Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay by Zack Snyder, Steve Shibuya; story by Zack Snyder. Produced by Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder. Music by Tyler Bates, Marius de Vries. Photographed by Larry Fong. Edited by William Hoy. Production designed by Rick Carter. Starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm.
Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is a pseudo-female empowerment epic that is pitched entirely at the level of stereotypical thirteen-year-old boys. Just like boys of that age love boobs, girls in tight clothes, guns, zombies, robots, monsters and brainless action, so does Sucker Punch, which tries to dress all those elements with a safety cloak of remedial, phony feminism as if it fits. If there’s anything worse than a dumb movie that thinks it’s smart, it’s a dumb movie that thinks it’s saying something smart, and Sucker Punch fits that bill: it gleefully delivers pure exploitation and then clucks its tongue at us for watching pure exploitation, as if that built-in level of hypocrisy is meaningful. Snyder wants to have it both ways, by giving us trash and then trying to implicate us in its creation, which lets him off the hook, right? I can deal with mixed messages in art, but this is not art, because art is never this obnoxiously self-serving.
Whether the movie is misogynistic or not is almost beside the point, because the film’s real problem is the cowardice with which it sidesteps every complaint you could lob against it. Dislike the way the narrative wallows in female objectification? That’s because it’s a dream state and an immediate psychological reaction to an implied victimhood, so how dare you judge those poor girls! What’s that? Shaking your head at how cartoonish the whole enterprise is? That’s because it keeps playing games with levels of reality, so who knows what’s really true, you fool? Have a problem with the meaningless and rather sexist action scenes? They’re supposed to be meaningless and sexist, because we’re trying to indict the male gaze, which is held by you, you man, you. And the lesbian overtones are absolutely not there for titillation, but instead they’re a snare for you, who would go looking for that kinda thing. Sicko. Tsk tsk. Okay, so what does that say about Zack Snyder, who conceived, wrote and directed all of these elements? He’s above it all, I guess.
What I’m trying to say is that Sucker Punch plays a defensive, rigged game in which we are constantly distracted into thinking that something larger is going on. Its characters are hyper-sexualized ciphers, its environs are lurid, and its set pieces play like video game cut-scenes scotch-taped together. But hey, this immature mode of storytelling represents exactly what these girls are trying to escape from, so you don’t mind if we enjoy ourselves while they try, right? While the film tells a story of bondage and slavery, it retreats to fantasy sequences that are still well-couched within terms of bondage and slavery. Oh, and some amped-up CGI battle stuff involving monsters and robots, because the world of Sucker Punch is incapable of relating to women as anything other than sexualized playthings or honorary boys.
Like Inception (but with a much lower level of ambition), Sucker Punch is essentially a labyrinth of dueling realities. The fundamental one—let’s call it Reality A—involves Babydoll (Emily Browning), a sweet-faced urchin in the 1930s who faces abuse at the hands of her alcoholic caricature of a stepfather, and she is sent to an asylum via trumped-up charges and institutional corruption. We don’t see very much of Reality A, because just as it looks like Babydoll is going to get a lobotomy we flash to Reality B, where Babydoll is the new girl in a brothel owned by the lecherous mobster Blue (Oscar Isaac) and run by Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), who has a Russian accent simply because Russian accents are scary. This reality is trashy, with the girls being used as prostitutes, exotic dancers and free labor, and the constant threat of rape is referred to again and again. I know to vilify something you have to show it, but Snyder really really likes showing it.
In Reality B, we meet a handful of other girls in similar straits as Babydoll. There’s Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), all of which are distinguished almost single-handedly by the skills of the actresses, because the screenplay certainly doesn’t treat them as individuals. The girls band together to escape and in order to do so need to steal five objects from the brothel employees. This is pure video game logic, because there’s no reason for it to be five objects any more than there is for it to be ten or twenty: the structure is there so that when each attempt is made, we fall into Reality C, which is a malleable dimension where the girls are sent on missions against adversaries like stone samurais, robots, steampunk nazi corpses, Lord of the Rings-style goblins, and so on.
Reality C is where the over-the-top set pieces live, and where many of the problems lie. Each scenario in reality C is pointless, and exists merely to provide an exhaustive special-effects demo reel. There is supposed to be a connective tissue between Realities B and C, as Reality C is triggered whenever Babydoll dances, mesmerizing whoever her audience is and leaving them susceptible to having their pockets picked. But there’s no correlation between Babydoll’s dancing and what actually happens in reality C except the basest, easiest archetypes. Nor is there any explanation for why Babydoll’s fantasies correspond exactly to what a twenty-first century teen would think is “cool.” Nor is much interest generated in the elaborate special effects sequences that compose Reality C—we’re basically watching cartoons fight each other with no regard to physics, common sense, or any known logic. Reality C is, in other words, that most maddening of movie worlds: the one where anything can happen at all. And so nothing truly does happen there, at all.
More troubling is that those scenes are supposed to be about these victimized women taking control of their destinies, but even within them they’re still dressed in tawdry attire—sexy leather commando outfits that accentuate their skin and curves. And we see every inch of those curves, because Snyder fetishizes these characters with all the subtlety of a thirteen-year-old pouring over his first Frank Miller comic book. There is some homoerotic tension between the girls while on their mission–which, hey, at least give Snyder credit for fairness, because he did the same thing for the guys when he made 300. Don’t give me that look. He did.
Is all this ultimately supposed to be a confrontation of male expectations for all-female action scenes? The CGI sequences are pitched at a level of comic-booky video game reality that the male characters on-screen would have no frame of reference for, so it can’t be an attack on them. So is Snyder blaming us, the twenty-first century audience, for presuming an action scene to play out this way? Is it a critique of sexist fanboys? That’s what he says. How convenient for him that something he excels at can be explained with that ironic distance. There’s no difference in delivery between the action scenes here and those in any other Zack Snyder film, so if this is meant to be ironic than that would mean they all are, and I don’t think that’s true.
Even if we accept the notion that Sucker Punch is a critique, however, it still doesn’t work, because the film makes no place for those who don’t buy into this horsepucky for a second. If we really are to believe that Snyder is smarter than this, and wanted to make a movie that held a light up to the buried sexism in action-adventure popcorn entertainment, he should have been less thuggish with his approach: his wall-to-wall carnage is so off-putting we’re given every opportunity to walk away and stand apart from the material. Instead of being implicated, we’re condescended to. He presumes a latent sexism on our part when he’s the one force-feeding us this imagery. Snyder is not a subtle director, and his desire to challenge those who would see a movie like Sucker Punch is not only unfocused but ultimately inconsequential. Because no one went to see this movie.
We already mentioned that the connections between Reality B and C don’t work. What about between B and A? There are vague implications that Reality B is some sort of heightened version of Reality A, which is not a brothel but is still a corrupt organization that looks the other way to sexual assault and murder. But Reality A, despite being more “normal” than the other two, doesn’t play as naturalistic—it plays like another Snyder fantasy sequence with its cartoonish melodrama and subtler (but still oppressive) special effects. I don’t know where the film’s opening takes place, for example, but it isn’t reality, and doesn’t that undermine the purpose? Another movie that played this game was David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, but eventually Mulholland Drive does wake up and give us hints about what was real. Here, none of it’s real. Or some of it’s real. Or all of it’s real. Who knows? Who cares?
That really hurts the material. Not inherently, understand, but instead because Snyder gives us nothing to latch onto as an alternative. He can deflect criticisms of the movie’s objectification of women all he wants, but that doesn’t change the fact that his female characters are shallow, none more so than Babydoll, who is practically a blank slate. We have no backstory for her, just plot mechanics. She never says, thinks or does anything interesting, credible, or even relatable—Snyder is so desperate to construct her as a symbol cum-action figure for rah-rah female empowerment that he lends absolutely no interest to who she is as a person, which is so ironic it’s sad. The film’s assumed social statements have all the honesty of an undergraduate attending a feminist march because he really wants to get laid.
What’s most aggravating about all this is that at every moment Snyder swings for the fences—so when he’s wrong, he’s wrong huge. Take the film’s soundtrack, which is full of anachronisms (a Eurythmics cover turns up at one point, and a Queen/Armageddon hip-hop mash-up appears at another), but the songs aren’t wrong because they’re out of time or place. They’re wrong because they’re so flipping obvious.
I haven’t really mentioned the acting much. It’s fine. Browning, who showed charisma in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, turns off that charisma here, but that’s less a fault of hers and more the fault of a screenplay that insecurely toggles her between two modes: weepy or hardass. The rest of the girls are perfectly fine, too, and everyone seems to be really under the impression that a good movie is being made, which, if you’re an actress and for weeks you’re dressing up in skimpy corsets and gaudy makeup and fishnet stockings, maybe you simply have to believe that something good is being made, for your own sanity’s sake.
I like Snyder as a director. Sort of. I admired his remake of Dawn of the Dead, even though it ultimately pushed it with a meandering second act and a nihilistic post-script that reeks more and more of his now well-illustrated lack of discipline. I disliked 300 and liked Watchmen, perhaps because the former is slavishly devoted to a graphic novel I hate, and the latter is pretty faithful to one that I love. Now here is Sucker Punch, which comes right before his new Superman movie due next year, which thankfully for him he was signed to before Sucker Punch bombed in theaters.
What are we to make of Zack Snyder? He’s an aggressive director. A stylish one. An inventive one. And also one who lives or dies based on the material handed to him: his two smartest movies are that way because they came from smart sources: George A. Romero and Alan Moore. With Sucker Punch, he wrote the original screenplay with Steve Shibuya, which for Snyder I think is working without a net. Now free of having to adapt another’s work, he blasts pure id across the screen, and while I think it’s possible to form this debris into a statement, it’s not worth the effort. I’m not saying Snyder is sick, understand. I’m saying he should not be behind a typewriter unless he knows what he’s doing, and here he does not.
Is Sucker Punch a bad film? Yes, but the real problem is that it’s an indefensible one. As an action movie it’s tedious, and as a paean to female solidarity it’s utterly misguided. And for a movie that purports to have an important lesson within, it really seems tongue-tied about what it’s trying to say. I could imagine the sight of scantily-clad female commandos being subversive or satirical, or…whatever. Something smart and incisive. Here it’s just a calculated self-indulgence: the unfortunate decision of a man who ultimately wants to have his cheesecake, and eat it too.
Note: Jon Hamm (who plays the villainous character called “High Roller,” as well as a skeevy doctor) is not in the movie enough. However, I like Jon Hamm a lot and I am very protective of him, so perhaps I should say instead that he is in the movie too much simply by wasting his time being in the movie at all.