Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"300: Rise Of An Empire": Attack Of The Feminist

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

300 seems like a really bizarre film to make a sequel to.  It is a fairly self-contained story about the fall of the forces of Sparta against the invading Persian Empire, and it was some decent action fluff.  A lot of criticism has been brought against the film for being little more than an ultra-stylized hyper-masculine power fantasy, but for what it was, it succeeded.  I never really thought it was a great movie, but I do think it is Zack Snyder’s second-best film, for what little that compliment is actually worth.  So, going into 300: Rise of an Empire, I had my expectations of what I was getting into; not something particularly smart, but probably with some good computer-generated action to keep me entertained for ninety minutes.  And for the most part, that’s about right.  However, I found this film’s story to be much more problematic in its subtext than its predecessor was, and I think Rise of an Empire suffers greatly for it.

The film takes place before, during, and after the events of the original 300, following the tale of Athens’s commander, Themistocles.  Athenians are not a warrior people like Spartans, so Themistocles instead relies on a ragtag team of farmers and craftsmen to man an armada of warships against Persia’s naval fleet.  So, essentially, replace the Spartan army’s small numbers with vast inexperience, and the hand-to-hand on-land warfare for naval ramming and maneuvering, and you essentially have a rehash of the original storyline.  There isn’t much to say for it except that Themistocles is a much more understated protagonist than Leonidas, and because of this he doesn’t really have much of a character to him other than his motivation of taking down the Persians.  At least Leonidas had some personal establishment as a king who cared for his people and his family.  Themistocles really only gets established as a mythic hero who killed Xerxes’s father, but that doesn’t really tell us anything about him as a person, so it’s hard to care for his struggle a whole lot except in the context of the evil he faces.

And that evil villainess is my main problem with this film.  I want to make one thing clear, first, though: Ava Green gives a stellar performance as Artemisia.  She’s vile, cunning, and sexy without any of those traits conflicting with one another, and she’s incredibly sympathetic and, in a weird way, likeable.  But the way her backstory is written is incredibly problematic, going so far as to be blatantly anti-feminist.  Say what you will about 300’s romanticism of the so-called masculine ideal, at least it never went so far as to villainize women.  Artemisia turns out to be the corrupting influence that placed Xerxes on the throne, manipulating him from being a proud bearded masculine figure into a bejeweled pretty-boy.  Her role as a villain is centered around the theme of her feminine influence being a threat to the masculine values and power-structure that are in place.  She’s even established to have a rape-revenge motivation, going so far as to blame all Grecians for her treatment by a few Greek men.  This undermines any sort of credibility she has a leader and symbolically turns her quest for dominance over Greece into a feminist seeking to take down all men because some men are bad.  When I said earlier that Artemisia is sympathetic and likeable, I meant that only in the sense that Green makes her so with a great performance.  The film’s script, on the other hand, clearly places her in the role of a villain with no chance of redemption or tempering, which is a problem when that creates a thematic undercurrent that femininity seeks to wipe out masculinity and that men must protect themselves from its corrupting influence.  This could have been a much better film told from Artemisia's perspective, with her role as the villain painted with more shades of gray.  Alas, instead we get a great performance in a problematically-written role.

EDIT: A Facebook comment asked me to clarify why I use the term anti-feminist rather than anti-female, which they thought my description of the film implied. The reason I would use the word anti-feminist is that I don't think the film is consciously anti-female, for it does attempt to make Leonidas's wife a prominent character presented in a positive light (not very well, mind you, for she acts primarily as a supporting role to masculine strength, but still). It may be anti-female in its execution, but my bigger criticism is of the purposeful promotion of masculinity's natural place as superior to femininity.

So, yeah, I didn’t really like 300: Rise of an Empire all that much.  Admittedly, some of the action is pretty cool, but it’s not really quite on the same level as the original film, even if the nautical setting does provide some pretty cool set pieces.  However, the story it’s trying to tell ends up being even more problematic than the first one, and even if you overlook the plot, there isn’t much here beyond an unnecessary cash-in on a franchise that didn’t really need a continuation.

How’d you feel about the original 300? Love it or hate it, leave a comment below.

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