Miles on Movies


reviewed by R. Miles Mendenhall

I saw this massive cartoon in the right setting. The 4:20 p.m. Friday showing on the day it opened in a house full of thirteen to fifteen year old boys. (No I wasn’t under the influence, although, speaking only hypothetically here, it might have enhanced the viewing experience.)

At first I was feeling surrounded, and there were the accompanying uncouth youth behaviors; seat back kicking, loud talking before and during the previews, cell phone lights during the film. The most sustained light came from a girl down my row on the right, who obviously wasn’t seeing the right film for her. I will credit her for shutting it down when I firmly and politely asked. Other than those few incidents, once the story got going, the rapt attention by the audience made it easy to enjoy the film. I’ve never before heard such a group applaud at the end. Well once, for “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”.

Dana Stevens of accuses the filmmaker of creating a racist metaphor for the Middle East wars. In which Western White heroes slaughter hordes of decadent, effeminate Brown and Black Arabs, Persians, Africans, Asians and grotesquely misshapen freaks. I read her reviews, respect her and generally agree with her, except on this. Perhaps one can read the film that way, but it’s a CARTOON, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel where he re-imagines the historic Battle of Thermopylae.

I’ve read Miller’s “Dark Knight” series and I don’t recall any white supremacist content, I do recall stark themes of corrupted good vs. variegated evil. I would note that I was unaware that Xerxes, Emperor of Persia, (Rodrigo Santoro) practiced recombinant DNA experimentation on his minions. Who knew?

The story of how director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 2004 remake) made it, in a Montreal warehouse with few sets, shot on film with everything not directly touched by the actors inserted later via CGI, is as interesting as the plot of the film. It may be the future of epic battle filmmaking. Particularly because it costs less than hiring thousands of extras and filming in the “real” world.

This is an adolescent male testosterone gore fest. Black and white moral logic. Buff, gruff heroes led by King Leonidas (Gerald Butler) using teamwork and individual prowess (David Wenham, Vincent Regan) to slaughter an imposing horde of foes. There’s a back-at-the-royal-villa-in-Sparta story where one tough mama (Lena Headey) holds her own, at all cost, against enemies domestic. (Dominic West)

The Spartans practiced infanticide of any newborns that didn’t measure up to their standards of perfection. They took boys from home at seven years of age, who were already trained to fight and uphold Spartan values, and subjected them to brutal combat training for the rest of their lives. They sought a glorious death in battle as the epitome of a well-lived life.

They had a hard time expressing tender feelings toward anyone but their battle buddies, and in this film that is mainly done via lots of homosocial bonding rituals and locker room-esque accusations of homosexual proclivities.

The fact that the cast playing the Spartans spend the entire film in nothing but sandals, capes and leather Speedos, makes their manly bravado more than just homosocial. Well, OK, they also wear helmets and carry shields; they’re not too underdressed for battle.

In reality the historical Spartans were full on butch queers.*  A point only obliquely hinted at in this portrayal. It’s doubtful that we would want to rejuvenate their society, or emulate it. Not because of the homosexuality, because of the unpitying brutality.

* Lest you accuse me of homophobia, let me say that I see nothing wrong with that. Except for the likely monotony of such a society.

But if you’re a lover of choreographed violence in which noble warriors use spear, shield and sword to vanquish vicious enemies in the face of overwhelming odds, up to the bitter and glorious end, well, you’re going to enjoy the spectacle. This is a well-paced action fantasy. A cartoon, but a stirring and beautifully visualized one. As the cashier told me beforehand, “It’s big, dumb fun.”

If you like your epic fantasy violence up close, personal and in your face, see it. If that stuff creeps you out, avoid it like the plague.

Main Film review page
Main Review page (books, food, products and more)