A lot of the movies I’ll be writing about in this series are widely revered specimens of the finest that cinema can offer: artistic statements that offer satisfaction on any number of levels, in any number of ways. Pieces that can provide new details to appreciate and ever more nuanced readings even after knowing them for many years.
300 is not one of those movies.
Don’t get me wrong, I dig 300 in a big way. As far as heavily stylized action movies go, this one hits the mark. It’s a retelling of the Battle of Thermoylpae, one of the most critical battles of antiquity, when a vastly outnnumbered Greek army, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, held off a vastly superior force of Persians under Xerxes I. Had they failed, ancient Greece, the birthplace of modern democracy, would have fallen. It’s the kind of story that is epic and heroic enough on its own, but 300 turns it up to 11 and provides one of the most testosterone-fueled, (and loosely interpreted) comic book versions of history you’re ever going to see. In the end, the valiant Leonidas and his the 300 Spartans all perish, but they buy enough time for the rest of Greece to rally. The tension here isn’t wondering who will survive a battle that has become synonymous with heroic annihilation. It will be wondering how glorious those deaths will be. And to be honest, they’re pretty damned glorious. This is one of those movies where even the lowliest of its heroes doesn’t check out until taking at least of a dozen of the enemy with him.
Having said that, as much as I enjoy this movie, I find it more difficult to watch over time. This was director Zack Snyder’s first movie after his surprisingly effective 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, and this movie’s many stylistic hallmarks—entirely CGI backgrounds, numerous slo-mo action scenes, washed-out colors, insanely chiseled physiques—work well here. However, those same things become Snyder’s standard operating procedure, even in movies where it isn’t needed (Watchmen), where it becomes too much of a good thing (Sucker Punch), or where it mangles the original tone of the original subject matter (Man of Steel; Batman Vs. Superman). When 300 came out, Snyder’s bold stylistic choices were a revelation. Now, when you realize that 300 is merely a blueprint for the Zack Snyder murderverse, it loses some appeal.
The other thing is that 300 is an adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name. Miller is one of the most legendary comic books writers of the modern era, and he is a huge favorite of mine. For years, he crafted a tough, cinematic style in his stories which invigorated comics in a big way. His stories weren’t just great, and he didn’t just re-imagine iconic characters (such as the whole “Dark Knight” take on Batman), but he provided a whole new school of thought for how comic book stories themselves could be told. 300 is a late masterpiece of the things that make Miller’s work so good, but there is a dark side to it. He wrote this story not long after 9/11, when he—as a New Yorker—needed a creative outlet to imagine an existential struggle between the Middle East and the Western world. At the time, 300 seemed edgy but good on its own terms. When you realize that 300 really is just the first stepping stone toward the racist madness that surfaces years later in sloppy work like Holy Terror—a story in which a superhero who feels an awful lot like Batman (DC wisely rejected this as a Batman graphic novel) battles Islamic terrorists in a story that even Ted Nugent would consider a little heavy-handed. When you know what kind of trip that 300 is just the first step of, you lose some love for 300 itself, both on the page and the screen.
But still, this movie matters to me. And not just because it gave us that immortal “This! Is! Sparta!” kick-the-guy-down-the-well scene, or its mind-blowing battle scenes, either. This movie is an extraordinary adaptation of graphic novel-to-cinematic storytelling. Sure, there have been big-time comic book movies for decades, but none of them—and I do mean none of them—ever fully translated the magic of comic books and graphic novels to the silver screen. There were lots of movies that were based on comic books, but no movies that felt like a comic book turned into a movie. And that was the unicorn I had spent my adult life hoping for. 2005’s Sin City—a Robert Rodriguez adaptation of an earlier series of neo-noir graphic novels by Miller—came very, very close. But it wasn’t until 300, in 2007, that we finally had a movie that hit the bullseye. In scene after scene, Snyder faithfully captures not just the look, but the feel and the energy of the static panels of Miller’s graphic novel, while adding in all of the extra material required to truly bring a comic to life.—and is so often where such adaptations miss the beat. There is one scene in particular, where Leonidas’ Spartans have cornered a huge force of Persians on a cliff, and advance relentlessly, pushing the invaders to their deaths. The scene is a perfect translation of that scene from the graphic novel, and it was for me, a moment of truth. For it was here that I finally saw for the first time the promise of a perfect movie adaptation of comics realized.
A year later after this flawed but ambitious swords & sandals epic came out, Iron Man kicked off the cinematic juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU owes its success to the repeated delivery of the promise that everything you ever loved about comics as a kid and as an adult can be put forth faithfully on the big screen. But for me, 300 first proved that it could be done at all. And for that, it will always have a special place in my heart.