This Is Still Sparta: 300 at 10
It’s strange to realize a movie you associate with the zeitgeist, with the now, is a decade old.
In 2007, 300 was inescapable. Raking in over $450 million at the box office, the film was a genuine pop culture phenomenon, spawning endless “This is Sparta!” memes, skimpy Halloween costumes, and even an execrable parody film, 2008’s Meet The Spartans. I was in my third year of college when 300 came out, and it received the kind of chest-thumping, beer-breathed enthusiasm only 19-year-old boys can give. Hyper-masculine and hyper-violent, and with a visual style unlike any other action movies at the time, it’s no surprise that 300 was a success, even though I look at its brutal point of view with some revulsion.
Retelling the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, 300 stars Gerard Butler as Leonidas, warrior king of Sparta. When messengers from Persia demand tokens of submission to their emperor Xerxes, Leonidas kills them and vows to fight back against the invading army. With 300 of his best soldiers, Leonidas cleaves his way through the Persian army, all while being vastly outnumbered. While Queen Gorgo tries to rally reinforcements at home, Leonidas holds back the Persian army in the Hot Gates, but an unexpected betrayal forces the Spartans to fight their enemies down to their very last man.
300 exists as a perfect synthesis of two visionary minds: artist Frank Miller and director Zack Snyder. Acclaimed for his dark reimaginings of Batman and Daredevil in the 1980s, Miller wrote and drew 300 as a miniseries for Dark Horse Comics in 1998, with colors by Lynn Varley. The story of Leonidas and his army had been branded into Miller’s brain at a young age, when he saw the 1963 film The 300 Spartans. King Leonidas even appears in the booze-and-bullets world of Miller’s Sin City; in “The Big Fat Kill” hero Dwight recounts the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of courage in the face of impossible odds. Drawn entirely in two-page spreads, 300 had a cinematic style that was ripe for adaptation, long before comic creators began treating their books as elevator pitches for movies. After Miller co-directed Sin City with Robert Rodriguez in 2005, winning acclaim for a unique visual style that transmuted comic imagery directly into live action, there was reason to believe that Miller would be a major Hollywood presence for a long time.
Only his second motion picture, 300 is the ultimate Zack Snyder film, with his signature traits emerging fully formed like they were pulled from the head of Zeus. Initially derided as the guy who gave us fast zombies in Dawn of the Dead, Snyder fills 300 with slow-motion fight scenes that force the viewer to absorb every second of bone-cracking violence. The film is the best example of Snyder’s desaturated color palette; in the world of 300, blood is never red and the sky is never blue. Here, the muted browns and grays feel appropriate—it’s a grim story, with grim characters—though stripping the colors from Metropolis and Gotham City in Man of Steel and Batman V Superman is part of what makes those films so draining and punishing.
If there’s anything Zack Snyder’s films have never gotten quite enough credit for, it’s their fantastic casts. Ten years on, Leonidas remains the definitive role for Gerard Butler, with a single line—“THIS IS SPARTA!”--granting him cinematic immortality. (How many college guys did you know who replaced their Boondock Saints posters with Butler’s screaming face?) Butler’s recent appearance in the swords-and-sandals fantasy flop Gods of Egypt feels like a failed attempt at recapturing 300’s fire. And before she was Cersei, Lena Headey played Gorgo, another steely-eyed queen who would kill for her family. Snyder has a great eye for finding talent on the cusp of stardom: behold a sinewy, Fabio-haired Michael Fassbender as the Spartan Stelios, or the mustachioed Oscar Isaac in Sucker Punch. (Not that this should in any way lure you into watching Sucker Punch.)
But looking beyond 300’s groundbreaking style and strong cast is a repugnant story that glamorizes the brutality of war and a fascistic leader in Leonidas. If you could personify the concept of “hyper-masculinity” into a human being, he’d take the oiled-up, bare-chested form of Gerard Butler. The Spartans march into battle wearing only capes and loincloths, their abs sculpted from marble, but Leonidas throws out a line dismissing Athenians as “boy-lovers,” lest you think there’s anything homoerotic about the endless display of male flesh. (Homophobic and historically inaccurate!) The film does begin by showing the brutal upbringing that forged Leonidas into a warrior; the very first shot in the film is a pile of baby skulls, informing us of the Spartan practice of inspecting infants for deformities and letting only the strong survive. Surely this is meant to horrify us, but when the hunchbacked, CHUD-ugly Ephilates betrays Leonidas to the Persians, what are we to take from this except hey, maybe infanticide was the right idea?
Though set in 480 BC, it’s difficult to separate 300 from the political climate of 2007. In the midst of the Iraq War, here is a film that sends an army of Gerard Butlers to protect vaguely-defined “freedoms” from predatory, dark-skinned Persians. The Spartans themselves are brutal, aggressive killers, shouting “No prisoners! No mercy!” in battle, but the film regards them as heroes by providing enemies even worse. 300 paints a dehumanizing portrait of the Persian army, portraying them as faceless, masked killers, or, well, basically orcs. Rodrigo Santoro’s Xerxes tempts Leonidas with power while appearing beautiful, seductive, and degenerate (“you know what that means,” the film whispers in our ear). They’re coming for our wives and children, boys, so better kill them all. In 2017, I’m writing about this film only days after President Trump enacted a travel ban on six countries, including Iran, so I can’t take 300 as simply a bloody popcorn movie when it displays such racist stereotypes. (The Spartans using a wall to push back the Persians also has a different impact today, in ways Miller and Snyder couldn’t have foreseen.)
In the years since 300’s release, Frank Miller and Zack Snyder’s careers have gone on very different trajectories. Miller directed a film adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit that was eviscerated by critics and audiences, and his star fell from Hollywood’s sky. The fascistic elements of his works would only grow stronger, with Miller putting Samuel L. Jackson in a Nazi uniform in The Spirit, drawing the Islamophobic pseudo-Batman comic Holy Terror, and writing an actual Batman comic subtitled “The Master Race.” Sin City and 300 would also get belated sequels that no one asked for and no one saw.
For Zack Snyder, however, 300 gave him the keys to the comic book movie kingdom. In 2009, Snyder directed the flawed but passionate adaptation of Watchmen, and he became the architect of the DC Expanded Universe beginning with Man of Steel. For some audiences, the features that made 300 a success—slow-motion fight scenes, dark and desaturated color schemes, unsympathetic lead characters --would become bugs, and none of his subsequent films have captured the public imagination like 300. In light of all that, 300 is perhaps the most influential comic book movie of the 2000s. The only rival for that position would come out a year later, when someone took a chance on an obscure superhero named, oh, Iron Man.