Thursday, March 13, 2014

Getting Over "300"

Seven years ago, Zack Snyder's "300" came out in theaters, did summer blockbuster numbers at the box office, and reaped some big rewards for all involved. Gerald Butler was promoted to Hollywood leading man status. Zack Snyder was hailed as a visionary and handed gigantic budgets and famous franchises for follow-up projects. Adult-oriented comic-book properties were mined for more material. And, of course, the sword-and-sandals epic genre saw a spike in numbers. And now with the release of the "300: Rise of an Empire" the long-delayed sequel (prequel? midquel?) starring somebody else and directed by somebody else, we can look back at all that the first "300" has wrought and realize that Hollywood still has no idea why it was a hit.

Clearly, it wasn't Gerard Butler. He's been handed multiple chances to distinguish himself in multiple action films ("Machine Gun Preacher," "Olympus Has Fallen"), thrillers ("Law Abiding Citizen"), and romantic comedies ("The Ugly Truth," "The Bounty Hunter"), but his most successful role since playing King Leonidas has been as the viking dad in the "How to Train Your Dragon" franchise. Butler belongs to the class of the "stand-in" leading men like Sam Worthington who have made their name in big effects pictures, but have failed to parlay the success into better parts that really showcase their talents. Butler at least has more name recognition thanks to playing a more distinctive, iconic character, but it's all too easy to get him confused with other, similar actors.

Everybody knows who Zack Snyder is, but that may not be a good thing. After the success of "300" and his earlier "Dawn of the Dead" remake, Snyder was essentially given carte blanche to direct whatever projects he wanted. This lead to the deeply flawed film version of Alan Moore's "Watchmen" graphic novel and then the greatly reviled "Sucker Punch." Both movies barely made their budgets back and landed Snyder on shaky ground. Last summer's "Man of Steel" didn't really help matters, making his flaws as a director painfully clear. Snyder has his fans and his apologists, especially among the fanboy set, but he's proven himself to be a very niche director with mainstream-unfriendly tastes, and his involvement threatens to put the entire DC film universe in a very bad position.

What about the swords-and-sandals subject matter? Did that account for the success of "300"? Well, between the original "300" and its sequel we've been subjected to "Clash Of The Titans," "Wrath Of The Titans," "The Legend Of Hercules," "Immortals," "Pompeii," and a new "Conan," none of which have been particularly well received. "Clash" made enough money to warrant a sequel, but the rest did not. Television fared better with the "Spartacus" series, but similar projects have been scarce. There's been no great demand for action films set in ancient times, and the upcoming 2014 slate reflects that. There's still Brett Ratner's "Hercules" with The Rock coming up, but attentions have shifted away from Rome and Greece to Biblical stories like "Noah" and "Exodus."

Did the adult comic-book origins of "300" have any effect? The film was based on a violent Frank Miller graphic novel after all. With the "Sin City" sequel delayed to later this year we haven't had another film based on Miller's source material, but there have been plenty of similar projects including "The Losers," the two "Kick-Ass" films, the "RED" movies, "2 Guns," and of course "Watchmen." Well, considering how these films performed in comparison to the PG-13 superhero movies aimed at younger audiences, it doesn't look like that was a winning tactic either. The most successful adult comic adaptation has been AMC's "The Walking Dead," which has fairly adult content, but has much less leeway than a feature film to really utilize it.

So what made "300" a hit? The Dissolve pegged it - neat graphics and special effects work, which made "300" look different from all the sword-sand-sandals movies that preceded it. There's not really much special about the movie otherwise. The performances are solid, but unspectacular. The story is sexed up, but follows the template of a sword-and-sandals adventure pretty closely. Zack Snyder's style is impressive, but the novelty of it wore off after subsequent films where it didn't prove a good fit for more nuanced material. The grim and gritty design is actually starting to look a little dated after so many other action films of recent years adopted the same approach.

Personally, I though "300" was a decent movie, but its outsized impact on the blockbuster landscape always puzzled me. I guess its success was such a surprise and it presented so many elements that looked easily reproducible that Hollywood was duped into thinking that they just had to reuse its basic elements in the right ways to achieve the same results. Of course Hollywood has been making this same mistake for as long as there has been a Hollywood. The only surefire way to capitalize on a movie's success, of course is, to franchise it. And sure enough "300: Rise of an Empire" is busy beating up the competition at the box office as we speak.

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