Have you ever watched/read/listened to something you knew was bad, but did so purely because of how popular it is or was at some point? Ever gone on a disco bender to try and travel back to the seventies, mostly because you can afford only used records and not cocaine? Hosted a French new wave marathon because you keep hearing how wonderful Jean-Luc Godard is, despite him only having maybe three good movies? Gone to one of those hip small art galleries to see what’s new in modern art, except you don’t why that woman is birthing raw eggs?
In this article, I’d like to detail my findings from a recent excursion into a cultural phenomenon years after the fact: I watched Zack Snyder’s 300.
Background: 300 is based on a 1998 graphic novel by controversial-and-not-in-a-fun-way cartoonist Frank Miller (see Sin City and The Dark Knight Returns). The film, released in 2006, directed by Snyder, and starring Gerard Butler (who is not a terrible actor, let’s be real here), was in fact stupidly successful at the box office with an international gross of $456 million against its $60 million budget. However, critics were completely divided, and this days the film is considered not very good.
Total disclosure, it is a bloated, tan-coloured, man sweat-flavoured lemon of a movie.
But why was it such a big deal? Well, I think we can blame the 80s. Specifically, 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. See, Conan was also a massive success upon release, especially among young adult males, similar to 300. Both films were adaptations of successful works within geek culture at their respective times, both made by well-regarded creators, and the fan hype machine obviously had a role in both films being hits. But I think there might be something else, something more… sociological, going on.
Consider: Both films feature a main character who embodies absolute masculinity. They both contain things like honour and respect, all amongst manly men, as emotional cores for the audience. These are films that explicitly tell male-orientated stories, something I’d argue rarely happens. A lot of films that’re made for male audiences are less blatant about it; there’ll sometimes be female love interests, themes and ideas that aren’t absolute in how they addressed from a men’s perspective, and are typically trying to appeal to wider audiences (usually). Movies are about making money at the end of the day, so they need to throw a wide net. These movies? Their net is shaped like a scrotum and carries enough testosterone to power a brigade of Interceptors down a highway.
Now, it’s extremely easy to say that most films cater to male audiences, and I will not deny that. There is truth to it, but in the case of Conan the Barbarian and 300, these films are so grossly direct in who they’re trying to get to see them, it’s kind of amazing. Neither film came out at a time when their genre- swords and sandals- was popular, they were not Oscar bait or major blockbusters, and frankly should’ve seen minor success, let alone become flops. But no, these films soldiered on (literally) and ended up being cultural touchstones for their respective generations of men. They presented male-oriented stories in a way that appealed directly to them. They gave them characters that personified a sense of masculinity that, I would argue, young males secretly desired. They wanted father figures that, in their mind, could treat them like a real man treats his son. It gave them something they didn’t get.
But is any of this a good thing? I dunno. I know some will say it isn’t, some will say (not quite as loudly) that it does, but frankly, I don’t think it really matters. Check it, Conan is now a mere cult film that only appeals to fans of Robert E. Howard or Arnold Schwarzenegger. 300 is basically a joke these days. A too-little-too-late sequel in 2014 confirmed that it had absolutely no staying power, Snyder’s career has gone on to achieve rather abysmal depths (side note: I feel Justice League is somewhat forgivable; he understandably and rightfully left due to a personal tragedy, and I think the film was doomed regardless of his involvement or not), and Frank Miller is seen as a senile old man who had a pretty racist/batshit-insane phase in the 2000s that completely ruined his winning streak. Hell, the graphic novel 300 has become his last masterwork. All that is left in the film’s wake are countless hours of ‘this is Sparta’ memes buried deep in the recesses of the internet, as well as a mediocre and forgotten PlayStation Portable beat-em-up.
I want to end on a few small notes. Firstly, as much as I disliked 300 (no, really, it’s pretty godawful), I did get sucked into it at the end. When the 300 Spartans are dying on the battlefield, and Michael Fassbender grabs Gerard Butler’s hand, and they have an exchange expressing their mutual respect for each other, it kinda got me. The climax is effective, not gonna lie. Also, the blue screen work is sooooo fucking bad, it’s actually distracting.
Finally, what about the book 300? Well, it’s not bad. I kinda dig it. The real kicker is that, Snyder recreated the graphic novel shot-for-shot, and in the process diminished the effectiveness of those scenes. You also see Frank Miller do what he does best one last time, which is made more sad as it makes you remember why Miller was so highly-regarded as an artist; 300 came right before the abysmal The Dark Knight Strikes Back, but it wouldn’t be until the immensely offensive Holy Terror that his reign would ultimately end. Basically, everything after this has never reached those heights in the 80s and 90s. This is his last masterwork, and it’s kind of a fitting one to end on. Didn’t give me much insight, but as a fan of comics it was not without merit.
Too bad we got a shit movie out of it.