Editor’s Note: You likely know Adam Quigley thanks to his contributions to the /Filmcast, and for his occasionally argumentative stance on popular films. His most famously contrarian opinion may be the defense of Zack Snyder’s 2011 film Sucker Punch. So what better subject could there be for Adam’s first foray into breaking down a topic on video? We’ll have more video dissections from Adam in the future, but let’s begin with an examination of Snyder’s movie — one that is occasionally as vitriolic as the film itself.
You think Sucker Punch doesn’t have thematic substance. You think it doesn’t have character depth. You think it doesn’t have a single sensible thought in its pretty, dumb superficial body.
Find out why after the jump.
In this inaugural episode of Antisocial Commentary, Adam takes a second stab at deconstructing the emotionally rewarding twist ending and thoughtful hidden meaning of Zack Snyder‘s unduly reviled box office disappointment Sucker Punch, both of which have gone unrecognized for too long.
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Feel free to email any questions/concerns/suggestions to adamquigs [at] gmail.com, or message Adam on Twitter at @alwayswatching.
Contrary to popular opinion, Sucker Punch is not a stupid movie. You can hate it for whatever reasons you like, as most critics did upon its release — including but definitely not limited to Rolling Stone, Fandango, the BBC, io9, TIME, Entertainment Weekly, CNN, the Chicago Tribune — hell, even Quentin Tarantino singled it out as being one of the worst films of 2011.
But having read all the reasons so many prestigious journalists have condemned the film to cultural irrelevancy, I can confidently state that they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.
Hopefully though, with a little time and perspective, people will reevaluate what the film is about and what it has to say, and will learn to appreciate it as one of the most misunderstood films of the decade.
But that probably won’t happen, so why don’t I just explain the whole fucking thing.
Sucker Punch is a fantasy. Yeah, I know, no shit.
What I mean to say is, the entire film is a fantasy. There is no part of the movie that exists in the real world, and this chick — Baby Doll, as she’s called — is NOT the main character.
The movie is really about Sweet Pea.
Everything that happens in the film is a reflection of the internal struggle of Sweet Pea, the catalyst for which is her being lobotomized.
And for the sake of clarity, Zack Snyder was even kind enough to throw this kid into the mix. He first appears during the wartime fantasy scenario, and then again getting on the bus. Sweet Pea takes note of him both times, for no other reason than to tell you that NONE OF THIS IS FUCKING REAL.
Baby Doll, meanwhile, is the physical embodiment of Sweet Pea — a sad, pouty-lipped object of men’s affections and desires. She’s the “guardian angel” that Sweet Pea conjures up to deal with having a really shit life. That’s why she’s narrating the film instead of Baby Doll.
So all that stuff we see with Baby Doll during the first act of the film — that’s Sweet Pea acting out her past trauma in her mind, just as she was taught to do in the mental institution.
This is also why the film opens on a stage — a direct parallel to how Sweet Pea is acting out that same trauma on a stage when Baby Doll first arrives.
Then comes the lobotomy, which is the key to everything that happens in the film.
Reimagined through Baby Doll, Sweet Pea disassociates from reality just as that needle plunges into her brain, retreating into her mind in the same way she’s taught to by Dr. Gorski.
This is also what happened in Sweet Pea’s real life, and the effect of that lobotomy is… the movie.
Yep, Sucker Punch is the result of a lobotomy — just one big, weird subconscious coping mechanism for a girl to find peace in spite of the tragedy that’s befallen her.
This time around though, Sweet Pea is able to interrupt the lobotomy, intruding on her own story. She’s even able to repurpose the accidental killing of her sister into a deliberate and necessary sacrifice on her sister’s part to save her.
And here’s where things get meta.
In this second layer of fantasy, Sweet Pea imagines herself and the rest of the girls working in a brothel, objectified and lusted after by an audience in the most overt manner possible.
This mirrors us — the actual audience — tuning in to see these girls perform for us in skimpy school girl outfits and tight leather and other assorted smutty get-ups.
This connection is made clear from the film’s very first scene, which lets us know that we’re the audience watching all this unfold on stage. By choosing to watch the movie, we are complicit in everything that’s happening.
This isn’t to say that the movie is some lamely sanctimonious session of finger wagging meant to condemn you for wanting to see sexy nubile girls kicking ass.
What Sucker Punch is really about is the difference between exploitation and empowerment.
This is depicted through three layers of fantasy, each exploring a different set of social values, each aligning with different phases of the feminist movement.
First up is a grim incarnation of the ’60s, set during the second wave of the feminist movement, when gender inequality was much more widespread.
That gender inequality is amplified in the second world — the brothel — which takes us back even further, to a time when women were literally treated like property.
And finally we have the pop culture world — the world of today — which imagines Baby Doll’s erotic dancing through various aspects of modern geek culture, dressing the girls up in all the typical fetishistic attire we’ve come to expect from comics and video games and TV and movies and so on.
Sweet Pea is aware of how sick this is, and rejects that Baby Doll’s dancing could possibly be empowering. It’s only through seeing its effect on men does she start to see how much power they really have, as the girls start taking back the control they’ve lost by using men’s objectification of them to their advantage.
By embracing their sexuality instead of fearing it, they learn that their inherent femininity can be better used as a means of holding men under their sway. Suddenly, it’s the men who become helpless instead of them.
Point being, men may be in a position to physically overpower women, but women have the power to psychologically overpower men, thus inverting history’s long-standing power dynamic between men and women.
This is then mirrored to very much the same effect in the action fantasy scenarios — a symbolic gesture on Zack Snyder’s part to show women taking back geek culture, which men have been dominating with their boy club mentality and pervasive misogyny for far too long.
This is demonstrated further once we cut back to Baby Doll’s lobotomy, after Sweet Pea has found peace.
While Sweet Pea is busy imagining that she’s taking the magic school bus to a better, more idyllic world, Blue has plans of his own.
But it’s too late — she’s already escaped, even if it’s only mentally.
Sweet Pea sacrifices her body — Baby Doll — and retreats into the comfort of her own mind, a paradise over which nobody has control of but her.
Blue may have control over her body, but she doesn’t let that make her a victim — without her mind, he has nothing.
The importance of this is also apparent during Baby Doll’s encounter with the High Roller, who recognizes that the choice to truly be with someone lies with you and you alone.
We’ve come a long way since the ’60s, and Sucker Punch is a testament to that. It’s an indignant, rebellious “fuck you” to the sexual control and resulting sexual repression of eras past, encouraging girls to embrace and flaunt their sexuality however they please.
As the scene with the High Roller reaffirms, the distinction between exploitation and empowerment all comes down to personal choice. Women deserve just as much control over their bodies as they have over their minds, an obvious truth that should be remembered the next time you hear anyone, male or female, refer to a woman as a slut or a whore or a tease. Men have enough power in the world, and if women exercising their sexual freedom can help keep lascivious guys in check, that seems reason enough for them to be the biggest slut whore teases they possibly can.
And before any women cry foul over Zack Snyder being the one who chose to depict these girls this way, let’s keep in mind that this is the guy who made 300, the beefcakiest display of beefcake this side of gay porn.
Nobody got upset when all those hunky men “allowed” themselves be so distastefully objectified. Why the double standard when women choose to do the same?
It’s not like Zack Snyder doesn’t have a sense of humor about his role in all of this. He’s even represented in the film through the wise old mentor character — another guardian angel — who means well and tries to help guide the girls to freedom, but mostly just spouts deliberately silly cliches that don’t contribute anything of value.
So even as Zack Snyder is encouraging young geek girls to stand together in all their erotic glory and support one another against the sleazy men and judgmental women of the world — just as Sweet Pea learns to do throughout her super elaborate multi-layered spiritual journey — he acknowledges that he’s no more than a chauffeur along for the ride.
It’s up to all the ladies out there to actually make it happen.
Or, guys could just learn to stop being such depraved perverts.
Yeah. Good luck with that.