Those who can look past the fact that 300: Rise Of An Empire depicts a war between white people (technically orange people, per the movie’s color scheme) who “don’t negotiate with tyrants” and the brown people who hate their freedom may be able to enjoy it as a slice of bronzed and bloody beefcake kitsch. An awkward spin-off of Zack Snyder’s macho death fantasy 300, Rise Of An Empire retains the earlier film’s hyper-stylized, digital backlot slickness, but without the Spartan rah-rah-rah that has ensured 300’s enduring popularity. In its place is uninspiring jingoism, pitting the blue-cloaked Athenians, upholders of democracy, against the evil Achaemenid Empire, made up of Persians—and therefore Iranians—who wear anachronistic turbans. It’s a movie viewers are supposed to get off to, though anyone who just wants to watch waxed, ripped guys running, jumping, and thrusting (this is one of those cases where a sword isn’t just a sword) while wearing leather briefs may find their enjoyment soured by the perverse political power fantasies which are the film’s raison d’être.
Led by Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the outnumbered Athenians disembowel their way through the faceless (literally—the villains wear balaclavas and metal masks) Achaemenid horde, occasionally stopping to look off into the distance while thinking aloud about the brutality of war. About half of the film is in slow motion, with blood—thick, strawberry-jam-like, resembling the gore in a Build engine game—spurting out in all directions. The Athenians are merciless because they represent a higher ideal; the Achaemenid are merciless because they are the bad guys. During the naval battles, which make up most of the movie, the Achaemenids cruelly lash their galley slaves, while Athenian triremes are powered by the democratic values of young men who have chosen to row of their own free will.
There’s an irony here: Out of all the Ancient Greek city-states, Athens depended the most on slave labor, while the real-life Achaemenid Empire did not practice slavery. Athens also distinguished itself from its neighbors by granting women absolutely no legal rights. Even by the standards of the time, Athenian society was notoriously xenophobic. Their legal system was a joke and their foreign policy was brutal. In fact, aside from practicing a political system called “democracy”—open to only a small portion of the population and empowered by widespread slavery—Athens was hardly a model society. The Achaemenids, in the meantime, built roads and infrastructure, ensured religious freedom, established a postal service, and generally set the standard for large governments for centuries to come.
Why quibble with the historical details of a movie like Rise Of An Empire? Because, the way in which the movie—which is based on an unpublished Frank Miller comic—lionizes the Athenians reveals its values. Athenian misogyny is passed over, because the movie conveniently features only two female characters, neither of whom is Athenian: the Spartan queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and the Carian commander Artemisia (Eva Green, wearing history’s first pair of hidden wedges). Visually, the Achaemenids are associated with black leather and gold, a look that’s half space-Nazi, half Yeezus tour. The diversity of their empire is underscored—perhaps as a way of avoiding accusations of vilifying one particular ethnic group—while the Athenians look so alike that it becomes difficult to tell characters apart.
The Achaemenids are a flashy, gold-chain-wearing group, composed of assorted peoples of color in baggy clothes and led by a treacherous, sexually aggressive woman. The Athenians are protecting the core values of modern Western society, and, as it happens, are composed entirely of white men without body hair or pants. Director Noam Murro and co-writers Snyder and Kurt Johnstad are probably not racists, misogynists, or xenophobes. However, not being a bigot doesn’t preclude acting like one. Actions, not intentions, hold value.
In this sense, Murro makes a perfect replacement for Snyder, a director whose work is fixated on visual and narrative flash, but which is continually undermined by ignorance of its implications. Murro doesn’t so much direct as frame and stage, placing the characters against digital desktop-wallpaper skies and constructing each battle scene as a showcase for the characters’ prowess and toughness. Aside from raccoon-eyed Green—the only actor aware of the movie’s campiness, shoving so much scenery into her mouth that she barely has time to chew—everyone in the cast exudes the same kind of serioso steely resolve. But what does all this cool posturing add up to? The answer lies in the title. The Empire in question is not the Achaemenids’, but Athens—a power that deserves to slaughter and subjugate its enemies because it represents a cornerstone of Western culture, and whose actions are excused because they represent noble intentions.