Zach Snyder’s much-maligned Sucker-Punch will age well. It’s a hot, phantasmagoric mess that boasts stunning visuals, endlessly inventive action scenes and an engaging premise. The movie is also a surprising Trojan horse that smuggles in a meditation on the subjugation of women. It doesn’t all add up, but it made me think, even though I wonder if Zach Snyder knows what “sexy” means.
Forgive me for reducing Sucker-Punch to simple arithmetic, but given the movie’s rules, I can’t help it. There’s no escaping a movie’s first and most forceful result – what it shows the audience – and in the case of Sucker-Punch, when Emily Browning’s virginal, angelic mental patient/courtesan “danced” – and I’ll address what her “dancing” may have been later – Snyder cut to one of his movie’s center-pieces: A series of golden-hour blowouts starring his corseted band of superheroines, all of which unfolded against a succession of high-concept genre-mashup backdrops.
Again, I hate to treat this like addition and subtraction, but when Browning had to be “sexy,” Snyder didn’t show us “sexy.” Instead, he presented us with imagery that was chemically engineered to blow the mind of any red-blooded geek. I’m not sure what that means.
And I submit that’s a good thing. Snyder clearly had a lot on his mind when he made this movie, and I’m not talking about those genre-mashups. For better or worse, Sucker-Punch made me think about misogyny, feminism and the portrayal of women in media as much as any movie I’ve seen in the past few years. That probably says more about my sporadic moviegoing habits than anything, but nevertheless, while watching Sucker-Punch, I found myself looking up the three prongs of the famed Bechdel test – a basic gauge to determine the presence of actual female characters in a movie. The three prongs are:
1. The movie must have at least two women in it.
2. Two women must talk to each other.
3. They must talk about something other than a man.
I feel like a goof saying this, but Snyder may have made the most bizarre movie that will ever satisfy those requirements, although I’m loath to recognize a movie where all the women go by one-word stripper handles (Babydoll, Rocket, Amber, etc.). That said, I can’t shake the feeling that Snyder himself very much likes women, and that Sucker-Punch is an effort to work through his feelings about they’re treated. I know I’m reaching, but let’s face it: Snyder delivers a movie in which all but one of the male characters are loathsome (murderers, rapists, pimps and johns), and in which the central action is rape.
Before I continue, let me define some terms. Snyder’s movie takes place on three distinct planes that I’ll refer to as:
The A story: What I presume is reality. Browning plays an abused stepdaughter who is sent to a mental hospital to be lobotomized before she can reveal that her stepfather murdered her sister.
The B story: One level down into the protagonist’s psyche, Browning finds herself trapped in a whorehouse-stronghold. All of the characters from the A story have direct analogs here – Oscar Isaac’s manacing orderly becomes their pimp, Carla Gugino’s head psychiatrist becomes the madam, and the lobotomizer (Jon Hamm) becomes a nameless high-roller.
The C story: The aforementioned genre-mashup set pieces.
Let’s get back to my contention that the movie’s central action is rape: I’m serious. Again, I hate to reduce everything to ones and zeroes, but given the rules laid out, and especially considering the third-act revelation that Isaac’s orderly had been regularly raping Browning’s mental patient in the A story, I’m forced to conclude that Browning’s hypnotic dance numbers in the B story are those assaults. Furthermore, when Browning dances in the B story, the movie never actually shows her dancing, instead cutting to one of the C story set pieces – which suggests that she’s retreating pretty far into her mind to escape the trauma being inflicted upon her.
I know I’m being reductionist. I know I’m being simplistic. But that’s where Snyder’s trail of breadcrumbs leads me.
(Speaking of fairy-tales: Movies like this – which take place in multiple worlds or realities – often face a choice: Do we allude to The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland? I always felt like The Matrix mixed metaphors (so to speak) by alluding to both, but Snyder wisely confines his allusions to Alice. Browning herself resembles Lewis Carroll’s heroine, and one of the C story action scenes features a mech-warrior emblazoned with the likeness of a rabbit, while a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” turns up elsewhere.)
At this point in the review, I feel like I have to assume the role of apologist. The movie scored an abysmal 23 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and received some of the most sinus-clearingly bad reviews I’ve ever read. As an apologist, I feel like it’s my job to praise and defend Snyder’s movie, but I hesitate to praise it because I think it’s an honorably flawed enterprise, and I hesitate to defend it because I worry that I’ll come off as scolding or self-righteous.
But here goes. I’ll start with the praise.
I’ve talked about how Sucker-Punch made me think, but did it entertain me? I reply in the resoundingly affirmative. Snyder distinguishes himself as a master visual stylist, and although he and co-screenwriter Steve Shibuya didn’t deliver the delicately interwoven narrative I hoped for, I still admired the movie’s clear storytelling, goals and stakes.
Snyder and his creative team also deserve untold hosannas to be sung in their honor for the level of invention packed into the C story. Regardless of the thematic underpinnings of the genre-mashups, I was delighted to see a B-52 bomber attack a medieval castle swarming with orcs, and I marveled at the execution of a battle between Browning and two giant samurai monsters. I never saw the seams between the special effects and human subjects. The filmmakers also paid careful attention to size, scale, perspective and physics, although to be sure, the physics in the C story belong to a heightened comic-book reality. I’m also stunned that in all of the scathing reviews I read, no one bothered to mention that Sucker-Punch features steampunk Nazi zombie stormtroopers. What a treat! Did that little detail just fucking slip everyone’s mind?
To be fair, I did come across it in one essay about the movie. In the aftermath of the universal cry of outrage over Sucker-Punch’s perceived crimes, my colleague Jonathan London of the eminent Geekscape.net felt compelled to condemn geek culture itself. His entire essay is worth a read, but here’s a choice selection:
Go ahead and blame yourselves for Sucker Punch because if you’re going to blame Zack Snyder, you’re the jerks who led him right to the front door. This guy made a film with dragons, nazi steampunk zombies, dancing women in school girl uniforms, samurai combat and Matrix-like aerial acrobatics. If you hate Sucker Punch, then go ahead and throw out your entire collection of D&D manuals, Bubblegum Crisis DVDs and Call of Duty games. These are the things we have loved for decades that we have brought to the commercial spotlight and now that it’s there we aren’t cool with them being celebrated? You sound like a bunch of asshole punks who are burning your Operation Ivy CDs because Rancid started sounding like Ska and Reggae!
I admit I found Sucker-Punch exhausting to watch, but that was to be expected from a Zach Snyder movie; I also found Dawn of the Dead and 300 exhausting to watch. (Strangely enough, of his movies, I only found Watchmen to be properly paced, and that was more a product of its episodic structure and powerful source material.) I also don’t think it’s a deadly sin for a movie to test our endurance when it’s also throwing everything but the kitchen sink at us. One of Sucker-Punch’s closest genetic cousins, Moulin Rouge, features a similar visual style and go-for-broke attitude, and even though it’s just as exhausting to watch as Sucker-Punch, it’s generally regarded as a success, whereas Snyder’s movie is seen as a failure. (I don’t mean to suggest that “exhaustion” is the only metric by which we should judge movies like this, but it sprang to mind.)
Now for the defense. There’s no polite way to say this: Sucker-Punch is about the subjugation of women and the sin of rape, and at the same time, it’s aimed at a geek audience, which I fear is still largely a boys’ club. Snyder’s movie doesn’t have all the right ideas about feminism, but I submit that his heart is in the right place.
That said, I ask this: Were geek men ready, open, willing or even able to think about these issues? Again, this movie had steampunk Nazi zombie stormtroopers, and geeks talked about it like it was a blast of projectile diarrhea into an open chest cavity during a triple-bypass. What happened?
Let me pause and emphasize something: Just because Snyder’s movie made me think about misogyny, feminism and the portrayal of women in media, that doesn’t mean I’d call it a successfully feminist movie. (If you want to watch a popular movie that’s also a powerfully feminist one, watch The Silence of the Lambs.) Like I said before, Snyder has some pretty suspect ideas about how to explore these issues. It bugs me that he couldn’t resist inserting a paternal male figure who saves the day – Scott Glenn’s general – and there’s still the matter of his lead characters being dressed like prostitutes for the entire movie. I guess there’s a defense to be mounted on the grounds that Snyder was trying to deconstruct the “Pussycat Dolls” aesthetic, but my gut feeling is that such imagery does more harm than good.
All the same, I’m left with this impression: His heart was in the right place.
Earlier I complained that the screenplay wasn’t as delicately interwoven as I would have liked. That complaint dovetails with my assertion that Snyder’s movie – although it makes an admirable attempt to grapple with misogyny and the subjugation of women – isn’t a successfully feminist movie. Here’s what I mean:
Remember how the two storylines in The Matrix fed off of each other so elegantly? We always knew what the stakes were in both worlds, and the heroes always had tasks to accomplish in one world that would affect the outcome in another. Sucker-Punch follows a similar pattern. In the B story, Browning’s courtesan must dance for her life, which sparks the C story, in which she must fight for her life.
But where’s the A story?
Snyder gave us corsets, fishnets, cleavage, zombies, Nazis, mech-warriors, dragons, robots, bullets and bombs, but he didn’t realize that his most interesting story lay high above his flights of fancy – in reality. Furthermore, even though Snyder made an admirable attempt to engage some serious gender issues through pop art, he buried those issues in high-concept action scenes and orgiastic metaphor.
A screenplay that explored all three storylines in greater detail would have forced Snyder to deal head-on with the sins of men, and in doing so, he just might have made a better movie about women in the process.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.