March of 2007 was a different time for comic book movies. Iron Man and The Dark Knight were over a year away from launching the genre into the stratosphere. The Spider-Man trilogy wasn’t over yet, although the original X-Men trilogy had already run the gamut of revitalizing interest in comic book movies to then cratering into the flaming wreck that is Last Stand. It was a time when franchises and movies weren’t connected and going to a movie based on a comic book was a total crapshoot when it came to quality. And on March 9 of that year, Zack Snyder stepped into this world.
Snyder had only directed one movie before then, the 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead. His second film was 300, which was based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller that was in turned based on the real life Spartan King Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas led 300 Spartan soldiers (plus several thousand other Greek troops, but whatever) against the might of the Persian army led by Xerxes and held them off for many days before perishing. This is good subject matter for a movie! And it paid dividends for Snyder. The film grossed $456 million worldwide and gave Snyder leeway to then move to the “unfilmable” Watchmen and eventually to DC placing their cinematic universe into his hands with Man Of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and Justice League all under his directorial control. That might have been a mistake. Going back to 300, I’m not sure what we saw in Snyder’s work that resulted in us giving this man so much control over major franchises. While it might not be his worst movie, make no mistake: 300 is not good.
There are genuinely talented people in this movie. Gerard Butler and David Wenham have been great in other projects, and Lena Headey and Michael Fassbender are bonafide stars now. That leads me to believe that perhaps Snyder’s fault that the acting in this movie is atrocious. It’s even more egregious given how thin the plot is and how little each actor theoretically has to do. Get the Spartans to Thermopylae and have them fight; easy as that. Yet it’s wearisome that each and every character only has two styles of line delivery for the most part: angry, intense whispering and angry, intense yelling. The “What is your profession?” and “Tonight, we dine in Hell” lines stand out the most because they’re some of the few with real substance, despite the cheesy macho nature of them both. The decision to have Wenham narrate also quickly becomes grating. I understand that there’s not much room for long bits of dialogue during battle, but the narration now feels like a lazy way to tell instead of show in a genre theoretically built to do the exact opposite. The plot back home with Headey as Queen Gorgo is filled with enough holes to be almost nonsensical (how the hell did the Persians bribe the Ephors and Council despite opportunely having never set foot in Sparta?), and Dominic West is so cartoonishly evil as Theron that he lacks any menace or weight whatsoever. About the only person to enjoy in this movie is Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes, who at the very least is hammy in a good way and visually interesting as a character.
This brings me to what may be sacrilege amongst Snyder fans: visually, this movie does not hold up stylistically. One of the major complaints about Batman v Superman was that it felt washed out and devoid of color, and 300 might be on the same level in that offense. Everything is tinted brown in the daylight or grey at night, with the red spray of blood often providing the only bits of vibrancy. I understand and respect the choice Snyder made, but after years of shows and movies that have had bright, varied art design, it’s tough to watch something so monochromatic now. And while I’m certainly not the first person to bring this up, it has to be said: the overuse of slow-motion is exhausting. Personally, I think seeing these warriors do all of the crazy stunts and action sequences would be much more impressive in real time. There are still individual moments and scenes that hold up (the haunting tree of the dead and anything involving mass amounts of arrows in flight), but those moments are few and far between.
When 300 closes on the sequel hook that took seven years to go anywhere, it came as a relief to me. Like all of Snyder’s work, 300 feels much longer than its two-hour runtime. While there’s nothing wrong with a movie to turn your brain off to and enjoy some shallow plot, bad acting, and crazy action, you could find much better looking and better overall fare than 300. While some of our retrospectives encourage you to watch the film again, 300 might be better off exactly where we left it.
And Zack? Please don’t mess up Justice League.