How 300 Paved the Way for Zack Snyder’s Justice League

In many ways, Zack Snyder's 300 set the template for what would become a long legacy of comic book adaptations for Warner Bros. and DC Comics.

300 Zack Snyder
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

300 may not hold much significance to the teenage set of DCEU fans who were too young to bask in its bloody ballet of high drama when it debuted 15 years ago, but the overall look and tone of the DCEU, established in large part by Zack Snyder, can be traced back to his landmark second feature. The painterly, desaturated colors and tones of 300 laid the foundation for the Snyder-helmed Justice League and their earliest offshoots, which evoke a considerably darker, more adult tone than the brighter, poppier MCU films. And while dark comic book movies are quite common today, 300 broke new ground at the time of its release.

Films like Batman Begins and Constantine brought more adult stories from the comics to the big screen prior to 300, but they didn’t look like comics come to life like 300 did. The imagery bears an uncanny resemblance to Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s artwork in the original book, and at times it’s essentially a panel-by-panel recreation of the graphic novel. In 2007, the film married beauty and brutality in a way audiences hadn’t quite seen before. While Robert Rodriguez’s neo-noir adaptation of Sin City, another Frank Miller creation, had taken a similar, stylized approach to graphic novel adaptation two years prior, there’s no denying Snyder’s aesthetic ultimately proved to be the more enduring vision.

Famously, 300 employed speed ramping in a fashion that felt revolutionary for young moviegoers reared on traditional Hollywood movies (and video game cinematics). This holds particularly true for one key, minute-long shot featuring Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas laying waste to gangs of Persian soldiers. The technique emphasized violence in a way that at once felt epic, intimate, and sensual. Multiple cameras with different focal lengths were used in tandem with the speed ramping effect to allow the post-production team to zoom in on points of impact and back out to a wider view of the action smoothly, within the same shot. The effect was dazzling, to say the least, and made the scene one of the most memorable visual effects shots of the early aughts.

There was a grand sense of scale to 300 too that can largely be attributed to the film’s almost exclusive use of blue screen/chroma key for virtually every shot of the movie. Filming on partial sets with blue screen backgrounds gave Snyder and his team the flexibility to create the environments from the ground up with visual effects, allowing for shots that look almost exactly like what you see in the graphic novel.

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There’s no better example than the shot in which Leonidas’s Spartans force dozens of Persian soldiers off the side of a cliff, surrealistically silhouetted by a blazing sun positioned perfectly at the precipice. There are countless, startlingly beautiful shots throughout 300, and at the time, it was almost impossible for audiences to not run straight to the theaters to see the film after glimpsing its baroque trailers.

300 garnered major mainstream attention in its day, earning $456 million at the box office. It became a pop culture sensation as well, giving birth to countless memes and spoofs that went viral in the early days of YouTube. Butler’s unforgettable “This is Sparta!” war cry became one of the most quoted movie lines ever (maddeningly so), and while the film didn’t receive universal critical acclaim, it was more than successful enough to get Snyder’s next big comic book adaptation green lit.

With 2009’s Watchmen, another decidedly R-rated comic book movie, Snyder doubled-down on his unique approach to obsessively faithful adaptation in terms of visuals and tone. He again channeled the energy of the source material, bringing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ book to life in both style and substance, putting an emphasis on the story’s adult themes and heady philosophies, and highlighting the intimacy of the violence. The film did well at the box office ($185.3 million), particularly when taking into account its 163-minute runtime. This is also the movie that finally convinced WB that Snyder was the right filmmaker to kickstart DC’s own cinematic universe, which led to one of the most controversial creative partnerships of the last decade.

For better or worse, Snyder’s trilogy of DC movies — Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and (at least initially) Justice League (2017) — left an unmistakable mark on pop culture and internet fandom, although it was likely not the kind of impact WB hoped to make with its big-screen superhero universe. A cold reception from critics and dwindling box office returns, at least in WB’s eyes, may have tanked Snyder’s larger ambitions for a whole trilogy of Justice League films about gods facing off on a post-apocalyptic Earth, but his DCEU work did earn the filmmaker the cult hero status among a certain sector of the fandom that few director’s ever attain. Those fans who had always dreamed of watching a dark, more adult and deconstructionist take on superhero movies than the MCU would ever offer finally had their own auteur to turn to.

As he did with 300 and Watchmen, Snyder used panels from actual DC comics to create a visual language for the DCEU that feels as if it were a dreamlike version of our reality, accentuating the sense of grandeur and awe of the superheroes’ presence on Earth. While Snyder’s take on the worlds of DC is heavily inspired by classic mythology (like 300), mixed with a big dose of Christian symbolism, the director also turned to some of the biggest DC epics imaginable: John Byrne’s Man of Steel (Man of Steel); The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman (Batman v Superman), and the New 52 reboot of Justice League (Justice League).

You can see how much emphasis Snyder put on recapturing the look and feel of the source material exactly as it is on the page just by revisiting his storyboards and treatments. The pitch for his Justice League sequels that will likely never get made even featured artwork by the legendary Jim Lee.

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The four-hour Snyder Cut of Justice League that was released last year on HBO Max (after years of online fan campaigns and a pandemic that temporarily shut down theaters) felt like the culmination of the director’s comic book movie career. You could call it the most Zack Snyder-y movie ever made, a showcase for the filmmaker’s signature style, one he’s been refining ever since King Leonidas first proclaimed “This is Sparta!” And yes, the Flash’s slo-mo clash with Superman in Justice League is as eye-popping as the Battle of Thermopylae was in 300 when enough arrows fly in the sky to blot out the sun. While Snyder’s entries in the DCEU are polarizing to say the least, it’s undeniable that, without the success of 300, there would be no DCEU as we know it today.