The best thing about finally watching 300: Rise of an Empire after noticing it on HBO Max was that it spurred me to rewatch 300. That sounds like damning with faint praise and it kind of is. Rise of an Empire lacks the style and verve and punch of 300. But it is a fine movie in its own right, and it is interesting to compare the two movies about two very different Greek city-states fighting two very different battles during the same invasion.
Let’s get the unfavorable comparisons out of the way first. Rise of an Empire isn’t a visually arresting as 300. Zach Snyder is still involved but doesn’t direct, which probably matters. As does being the sequel. Being necessarily derivative is a bug when the distinctiveness of the original was such a feature. Sullivan Stapleton doesn’t have nearly the screen presence or gravitas of Gerard Butler. Rise of Empire doesn’t have nearly as many badass boasts as 300. The Battle of Salamis isn’t as well known or cool as Thermopylae (although maybe it should be). Themistocles isn’t as well known as Leonidas (although he is one of the more fascinating of the ancient Greeks).
Rise of an Empire “fixes” some of the issues with 300. In that 300 got and gets a lot of flak from the usual suspects for its perceived politics. That gets upended in Rise of an Empire less because of some change of heart by the filmmakers (I think) than because Athens had a very different political orientation than Sparta and held different virtues in its highest esteem. This, to me, is what makes comparing the two movies so interesting. 300 is all about martial values, including and especially courage and a willingness to self-sacrifice. It’s also about creating your own myths to help create your own reality (not by sheer willpower alone), something the Spartans were very good at. It pithily captures how the role of Spartan women fit within its particular society, rather than generically transplanting current values. (It, admittedly, leaves out some (but not all) of the nastier bits of Spartan civilization, like its heavy reliance on a slave economy to allow for that professional military.) Athens, by contrast, valued freedom and representation and coalition building and fighting to preserve non-military virtues. Rise of an Empire reflects this. It is just unfortunate that it makes for a weaker movie.
Rise of Empire also complements 300 by rounding out the history and helping to elevate Salamis and the roles of the other city-states to their proper place. 300 was frequently dinged for being historically inaccurate, but I cut it some slack because it is so clearly stylized, the average Hollywood movie is as bad or worse, and because it mostly gets the spirit right, if not the letter. Rise of an Empire helps that last one. On the other hand, it hurts 300 by undercutting Xerxes (which wasn’t necessary for Eva Green’s very effective new villain).
And, not for nothing, we should laud Rise of an Empire for a couple things. One is for giving us an, er, boatload of naval warfare, which Hollywood has given us too little of (for understandable cost reasons). It and 300 also deserve credit as very creditable sword and sandal fantasies. We’ve gotten a surprising number this century. It is just that most of them are utterly wretched (I watched the new Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans around the same time, and they are awful by any measure).