I should say up front that 300 marked my jumping off point with Frank Miller. Reading Sin City was a balance between loving Miller’s draftsmanship and feeling a sort of moral sickness around the narrative. Miller’s noir was akin to Jim Thompson’s (and maybe Patricia Highsmith’s) in that it offered no relief, no redemption. It was a scorpion you carried across the river on your back, only to be stung yards from the salvation teased by the opposite bank. Sin City desperately needed Batman or Daredevil, more perhaps than New York or Detroit at their worst. Instead, it got Marv. It got John Hartigan and his uncomfortable, decidedly ignoble obsession with a young girl (“heroes” in Sin City were always chasing the ghosts of female innocence, which in retrospect was an obsession in Miller’s Daredevil as well).
300, from the one issue I read, offered more of the same, along with (for me) the first undeniable evidence of Miller’s racism, and a deepening of the misogyny that Sin City hit on so hard as to call attention to the fact it was there in the bulk of his previous work.
But, you know, cool, let’s see what Zack Snyder does with it.
A lot of my interest in 300 (and in rewatching Watchmen) stems from the fact that Snyder’s vision of Superman is inseparable from his love of Miller and Moore (and, I’d argue, his failure to understand the work of the latter). Snyder’s about ten years older than I am, and if, like me, he had a mostly “off again” phase with superhero comics in his twenties, he’d have missed out on the 90s grimdark comics that took the lesson of Miller and Moore to be “gritty realism equals good.” This mistake is a lesson the industry relearns on a regular cycle. When it forgets, we get…uh, late period Brian Azarello I guess?
All right, let’s dive in to the film.
This is what we could call high style Zack Snyder, right out of the gates. From slow motion shots to a faux-sepia color palette to a poor man’s Terrence Malick infatuation with shots of wind blowing through things, a lot of Snyder’s tics are on display within the film’s first ten minutes. Some of these clearly come out of his time as a music video director, but I wonder if certain others are things he learns to do in service of this particular film and then never drops. 300 came out the year after Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Sin City, a highly stylized film that used a “digital backlot” and unique color process to replicate Miller’s high-contrast imagery. Miller himself got a co-directing credit, and the screenwriting credit for the film was simply “Based on the graphic novels of Frank Miller.”
Snyder doesn’t replicate Sin City’s style, per se, but 300 has that same shot-for-shot feeling. It’s a natural impulse; Miller’s panels are engagingly cinematic. But if Sin City gives the audience the feeling of being inside a Frank Miller comic book, 300 seems to be doing something slightly different with its visual style. Combined with the voiceover by Dilios, it pushes the film out of the real into a kind of mythic space. To Snyder’s credit, this helps differentiate it from a slew of other Greek epics dropping around the same time (including Troy and Alexander, productions from which 300 got a lot of its props), and allows the incorporation of some more fantastic elements. This type of hyper-real visual (with notedly drab palette) is the same technique Snyder will employ in his DC work, with the same desired effect. But let’s put a pin in that until we get to Batman vs. Superman, which may be 300’s closest cousin within Snyder’s body of work.
Now that we’ve talked about style, let’s move on to something else. This is a vile fucking movie. Undeniably some of the Islamaphobia AND racism AND misogyny AND homophobia AND ablism AND raging hard-on for militarism are baked into the source material. But there is, it seems, a world of difference between telling this story in 1998 and choosing to re-tell it in 2006.
Let’s run ’em down one by one. The Islamaphobia basically is the story. This is the “noble” Spartans defending all of Greece from the “savage” Persians. Perhaps Miller was simply ahead of the curve when it came to the American vogue for Islamophobia. Certainly he took it farther than most. Around the same time as 300’s release, Miller announced he was working on a book called Batman: Holy Terror (later, briefly, Holy War, Batman! That is, I’m sorry to say, not a joke), a Batman vs. Al Quaeda comic which he described as openly anti-Muslim propaganda. “Superman punched out Hitler. So did Captain America. That’s one of the things they’re there for.” Miller would later file the ears off it and release it as a Batman-less book, and has more recently disavowed the work.
But Snyder is making this movie years into the “war on terror”, and if Miller could try to pass 300 off as a fascination with the nobility and strength of a small band of Spartans who “saved civilization” in 1998, Snyder had no such shield to hide behind in 2006. Nor does he seem to want one. I’m jumping ahead to militarism here, but Snyder has a total war-boner. He subjected the actors in the film to military training and joined in just for kicks. He makes a couple on-screen cameos in his films, always uncredited, always as a soldier. He works the line “Freedom isn’t free” into one of Lena Hedley’s speeches for god’s sake. So either Snyder is a seriously committed hawk in full support of the “war on terror”, or he’s making a cynical cash-grab to fleece those who are. Which worked, by the way. 300 was cheap to shoot at around $60m, and grossed $450m worldwide.
What’s next? Oh yeah, racism. Again, this is right there in the Miller stuff. Miller has always drawn black characters as exaggerated caricatures, complete with traditionally racist traits. He’s fairly unrepentant about it, as he seems to believe it’s part of the tradition of illustration, pointing to Will Eisner’s Ebony White as an example. Snyder uses color adjustment to make his black actors practically midnight blue, their eyes and teeth glowing eerily from the darkness of their faces.
Moreover, Snyder’s Persians are superhuman monsters in a way we’re all too used to seeing blacks portrayed. These are black men as described by police who had no choice but to shoot them. He was coming at me like some kind of bull. He was so strong he ripped the gun from me. He had to be seven feet tall.
The misogyny is so bog-standard it feels barely worth discussing. Women are largely excluded from the narrative, except for the oracle Pythia, who writhes her way out of her toga for a few minutes, gets licked by a leprous old man who, we’re told, is societally enabled to rape her and girls like her, and then whispers a warning that needs to be interpreted by a man, and the Queen, who proclaims that she has the right to speak to a Persian emissary because “only Spartan women can give birth to real men.” Also she has a sex scene with Leonidas that looks as if someone took a 90s CK ad, threw in some actual nudity and scored it with “Dies Irae.”
The homophobia is…interesting, I guess? Largely because it’s embedded in such a homosocial narrative. At its heart, this is a movie about bros going for a hike in Speedos. But it doesn’t miss the chance to take a swipe at those Athenian “boy-lovers” to get a chuckle from its bad-ass bro squad and its target audience, who are sure to get the message that real men are necessary to defend effete elites. Let me take this opportunity to once again remind you that Zack Snyder is a boarding school brat from New England.
Ableism runs throughout the film, from the opening sequence in which we learn that “unworthy” Spartan sons are left to die. There’s a curious dissonance between the hill of children’s skulls in this sequence and the kings’ skulls brandished by the Persian emissary, wherein the former is necessary sacrifice and the latter is barbarism. But the worst incidence of ableism centers around Ephialtes, a Spartan outcast who tries to enlist in Leonidas’s battle against the Persians. Ephialtes is “deformed”, his back hunched and his face like a more severe version of Sloth from Goonies. Leonidas listens to his plea, then asks Ephialtes to lift his shield. When Ephialtes can’t lift it high enough, Leonidas calmly explains that Spartans fight in a phalanx, and that a man who can’t raise his shield to the proper height to protect the man next to him is useless in battle. It’s standard exclusion through non-accommodation language, and it’d be bad enough on its own, but of course we also get to watch Ephialtes betray the Spartans to the Persians, proving Leonidas was totally right not to trust him because anyone who isn’t able-bodies must also be in some way evil.
So what are we left with? It’s a movie whose politics are god-awful, but that inarguably has a distinct visual style. Whether you like what he’s doing or not, Snyder is actually doing something visually, which is more than you can say for a lot of superhero movies. It operates in a mythic register that’s interesting, if very likely missed or misinterpreted by a lot of its audience. It never claims to be depicting history, in a way Troy or Alexander might have.
I suspect when I get to the end of this trek, 300 will prove to be the most pure form of Snyder’s vision (I haven’t seen Sucker Punch, but it’s the other candidate for this title at the moment). His visual style is given free reign, his flair for mytho-epic scope has room to sprawl out (300 clocks in at a tick over two hours, but there is very little story packed in here). And there’s no feeling that Snyder is actively working against his material, that the source is trying, if failing, to scurry its way out from under Snyder’s ponderous weight.