Flustered by the 300 Reviews

Most of the time when I read the reviews of other critics whose take on a film is different than mine, I can appreciate and understand why they feel the way they feel, even as I disagree with them. But with 300 I'm seeing one basic misunderstanding underlying many of the negative reviews: these critics don't get the comic book ethos.

Here's just one brief example. I was discussing 300 with another critic at a recent screening of another film, and I was explaining what I loved about the film, and a third critic to whom my friend and I were not talking felt the need to jump in and express his dire hatred of the movie. Honestly, I thought this third critic was getting ready to punch me, he so couldn't stand that I loved the movie as much as he despised it. His most telling comment: "It's no Letters from Iwo Jima."

And I told him, "It's not supposed to be Letters from Iwo Jima." (He was not convinced.) Criticizing 300 for not being Letters from Iwo Jima would be like, oh, criticizing Letters from Iwo Jima for not being funny. Fundamentally opposite things are at work in these two films -- Clint Eastwood's movie is about demythologizing one particular battle, while 300 is about mythologizing one. Which isn't to say that 300 is pro-war -- and anyone who says that it is, I think, is deliberately avoiding seeing the film for what it is, or fundamentally doesn't understand the appeal and the importance of comic books and the kinds of stories they tell.

300 doesn't just look like a comic book, and it's not an accident that Frank Miller, creator of the 300 comic book, chose this particular story to tell in comic book form. Superheroes and the larger-than-life characters of comic book stories are our modern pantheon of gods and demigods, not in religious way -- or at least not in the way that religion is used today, as a tool of political control of the masses -- but in an instructive and entertaining way, on a personal level. No one worships Peter Parker, for instance, but we look to Spider-Man's battle with his own dark side not just for a good story but for a way to think about our own behavior. That level of storytelling, as something personal and relevant, has been lost from modern religion, which tries to shape the culture instead of shaping itself to the culture. But comic books -- and now their offshoots, the comic book movies -- continue to speak to us because they continue to shape their stories to modern needs.

The naysayers of 300 feel that on some level, sense that even this old story can be molded to support political philosophies they don't agree with. But 300 doesn't have to be interpreted that way -- and in fact, its appeal to timeless themes of honor and sacrifice force us to take a fresh look at those ideas at work in the world today. Far from being the mindless "mere" entertainment its detractors dismiss it as, 300 is far more challenging than much of what shows up in the multiplexes today. By taking a moment of history and passing it through the mythologyzing frame of the comic book ethos, it asks us to reexamine everything it holds up as worthy and see how our world today fits -- or doesn't -- there.


MaryAnn Johanson

author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride

minder of FlickFilosopher.com