Furtively Feminist, Mostly Misunderstood Case File #197: Sucker Punch
All writing is, on some level, self-indulgent. By putting pen to paper, literally and otherwise, we’re declaring that our thoughts and sentiments are so bold and important they must be shared with the world. We write and dance and think and direct and storyboard about that which obsesses us. In four months, I will have officially spent half a decade chronicling cinematic failure here. Come January, I will have devoted something like 400,000 words to My Year Of Flops. That’s an awful lot of time and space to devote to something that by definition will be of limited interest to the general public.
Yet I do it because I feel like it was something I was put on Earth to do and because on some level, I feel I have no choice, just as on some level the universe is angrily commanding Michael Bay to make shit blow up in a cinematic fashion and Uwe Boll to spin the raw material of videogames into cinematic drivel. We don’t necessarily do these things because we want to. We do them because we feel we must.
When I saw Sucker Punch earlier this year, it struck me as the most dazzlingly masturbatory endeavor this side of a James Toback or M. Night Shyamalan film. It represented such a pure, uncompromising vision, I was sure it would inspire at the very least staunch defenders, if not a full-on army of proud cultists. I was surprised and more than a little relieved when the film was received not as a proper commercial or creative endeavor, but rather 110 minutes of Zack Snyder ejaculating his sexual fantasies onto a big screen. Snyder wasn’t treated like an auteur that had made a bold but misguided gamble; he was treated like a pervert who had roped a studio into investing $82 million to bring his erotic fantasies to life. Sucker Punch feels like the very first piece of Sucker Punch fan fiction: an enduring tribute to its own inflated sense of awesomeness.
In Snyder’s mind, everyone got it 100 percent wrong. In an interview with Film School Rejects, Snyder defends the film against accusations of fanboy sexism by describing it as implicit critique of the leering sexism of drooling fanboys who ogle with impunity from the relative safety of the home audience without having to risk genuine human interaction. Addressing the film’s detractors, Snyder asks, “Do you not get the metaphor there? The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me; dorky sci-fi kids.”
Had I gotten Sucker Punch wrong? Had everyone? Had a furtively feminist critique of fanboy sexism been fatally misinterpreted as an example of what it was critiquing? I want to like every movie, so when I sat down to re-watch Sucker Punch, I was watching it through this new filter.
Sucker Punch opens with curtains that part to reveal our protagonist lying in bed while an unseen narrator whispers portentous words about guardian angels that may look like little girls but “can be as fierce as any dragon.” Snyder foregrounds the central theme when the narrator breathily coos, “Don’t let appearances fool you.”
It’s a dark and stormy night. Shadows linger everywhere. Snyder will not allow us to forget that his background comes in videos and commercials, where every frame counts and visceral impact is all that matters. So we’re inundated with striking iconography, all of it secondhand: an overhead shot of a rainy funeral; the giant doe eyes of our traumatized protagonist (Emily Browning); dirt being thrown on an open grave. A less visual filmmaker might open the film with a flurry of exposition. Instead, Snyder lets the story tumble out elliptically. Deep down, Sucker Punch is a silent movie with a talking problem; Snyder does not like or trust words, so he tells his story in images that are as striking as they are derivative.
It’s never entirely clear what’s happening at the beginning of Sucker Punch. It’s never quite clear what’s happening throughout the film. Snyder and co-screenwriter Steve Shibuya deliberately eschew edification; it’s through-the-looking-glass time as the rug is yanked out from under us at regular intervals. Sucker Punch consequently has the increasingly common problem of being at once insultingly obvious and incredibly convoluted. Something is always happening onscreen, often involving some combination of henchmen, firearms, and scantily clad women; but it’s not always apparent what that something might be.
Browning blankly inhabits the gorgeous void of the main character, a beautiful young woman who is dragged to the Lennox House For The Mentally Insane by her abusive ex-stepfather sometime in the 1960s in order to keep her from ever disclosing his role in her sister’s death. In a desperate bid to remain sane and deny the reality of her situation, Browning escapes into a fantasy world beyond the abusive mental hospital where she’s doomed to be lobotomized in five days: a debauched cabaret where she “dances” for patrons.
Thirteen minutes into the film, Sucker Punch critiques itself when a fellow inmate played by Abbie Cornish stops a blade from being driven through her eye and into her frontal lobe (my but lobotomization is a nasty business) and tells everyone assembled, “This is a joke, right? I get the sexy schoolgirl and nurse thing, but what’s this? A lobotomized vegetable? How about something more commercial?” According to Snyder in his interview with Film School Rejects, this is him speaking through the character: “That is basically my comment on the film as well. She’s saying, ‘Why are you making this movie? You need to make a movie more commercial. It shouldn’t be so dark and weird.’”
So is Sucker Punch a dark and weird art movie Trojan-horsed inside a sexy fantasy shoot-’em-up, or a sexy fantasy shoot-’em-up with delusions of being a dark and weird art movie? To give Snyder credit where it is perhaps not due, Sucker Punch is a phenomenally misconceived piece of commercial filmmaking. Behind all the fetishistic trappings is a film about the five days leading up to an abused girl’s lobotomy that takes place almost exclusively in a mental hospital for the criminally insane. That’s the core of the film. Is it any wonder Snyder works himself into hysterics trying to make it seem like anything else?
So when Browning does her first “dance” this is what we see:
Snyder is playing an interesting double game here. In creating “dance sequences” that morph into action-adventure scenarios, he’s subverting expectations. We hit the button for “sex” and instead get action. We want titillation, we get abstract violence. We want a lapdance, we get an allegory about genre filmmaking’s treatment of women.
While that’s compelling on a thematic level, it robs the film of dramatic urgency and momentum. Everything is reduced or elevated to the level of abstraction; the laws of cause and effect have been temporarily suspended to the point where fighting and dancing can stand in for each other. They’re both spectacle, and in Sucker Punch all spectacle is strangely interchangeable.
Movies and videogames are similarly interchangeable in the film. Browning learns from mentor Scott Glenn that she will need five totems to complete her journey: a map, fire, a knife, a key, and an unknown entity Browning will find somewhere deep within herself. That doesn’t sound like the plot of a film; that sounds like the premise of a videogame. The rest of the film follows suit. The battles she has to face are like the bosses players have to fight at the end of a level; the actresses are so glossy and airbrushed they resemble pen-and-pixel dream heroines more than flesh-and-blood human beings.
The dancers have names that highlight their infantilization and objectification. Hell, the protagonist even has two names that highlight her infantilization and objectification: Baby and Doll. The other dancers have nicknames like Blondie, Sweet Pea, and Rocket. The sadists behind the fantasy brothel aren’t about to afford them the dignity of real names. They’re broken, abused, and objectified women forced by circumstances and the dictates of commerce to be sexy, thin, young, and desirable. In other words, they are forced to be actresses, to play a role and satisfy the grotesque, insatiable men who control all the power.
Sucker Punch is essentially pornography without the money shot. It’s PG-13 porn, a lascivious exploration of the most dazzlingly erotic dancer ever to bewitch a gentleman patron that’s almost completely devoid of erotic dancing (in the rated, theatrical version I watched, at least). It’s like a schizophrenic Coyote Ugly that secretly believes it’s a distaff Fight Club. So when it’s time for “Baby Doll” to “perform” the film turns into a sort of steampunk World War I epic, complete with endless shots of the dancer-warriors swaggering in slow motion.
We’re in a realm of pure fantasy, so there’s no real danger or urgency; the only thing at stake is the ultimate fate of a bunch of fantastical creatures who aren’t even alive to begin with, as mentor Scott Glenn attests. Glenn is a great actor, but there’s a smirkiness to the character and the performance that suggests he’s either the only one in on the joke or deeply out of step with the whole production. Yet he alone seems to be enjoying himself. Sucker Punch has a weird thing about denying pleasure to everyone, especially its characters. It doesn’t help that Glenn communicates solely via Mr. Miyagi-approved clichés. (“Remember, ladies. If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything”; “Remember: Don’t ever write a check with your mouth you can’t cash with your ass”; “For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the sheltered will never know.”)
I found the fight scenes a lot more invigorating this time around, perhaps because my expectations were so low that the film couldn’t help but top them. Snyder cultivates such an air of hermetic, tedious dread that the outbursts of action and fury become a welcome change of pace. There’s a vulgar energy to the action sequences missing from the rest of the alternately histrionic and flat film. Snyder takes us galloping across the 20th century, from the zeppelins of the Great War to a Vietnam-with-Orcs scene set, like so much of the rest of the film, to an iconic song, in this instance “Search And Destroy.” It’s a blacklight poster come to life, a heavy-metal-video exercise in faux-badassery.
Part of what makes Sucker Punch so maddening and intriguing is that its faults are wrapped up in its ostensible merits. The title is deliberate; Snyder aims to lure us into an exciting world of adventure and excitement, and then force us to concede our complicity in the exploitation, objectification, and dehumanization of the women onscreen. Criticize the characters as insultingly one-dimensional, and Snyder can say that’s a commentary on the superficial treatment of women in contemporary genre films. Call Sucker Punch derivative, and Snyder can claim he’s riffing on the sum of 20th-century pop culture using ubiquitous iconography and music. Call Sucker Punch the apogee of fanboy sexism, and Snyder will tell you the film was reviled by fanboys specifically because it’s such an eviscerating and insightful indictment of fanboy sexism.
Sucker Punch would be a lot more palatable as cultural and social commentary if it were satirical, but there isn’t a satirical bone in Sucker Punch’s lithe, toned, and scantily clad body. Starship Troopers this isn’t. Fanboy sexism is a wonderful subject for satire, but the tone here is less wickedly satirical than ponderous and portentous. It also feels far too personal to register as cultural commentary. It’s telling that in the above quote about the audience for Sucker Punch being the same audience for the protagonist’s dance, Snyder includes himself.
So is Synder implicating himself as well as the audience in denying women agency, dignity, and free will by seeing them only as action figures and tools of seduction? I suspect the answer is yes, but in this case, the medium (big-budget sci-fi fanboy action) defeats the message. I respect Snyder’s aspirations, but it would be hard to imagine a scenario where they were less successfully or more confusingly realized. Depending on whom you ask, Snyder set out to make either the ultimate sexist masturbatory fanboy fantasy or the ultimate critique of sexist masturbatory fanboy fantasies. He failed spectacularly on both counts, but in true Fiasco form, there’s something fascinating and even strangely majestic about that failure.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco