I'm beginning to understand how supervillains are born, because I was rooting for the evil superbitch Persian naval commander Artemisia here, and I'm not even going to apologize for it.
Look, Hollywood: You mostly ignore women, treat us like prizes for the film heroes, like blithering morons whose only goal in life is to find husbands. You tell us, in effect, that the stories of our lives aren't worth telling, that we only matter as adjuncts to men's stories.
Then, you give us a movie like 300: Rise of an Empire, sequel to 300, which is like a bad Xerox made by someone who doesn't quite know how to use the office copier. At the center of it, radiating like a dark sun, is the glory of Eva Green as Artemisia.
She is a Smurfette warrior, a lone woman in a boys-only club, and men, even her own men, look on her with fear and awe. She is smarter and more competent and more ambitious than all of them put together. She commands enormous respect and wields vast power and she likes it. Green stalks this movie with pride and honor, and is almost the only thing worth seeing here.
Honestly, I'm not sure I really get why she's the bad guy at all. How am I not supposed to have my notions of right and wrong turned upside-down till I start cosplaying Artemisia at Comic-Con, just to try to grab some of her cool for myself? Guys get to cosplay Superman and Iron Man and Captain America and all those square-jawed noble dudes. If nasty Artemisia is all we chicks get, well, we'll take her. Ignore us and mistreat us at your own peril, men. (Not coincidentally, Artemisia's backstory has something to say about this, too.)
Green manages to pull off her ferocious awesomeness in spite of director Noam Murro — who's made only one other film, and it's a contemporary dramedy, not an action flick. He has no idea how to create the same sense of mythic grandeur that Zack Snyder achieved with 300. Oh, he knows that every now and then he needs toss in some slo-mo, so we can (he hopes) get a grasp on the frenetic CGI cartoon battle action and enjoy some blood and brain matter splattered across our 3D glasses during the endless ancient carnage. But tossing those moments in at random doesn't work. Still, something has to distract from the bland soldierliness of Greek general Themistokles; actor Sullivan Stapleton is no Gerald Butler, though he valiantly attempts to scowl in what he probably intends to be a meaningful way whenever possible.
Themistokles is totally into saving Greek democracy from the bad Persians, except when the politicians don't agree with his plan to unite Greece to fight them. Will Themistokles have to destroy democracy in order to save democracy? I'm not sure if it's more funny or more sad, but perhaps the most damning thing I can say about Rise of an Empire is that no one is going to be moved to heated debate over whether this movie is an endorsement or an indictment of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11, as happened with 300. There's just not enough here here to be that interesting.
It should be way more compelling, too, that events are happening alongside those of 300: When Themistokles goes to Sparta to enlist their help in the coming war with the Persians, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey, also totally awesome, but not onscreen anywhere near enough), basically tells him to fuck off, cuz her husband is off preparing for war on his own terms. (Butler does not appear here, except in a few brief snippets snatched from the first film.) Yet, somewhat bizarrely, though almost everything is seen through Themistokles's eyes — except when the action moves to Artemisia's side — the film is narrated by Gorgo. And she's telling us things she cannot possibly know about, like how Artemisia pretty much invented Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) as a towering 10-foot-tall, bald and bejeweled god-king. (Turns out, that process is not too cool; it mostly involves hermits in a cave standing around being hermitish.)
In Snyder's hands, stuff like this — almost, you know, exactly like this — was transformed into a treatise on the power of myth and the necessity of storytelling as a cultural unifier.
Here, we just wonder how Gorgo gets her information, and if we should even believe her. Though when she mentions "the stink of destiny," it's hard not to snort and wonder if she smells where that stink is coming from, too. o