this story.

As far as developing a cohesive story, this is a change I can get behind. A big issue with The 300 Spartans is that the motivations for the characters, on both sides of the story, were left muddled and vague. Were the Spartans good people? Were the Persians bad just because they were invading? The film never really said, instead just assuming we'd side with the Greeks because they were Greek. 300, though, does a lot of mythologizing, focusing in like a laser on Leonidas so we accept him as our hero. We know, from his own words and actions, that he's thinking of his people, protecting them from slavery. His goal is the saving of Sparta, at all costs. That's a heroic motivation we can get behind, and it makes us instantly care about the Spartans at a gut level.

With that said, the film gets rather bogged down in its own politics, which you notice on repeat viewings. For starters, we are meant to accept Spartans as our heroes because they're the big damn guys stepping up to the plate. And yet, what we see of their society is pretty horrifying and fascistic. Boys are taken from their families and enlisted into the Spartan army, trained, beaten, and tortured until they become "real men". Then they're sent out into the wilderness to fend for themselves, and only the survivors are accepted back into society. This is the culture we're supposed to be protecting, one that prizes violence and militaristic thinking above all else.

Not that the Persians are depicted well in this film. They're all egotistical assholes, completely assured that their way is the right way, despite wanting to enslave the rest of the world. Those Persians that aren't overt jerks are literal monsters, with weapons grafted onto their bodies. Oh, and all the Greeks are white while all the Persians are people of color. The Xenophobia runs hot in this film, and while some of that (okay, a lot of it) did come from the comics, Snyder did nothing to temper, to try to maybe make one person of color that was a hero, to show maybe even an iota of thought beyond, "libertarian white guys are the heroes! Sparta, fuck yeah!"

These are considerations you have to think about once you come to the movie a second or third time. That first time, though, it is easy to get caught up in the style of the film. This film is all style, all the time, with just about every scene containing some kind of slow-mo shot. Leonidas kicks the messenger into the pit, and it goes slow-mo. Leonidas gets a messages from an oracle dressed in gauzy robes, who does a weird dance, and it goes slow-mo. Leonidas makes love to his wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), and it goes slow-mo. Every scene, every action shot, every time the film can insert slow-mo it will. But when you couple it with the canted angles, the hyper-lit, starkly colored scenes, and unreal set design, it all blends together into a fantastic fable. It just works.

Also working in the acting in this film. Everyone on set, from Butler and Headey to Dominic West as the traitorous Theron, David Wenham as our narrator Dilios, Michael Fassbender as the young and brash Stelios, and more, act their hearts out in this film. They had to know this was a deeply strange film they were making, one that was more style than substance, but they gave it their all. Snyder got a murderer's row of up-and-coming actors, and he made it work. It's impressive, really.

It's hard to agree with the politics on offer in this film, and it really is easy to get horrified at all weird twists this film makes to the actual history. The Persians weren't literal African monsters, and the Greeks weren't just well-oiled, muscled heroes. This film has an agenda, one it gets liberally from the comic of the same name, and your brain will, at some point, go, "hey, that's not right..." But then then slow-mo kicks in, Fassbender flies at an enemy with his sword in hand, and you get caught up in the moment. It's troubling, but silly, and for a while the stylistic silliness is enough.