Even Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government was offended. "Such a fabrication of culture and insult to people is not acceptable by any nation or government and we consider this attitude as hostile," said Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham during his weekly press briefing in Tehran earlier this week.
So, is that what the filmmakers intended -- to make a parable about current events? After all, Frank Miller, whose graphic novel inspired the movie, has been outspoken about his belief that we're in the middle of a clash of civilizations. "It seems to me quite obvious that our country and the entire Western world is up against an existential foe that knows exactly what it wants," he said during an interview with National Public Radio in January.
Director Zack Snyder, whose oeuvre includes "Dawn of the Dead," claims that politics was the farthest thing from his mind, although he welcomes the analysis. When a reporter asked him about whether Leonidas was an insurgent or Bush, Snyder replied, "Look, if the movie can make that debate real, make people talk about it, great. That's more than I could ever hope."
Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, a scholar at the Hoover Institute who advised the filmmaker, says that the issue never came up when Snyder came out to visit him on his farm to show him a rough cut last fall. "Not a single occasion did they ever mention their politics and to this day I don't know what their politics were," he told ABCNEWS.com.
Hanson dismisses either analogy as applying to Bush. "Whatever take you have on it, there are too many incongruities to make either one believable -- America is the bigger power, like Persia, but it's also a Western power, like Greece."
Classics scholars say that the story is a classic myth open to interpretation, but they agree that it's too difficult to draw clear parallels to current events.
David George, a professor at St. Anselm's College, recognizes that the battle is "a signature event in the West's consciousness of itself," one that was cast by the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines as civilization's triumph over the barbarians. "While the names change and the religions change and the cultures change, there is this notion of Asia as the Eastern threat."
But George contends that casting Bush as Leonidas is quite ironic since Persia was arguably the more civilized society. "It was the Persians who returned the Jews from Babylonian captivity. Zoroastrianism [the Persian religion] is a very open and inclusive religion," he said. "In comparison, the Greeks were incredibly parochial. Sparta was a fascist state."
Those ironies were clear to O'Neill, who's worked at an archaeological site in Greece near Thermophylae. But he also understands how easy it is to draw comparisons to modern politics. "The threat coming from the East, the proto-jihadists coming from the Middle East, you could make a case for that," he said.
When he saw the film recently, O'Neill joked with a friend, "Does the bad guy in the background who's trying to profit off the war represent Cheney?"
Then again, most scholars agree that the movie's $74 million box office gross over the weekend had less to do with politics and more to do with audiences' appetite for blood and guts, lots of fighting and more eye candy than a soft porn movie.
When George discussed the film with his students, he said, "Men looked at it and said they saw [naked breasts] and violence, and girls saw pecs and violence. Love and death."