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Understanding Zack Snyder via 300

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Zack Snyder directed music videos and a Michael Jordan documentary before he made his first feature length film in 2004, a remake of George Romero’s Zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, which to this day remains one of his most critically received and generally admired films, the Snyder that you most love or hate didn’t really register until his second movie – 300.

Think of every Zack Snyder-ism that you can and it probably was cemented in your mind because of this movie – slow motion, cool visuals, great special effects, creatively clean shot action, long shot one take action scenes, comic book faithfulness etc. Even the criticisms that stuck with him emerged from this movie itself – racism, sexism, misogyny (though that train wouldn’t gain steam until his next project Sucker Punch) and the most popular ‘lack of substance’ also starts with this movie.

While all auteur directors from Hitchcock to Spielberg to Scorsese and Tarantino, all have faced criticism for what is essentially their way of doing things…you know… their style, Snyder seems to receive the most vitriol of any mainstream director I have seen. While some of the criticism can be reduced down to individual taste, to be labelled something completely opposite of what you are is gross misunderstanding. For example, it would be like criticizing a Tarantino movie for shying away from violence.

For a director who has been trying nothing but to bring originality and depth to existing pop-culture properties, most of the major criticisms usually targeted at Snyder are misplaced. There definitely exists a Zack Snyder bias in the media and the reasons are multiple but the origin of all those stereotypical criticism can be traced back to this one movie. Therefore to truly understand Snyder, it is important to understand 300.

THIS IS SPARTA!

300 as a movie based on the 1998 graphic novel by Frank Miller, it was originally a project sought out by multiple studios.

What sets the story apart from other sword and sandals epics released during the same period – Troy, Alexander etc was it’s unique fantastical tone. It needed someone who had an understanding of the power visuals and a love for graphic novels. Enter Zack Snyder, who along with his cinematographer friend Larry Fong created test footage for Warner Bros which according to Fong in an interview – ‘used visual techniques known only to 3 people till date’. Warner Bros. was impressed and green lit the movie.

The rest is fantastic gorgeously shot history. Being one of the highest grossing movies of the year and one of the highest grossing R–rated movies ever, 300’s impact is more than just financial. It has become a part of pop-culture via memes and parodies, still continues to be quoted often and re-introduced time ramping (slo-mo in layman terms) after Matrix had popularized it a few years ago. Snyder used Miller’s comic panels as storyboards and for a budget of just 65 million created a movie so visually unique that movies with 250 million dollar budgets still find hard to do so 14 years later. (Cough-cough…MCU)

THE BEAST APPROACHES

In spite of its success, there was great criticism targeted at the movie when it released, particularly its portrayal of Persians as a sort of inferior, sly, ugly, morally corrupt race and Spartans as glorious, good looking and righteous. Many people screamed it being American “Iranophobia” and also there were criticisms at the jingo-istic screamy dialogue, the lack of female characters (Yes we will get to why that is wrong) and the movie being more or less male power fantasy…in colloquial terms — ‘a dude-bro’ movie. It’s portrayal of the actual history of the battle of Thermopylae also received heavy criticism.

Besides, the movie being released at the time of Iraq war, it was seen as a hidden allegory for western liberal values and eastern principles. Particularly the lines about freedom and bringing an end to ‘mysticism and tyranny’. While looking at a buff screaming Gerard Butler, the punchline like dialogue, portrayal of Greek citizens as weak and use of homosexuality as a slur—‘boy-lovers’, orc like monsters and hints at magical powers of oracles—it’s quite understandable why one might feel that. But one has to look at a bit deeper to understand what Snyder was actually saying in 300.

THE SPARK

While Snyder is often criticized for all of the above, all he did was faithfully adapt an existing graphic novel. He did not create the story from scratch. Miller’s novel has all of the elements Snyder depicts in the movie. While there are critics who have claim Miller is a fascist and a racist (although he kinda gives that vibe now) but his novel was based on the 1963 movie –the 300 Spartans, which in turn was based on Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Thermopylae. The movie was released during the Cold War and its tone of the freedom loving Spartans wanting to defeat a world conquering Persian Empire of slavery was seen as an allegory for the US and USSR. It was mere co-incidence and creative inspiration that 300 would carry similar tones. Also, all the action movie like dialogue (“We will blot the sun in arrows..” “Then we will fight in the shade”) is from the actual account of Herodotus himself!

Also for often being labelled a misogynist, if anything Snyder added the whole story of Queen Gorgo and her attempts to convince the Spartan Senate to send more soldiers to Leonidas’ help. He wanted the queen to be a more relevant character in this otherwise male-dominated movie.

A GOOD STORY

The key to clearing the gross misunderstanding of 300 is this line by Snyder during one of the interviews regarding the movie – “Dilios is a guy who knows how not to wreck a good story with truth”

Dilios being the narrator of the story who is a soldier sent back by King Leonidas before the final battle with the responsibility of convincing the Spartan senate and other Greek nations to join the war. This is in keeping with the graphic novel as well. If at all the movie 300 appears to be exaggerated, hyperbolic and a bit like propaganda…it is intended to be. This is Dilios using his poetic talents to narrate a tale of bravery and bloodshed, in order to inspire and move the still undecided Spartan senate and other nations of Greece into action. The movie is not a documentary on the Battle of Thermopylae. It’s a Ballad.

Dilios is a bit like Snyder, who can be termed a subjective film maker…more of poetry than prose. He often adds a lot of colour to his movies but that colour is not always his own. Except Sucker Punch, almost all of his filmography is based on existing material. If anything Snyder can only be accused of showing us a movie from its character’s perspective. The reason Batman Vs Superman might appear too “dark” is because primarily we see it beginning from a jaded, PTSD suffering Batman’s eyes… Watchmen has a cynical, dense tone because its characters are dense and cynical. He only adds certain elements like Superman snapping Zod’s neck in Man of Steel or changing the alien attack in Watchmen to a nuclear one because he feels the need to give the characters more depth and put them in a real world scenario.

A BETTER TOMORROW

The criticism that Snyder is an action heavy ‘dude-bro’ director in the vein of Michael Bay is looking at his work from the worst perspective possible. He is a director who has a fantastical visual style….but he is often on the lookout to add more ‘substance’ to his work. Most of his movies are 2.5 to 3 hour epics dealing with heavy philosophical themes like immigration, American power structures, psychology of hate, impact of social media, misogyny etc. This is not even reading too much into it, he has come outright and said that it is what he has intended. With 300 he set out to make a movie that is told to us from a poets perspective. Naturally the movie has chest thumping bravado and looking at the enemy as monsters. Snyder in fact displays a better understanding of the material than anyone else. To judge him on the basis of this one movie is plain wrong, because he clearly achieved what he set out to do. His movies may not be everyone’s cup of tea but far be it for anyone to accuse them of not having enough “depth” or making generic action blockbusters.

Here comes the age old debate of separating the art from the artist. Just because Snyder himself trained with the actors and has a enviable physique at age 53 (Happy Birthday Zack!) doesn’t mean he is some dumb gym bro in love with gore and explosions. 300 was told in a manner it deserved to be told and if watching it fills you with a sense of courage and makes you feel the sacrifice of King Leonidas, then Snyder has struck that spear right where he intended.

Writer, blogger comic book and movie geek offering a unique take on story-telling and narrative aspects

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