Year in Film: Cartooning the war

Transformers and 300 turn the conflict into comic book blockbusters
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kimberly@sfbg.com

Oh! What a lovely war! At least that's the overall tone of the most popular movies reflecting our current conflict, surge, or however we're marketing it this week as it conveniently combusts so far from all of the happy $3.50 a gallon gas-guzzling Best Buy shoppers, out of ear- and eyeshot on the other side of the world.

Moviegoers have been avoiding Iraq's realities in droves — this much the producers of The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, and others can attest. This year Americans liked their war with a good dose of comic book fantasy and clearly fictitious spectacle, their tongues teasing the CGI-enhanced teat, preferably attached to the too perfectly uniform six-pack abs on one of those hunka-hunka-burning-Spartan tough-love monkeys in 300.

While Grindhouse's bio-experiment rogue troops were banished to fiscal limbo, Hollywood blockbusters like 300, Transformers, and even Beowulf — stemming from comics, toys, and cartoons and steeped in the stuff of a distended childhood — turned out to be the only way Americans would swallow warfare. Fusing digital animation and live actors to produce spectacles that would have made Cecil B. DeMille reach for his next merchandising tie-in, those hit movies tacitly acknowledged the war we're in and offered candy-colored, action-packed escapism for the inner fanboy and fangirl. Six years into the war on terror, we can't feel good about imminent outright victory; hell, even the most fervent right-winger realizes, in his or her reptilian back brain and in the dark of the multiplex, that the real-life shoot-'em-ups are depressingly, futilely, infuriatingly misguided. But we still want our war to be a great ride — despite the fact that ambiguous reality finds a way of inserting itself into the metal-crushing, knuckle-skating mise-en-scène.

Picking up the air of suicide-mission doom suffusing 2006 Oscar contender Letters from Iwo Jima, 300 started the year with blood-spattered, heroic fatalism. Like Beowulf and even the tongue-in-cheek Transformers, the Zack Snyder–directed epic, based on a graphic novel by draconian edge maven Frank Miller (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), self-consciously frames its narrative — and its uses as propaganda — from the start by revealing the bard or narrator telling the tale. Here the story is recounted for the distinct purpose of leading the Spartans into battle against the Persians.

Miller may have penned the original comic in the late '90s, yet it's hard to read 300 as anything more than emotionally skilled, cinematically compelling, and blatantly racist support for a US invasion of the country most associated with ancient Persia, Iran — little surprise that Javad Shangari, a cultural adviser to Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, described 300 as being "part of a comprehensive U.S. psychological warfare aimed at Iranian culture," according to Variety. Certainly, stereotyping is nothing new in the realm of the sword and the sandal, and 300's Spartan heroes are pale faced and peppered with accents from throughout the United Kingdom (though not the evilly aristocratic upper-crusty tones pushed by Romans of yore) — a case for multiculturalism and inclusiveness they ain't.

The film, however, firmly positions these "free" people versus the dark-skinned "slaves" of the Orient, holding their noble defenses against the dusky masses. According to 300, it may be futile to battle the hordes of the Persian empire — tellingly, an imperial array of warriors from Asia and the Middle East that resembles a mindlessly blood-thirsty "It's a Small World After All" — but dying a good death and fighting for one's supposed freedom is the right and noble path to take.

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