Even at a time when franchise brands are the star, the auteur still holds some weight in film. Fans still flock to cinemas to see the latest work of Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino, while streaming platforms like Netflix have relied on the prestige of Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese to elevate their status as a studio.
One filmmaker who has undoubtedly made his mark on Hollywood is Zack Snyder, one of the leading figures in 21st-century mainstream cinema who inspires a number of opinions but can certainly be relied upon to deliver a particular style. Among the many stylistic hallmarks of his films lies an unexpected trait: Queerness.
Homoeroticism, and themes consistent with the LGBTQI+ community, appear in a lot of his work from very on in his career, which began at a time when studios were even more resistant to LGBTQI+ representation than they are now. Far from being a case of a straight artist being unaware of subtext, these themes are so consistent it’s likely that the vocal liberal weaves them in as part of his storytelling, delivering the message he wants even if the audience isn’t ready to hear it.
Queer Themes: Intentional Rather than Accidental
Some may dismiss this reading as completely at odds with their perception of Zack Snyder, but then again there are few directors whose work invites such passionate debate. There are many posts, reviews, and comment pages dedicated to the argument that his work is all surface, offering action and rock soundtracks so overwhelming that you’ll barely notice the lack of plot.
Looking at his worst-reviewed efforts, it would be easy to call this another case of critics clashing with fans. For example 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice remains at a lowly 29% among professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but made $850million at the box office and was beloved enough to inspire the committed #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement, which unlike many fan petitions actually succeeded in making his version of 2017’s Justice League after the poorly received Joss Whedon version (with Warner Bros paying $70million to make it happen).
However, if you look down at his list of releases, even the critics seem to be divided. 300 (2006), Watchmen (2009), and the recent Army of The Dead (2021) all hover between 61-67%, with reviews that vary wildly from raves to disgust. The late, great godfather of popular criticism, Robert Ebert, veered from calling 300 “a comic book brought to life and pumped with steroids”, to being so impressed with Watchmen that he labeled it “a powerful experience” and vowed to see it again.
Simply put, Zack Snyder promotes strong reactions in an audience, regardless of their station, and that’s not something that happens by accident, it just comes from a source we might not have expected. Paul Ridd wrote for the BFI that Snyder’s “unique blend of ‘low’ cultural references has made it hard to elevate him to the status of an acclaimed auteur. Yet his style is among the most distinctive and instantly recognizable in contemporary cinema. Snyder’s films certainly indulge in sensory overload and cathartic bloodlust. Yet his deconstruction of warrior mythology has unfortunately gone rather unexplored.”
So, if it’s true that the themes and messages of Snyder’s work are present despite the loud delivery, it’s possible, even likely, that the Queer themes many see in the stories are also intentional. Far from being a punchline thrown to cut through the perceived right-wing sensibilities, it is at the very heart of what makes these films work.
“To Die At Your Side…” Homoeroticism in 300
Snyder’s adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novel is the most obvious and yet also the most complex to unpick. Many jokes have been made about the film, which is seen to have homophobic leanings while also unwittingly being a very homoerotic film. Certainly, some surface points would support this idea doesn’t have the more liberal view of sexuality. In an early scene when King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) is approached by a Persian envoy looking for submission, the Spartan leader jokes about the Athenians being “philosophers and boy lovers”. Equally, the Persians and their leader Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) are portrayed as sexually promiscuous, androgynous, and covered in jewelry, an effeminate counter to the hyper-masculine 300 they would soon fight in the Battle of Thermopylae.
However, the portrayal of the Spartans speaks to something a bit different. Visually, the movie is a celebration of an idealized image of the male form. Every sinew is flexed in slow-motion fight scenes as the shirtless Spartans assert their dominance in battle, displaying their prowess as they penetrate their foes face to face (by contrast, the Persians are eventually victorious through fighting at a distance).
A more intense example comes from the interactions between characters, particularly the Spartans. Leonidas is seen to have very deep bonds with his men, that subvert the masculine avoidance of open emotion one might see in Western cinema. In one scene, Leonidas consoles his friend, Captain Artemis (Vincent Regan). Whereas a typical action film may see two men struggling to find the words, Butler’s character eloquently says “my heart is broken for your loss.” At the end of the film, when the Spartans realize they have been beaten, an impaled and bloody Stelios (Michael Fassbender) reaches out to his leader and gasps “it’s an honor to die at your side.” Holding his hand, and staring deeply into his eyes, Leonidas replies “it’s an honor to have lived at yours.” This exchange wouldn’t have been out of place in a love song.
This unspoken intensity is in keeping with the generally accepted interpretations of Ancient Greece, where Homosexuality was an accepted part of society and, moreover, used in military strategy. Sparta’s military tradition, as well as troops such as the Sacred Band of Thebes, were either made up of same-sex lovers or encouraged a deep emotional bond between the men who would have to fight side by side. This gives a different meaning to an early scene, where Leonidas teaches his son an important lesson: “In the end, a Spartan’s true strength is the warrior next to him” he instructs. “First, you fight with your head…” before his Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) finishes: “Then you fight with your heart.”
While 300 is one of the more famous examples of a film that isn’t historically accurate, Snyder may have drawn on this homoerotic tone precisely because he was pursuing something that spoke to history. It’s certainly not consciously present in Miller’s original text. When called to task about the “boy lovers” line in the comic book’s original run, Miller himself replied in the letter page of a later issue that “the Spartans almost certainly did practice homosexuality. There’s also evidence they tended to lie about it. It’s not a big leap to postulate that they ridiculed their hedonistic Athenian rivals for something they themselves did. ‘Hypocrisy’ is, after all, a word we got from the Greeks.”
It seems a convenient explanation for someone looking to directly avoid the realities of history. Miller has, after all, been accused of homophobia and misogyny in his work by contemporaries such as Alan Moore. However, a cinematic adaptation often strays from its source material, and while Snyder certainly stayed true to the visual style of the comics, he may have had other ideas regarding the homoerotic subtext. The filmmaker was certainly aware of the undertones, laughing off accusations of the film being homophobic and clumsily explaining the themes of male domination. “What’s more scary to a 20-year-old [straight] boy than a giant god-king who wants to have his way with you?” he told Entertainment Weekly while promoting the film, a remark perhaps designed to be flippant during the less inclusive mid-2000s.
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Were that his last word on the topic, the idea of the film being accidentally homoerotic would be academic. But time and society move forward, and it would appear that Snyder’s idea for a third 300 movie suggests that same-sex romance is at the core of his vision. “Over the pandemic, I had a deal with Warner Brothers and I wrote what was essentially going to be the final chapter in 300,” he told The Fourth Wall podcast.
“I was writing this thing about Alexander the Great, and it just turned into a movie about the relationship between Hephaestion and Alexander. It’s called Blood and Ashes, and it’s a beautiful love story, really, with warfare. I would love to do it, [Warner Bros] said no… you know, they’re not huge fans of mine. It is what it is.”
A generous interpretation may be that Snyder always had Queerness at the heart of 300, but at the time the director was charged with selling his second film to a traditionally conservative American audience and made light of it. He would not be the first artist to compromise or disguise his own views in the name of box office success. Alternatively, the 56-year-old may have grown in his opinions. Regardless of his intentions 15 years ago, in 2021 he clearly saw Queer romance as integral to the conclusion of this saga.