Posted on Sunday, March 27th, 2011 by Adam Quigley
[The following contains major spoilers for Sucker Punch]
Battle: Los Angeles. I Am Number Four. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Clash of the Titans. The Wolfman. Resident Evil: Afterlife. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
What is it that these tentpole action films have in common?
They all received better reviews than Sucker Punch.
Yes, once hailed as being among the more anticipated cinematic outings of the year, writer/director Zack Snyder‘s fantastical pop culture mash-up was unleashed in theaters this week only to be met with an overwhelming amount of sneering hostility and ridicule. And yet, amidst the critical excoriation of the film for its spastic overindulgence and numbing stupidity, as well as the outright repudiation of its girl power themes (even /Film’s own Angie Han has shared her thoughts on the failed feminism of the film), I stand alone to shamefully whisper: I kind of liked it. And I think it’s about time to give this film its due.
PART I: WHY IT FAILS, AND WHY THAT’S OK
There are three layers of fantasy to Sucker Punch — the reimagined hospital “reality”, the reimagined brothel “reality”, and the newly imagined fantasy worlds — and each brings to the film varying levels of self-awareness, peeling back its own layers to allow for further social criticism and/or cultural exploration.
The central problem with the film though is that it’s unable to satisfyingly marry the story to its underlying meta-awareness, causing the entire narrative structure to come crashing down.
Aspects of the story — which takes place in the mid-’50s, just before gender inequality was confronted by the second wave of the feminist movement — are sound, if a little messy. I love that the entire movie exists as a multi-layered dream world in which reality is hinted at but never shown, with Sweet Pea having concocted the character of Baby Doll to spiritually save her — serving as a guardian angel, as the film denotes — in the immediate moment prior to her being lobotomized. I love how Baby Doll serves as a symbolic representation of the real Sweet Pea — a troubled girl who constantly struggles against male chauvinism, and is viewed by her male oppressers (including us) as nothing more than a pouty-lipped sex object. And I especially love how Sweet Pea uses her fantasy worlds to repurpose her past trauma (i.e., accidentally killing her sister when trying to save her) into a deliberate and necessary sacrifice on her sister’s part to help set her free.
But then we arrive at other elements of the film — specifically, the action sequences — that very obviously occur because an intemperate filmmaker wanted to stuff his movie full of genre-blending set pieces, and don’t at all make sense as part of Sweet Pea’s imagination. Perhaps if Snyder had spent as little as 30 seconds establishing Baby Doll as someone with a vested interest in influential pieces of literature and cinema — oh look, she’s a fan of Tolkien and Asimov and Kurosawa! whaddya know! — it would be easier to justify her nonetheless anachronistic visions. But really, I think Zack Snyder would prefer we not even question the character or plot rationale behind it.
Because of this glaring fault, Sucker Punch doesn’t work as a coherent, self-contained story.
And that’s OK.
Sucker Punch isn’t terribly concerned with story anyway. It gets far greater joy reveling in self-aware cultural reflection, with each additional layer to the overall framework continuing to build on its exploration of geek culture and women’s place within it. Snyder seems intent on getting his ideas onto the screen however he can, treating each action vignette as a short film unto itself, and mirroring them to the outside “reality” more through their dance-like rhythm than anything pertaining to the plot. But when viewed within the greater context of the film, they take on a new relevance, and actually contribute to the narrative in some fairly compelling ways.
This is a film with a lot to offer, and I think the key to being able to appreciate those endearing qualities is a two-step process: (1) Do away with the belief that there are rules a movie needs to abide by; and (2) Accept that this is a picture that willfully forgoes narrative cohesion for what is essentially an attempt at synthesizing blockbuster cinema with avant-garde self-examination.
PART II: FEMINISM FOR DUDES
Sucker Punch is unquestionably a film intended for men. If it seems like the picture’s depiction of empowered females is too heavily skewed by a male gaze, it is. That’s the point. The film is very much about the male gaze, because that’s the lens through which females have been depicted in pop culture. Just as the men in the film are entranced by Baby Doll’s provocative dancing, so too are males in the audience meant to be entranced by these girls’ familiarly arousing attire and sexually suggestive posturing.
Sweet Pea dismisses Baby Doll’s dancing as nothing but overtly sexual thrusting and gyrating. It’s not female empowerment; the only purpose the sexuality serves is to turn guys on, and that still leaves them in a place of being held under the sway of what guys want from them instead of what they want from themselves. So they devise a plan to gain freedom, this time using the power of their sexuality to hypnotize the men and hold them under their sway instead. It’s at this point that the film thrusts us into its several fanciful scenarios, each of which hopes to have exactly the same effect on any young men in the audience.
These action vignettes very deliberately pander to adolescent fantasy, dressing up the girls in fetishistic garb that highlights their thighs, midriffs and frequent upskirts. But just as the girls continue to take back control from the men in the real world, their physical appearance in the action fantasy worlds gradually takes a backseat to their ability to simply kick a ludicrous amount of ass, in very much the same way any male action star might. More importantly, by unifying and fighting together — in both worlds — the girls are able to put forth the effort needed to defy the physically imposing monsters who aim to keep them in their place. They’re fighting to take back the control that’s been taken from them.
While it may be the girls’ sexuality that allows them to manipulate their leering oppressers, they find their true strength elsewhere: In each other.
That’s right. Sucker Punch is The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But with dragons, robots and Nazi zombies.
PART III: WE NEED TO GO DEEPER
But wait, isn’t there a conflict of interest? How can you denounce something while at the same time so clearly savoring every moment of it?
Sucker Punch isn’t the first film to encounter this point of contention, but it may be the first film to directly confront it. Revenge films, for example, often take great pleasure in depicting violent acts against deserving parties, even while ultimately condemning the act. The message seems hypocritical. But revenge films, like most films, don’t have the luxury of actively separating the grim reality its message is intended to correlate to from the fictional medium its operating within.
Sucker Punch does have that luxury, because its unconventional format affords it the opportunity to convey that exact distinction.
Yes, the girls in Sucker Punch are sexy, and that has its merits — I seriously doubt Zack Snyder would deny that, since he takes as much pleasure showing off sexy school girl imagery as he did greasing up bulging abs and biceps in the beefcake-heavy 300 — but on one level you have playful fantasy, and on the other level you have harsh reality, and as depressing as it is to admit, we still have yet to reach the point where guys (a lot of them, anyway) seem capable of separating the two. And that’s what Sucker Punch is: Zack Snyder’s attempt to separate the two. Literally.
By bluntly transitioning between the misery-amplified “real world” and the fun, cartoonish, pop culture-infused fantasy world, the film introduces a very clear delineation between what’s acceptable and what isn’t. It manages to criticize the all-too-real prospect of girls being used and abused in society, but does so without negating the visceral appeal of strong, sexually-charged females in pop culture. The latter doesn’t necessarily diminish the fight against the former.
Some may find that to be a mixed message, and it’s easy to understand why: It’s almost impossible for depictions in pop culture to operate free from their social context, since their relation to reality is always lingering over them. But consider: Nobody complained when 300 similarly objectified the male form for the purposes of substance-free, popcorn entertainment. Why? Because men don’t live in fear of being objectified. And if Zack Snyder had his way, the same would be true of women. But it’s not. So, through Sucker Punch, Snyder has drawn the line as he sees fit, fighting for a world where take-charge female badasses are allowed to be empowered by their sexuality without running the risk of being seen exclusively as fuck objects for men.
The problem lies with the world we live in, not with Sucker Punch‘s depiction of feisty, leather-clad heroines. We choose how we want to perceive people of either sex, regardless of the clothes they wear. It shouldn’t be necessary for women to fear and abandon their inherent eroticism to make progress in the world. They should be free to embrace it, without worry of being labeled a whore or a victim of rape. You want true equality? There it is.
PART IV: HATERS GONNA HATE
As a whole, I think Sucker Punch is a seriously flawed effort. But it’s not fair to write the film off as being a completely mindless one. In an age of derivative shit like Battle: Los Angeles, an amibitious failure like Sucker Punch is something to be supported and admired, not violently derided and shunned. Many may deem it a disaster with a deeply confused sense of morality, but surely there’s something to be said for trying something new. Isn’t that, above all else, what Hollywood is in need of right now?
I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t hate Sucker Punch.
All I hope is that you’re hating it for the right reasons.