Sucker Punch is not a bad movie. I mean, it’s not that bad. I think it’s a misunderstood film that will, years from now, be rehabilitated and reinterpreted – possibly becoming something of a minor classic, much like Dark City.
If you did not like Sucker Punch, that’s fine. Go in peace. We all like different things, and I’m sure we don’t agree on lots of stuff. However, in recent weeks, Sucker Punch has been subjected to some of the worst, most savage reviews of 2011 – critiques that have not been merely negative, but outright vicious rants. I saw one screed that blamed the decline of Western moviemaking on Sucker Punch! (I gave it a positive review, though.) Anyone who hasn’t seen it might be forgiven for assuming that the movie stars Mel Gibson and Bernie Madoff, and was directed by Moammar Gadhafi.
It was directed and co-written by Zack Snyder, who did the stylish 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, then adapted Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300, followed by an adoring translation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ beloved Watchmen comic-book series. It stars Emily Browning as Babydoll, Abbie Cornish (Sweet Pea), Jena Malone (Rocket), Jamie Chung (Amber), Vanessa Hudgens (Blondie), Carla Gugino (Madam Gorski) and Scott Glenn (The Wise Man).
So why all the vitriol? Why is so much venom being spewed at a fantasy flick clearly targeting a fanboy audience, from a director best-known for comic-book movies? Shouldn’t all this rage be directed at Rob Schneider and Jennifer Aniston, whose films are far more aesthetically offensive? (Hell, not even the biggest haters can argue that Sucker Punch doesn’t look damned impressive!)
Personally, I think it’s because the movie makes some people feel stupid. And when people feel foolish, they lash out. Now, to be clear, I am not accusing anyone who didn’t like this movie of being stupid, and I am loathe to use “The Emperor’s New Clothes” defense. It’s not that people who hate it lack the taste and sophistication to properly appreciate it. I’m just suggesting that the complex plot and non-linear storytelling can lose some folks, and some of those folks may have gotten bitter about it. How else to account for the people who claim the film’s story made no sense? It did make sense. You may not have enjoyed it; you may not have liked it; you may not have paid enough attention to it — but that doesn’t make it incomprehensible. Yes, it had some plot holes, but so do lots of flicks.
If you couldn’t understand Sucker Punch – or even follow it – you were not paying attention, and/or you were not asking yourself the right questions. If you were actually angry after seeing the film, I think you didn’t get it. There is plenty to like about Sucker Punch and not to like — but a lot of the criticism hurled at it is not valid if you’ve actually watched the movie. Why do I say that? Let’s take a look at what haters… er, hate about it.
1. The entire movie is just an excuse for leering cheesecake shots. Okay, let’s get this “sexist” bogeyman out the way first. Yes, Babydoll wears a sailor suit as her fantasy fighting togs. The reason for that is, the sailor suit has a long history in anime and manga. She is dressed to resonate with genre fans. Babydoll wears over-the-knee socks, but her costume is not used in an exploitive manner. Everything about the way Baby moves and fights – jumping through the air with one knee bent, landing in a crouch with one arm thrown backward – is designed to mimic anime. The other girls are dressed in various leather and mesh costumes that actually cover them up quite a bit more than haters make it sound. And please point out to me the last American-made “chick flick” that dressed its romantic heroine in a nun’s habit. Maybe you can think of the last time Kate Hudson or Sandra Bullock spent an entire movie swaddled in ill-fitting sweats? Never! Sex sells, and people want to look at pretty actresses. In that light, Sucker Punch isn’t such a patriarchal abuse, is it? Sometimes, being “exploitive” doesn’t have as much to do with costuming as with how female characters are treated. And in Sucker Punch, no female remains a victim for long. All the heroines have agency. All mark their journey to maturity by making their own decisions. A corollary to “exploitation” argument is that the female empowerment of this movie is undercut because the women are dressed sexy. Um, no. They are dressed sexy to demonstrate that they own their own sexuality and have chosen to wield it as a strength. Babydoll, Sweet Pea and pals chose their costumes, not some drooling male character.
2. The movie was larded with cardboard characters. While they may not be the deepest characters on celluloid, most of the main players have actual arcs. Babydoll learns that she can take charge of her own life. Rocket realized she really did love her mother. Sweet Pea accepted that she cannot save everyone (especially Rocket). Heck, even Blondie learned that nobody likes a snitch!
3. The five quest items – the map, the knife, fire, the key and the cryptic fifth item – were meaningless and just an excuse to let the girls fire guns. Say what? Immediately after Babydoll obtained the key from Blue (by using the knife!), that key, the map and fire were all used by Baby and Sweet Pea to make good their escape. Even the mysterious fifth item – Babydoll’s belief in herself – came into play to help Sweet Pea escape.
4. The “reality” and “fantasy” realms haphazardly mix genres, places, times and technology in a way that “prove” the director doesn’t know what he’s doing. Bull. All the apparent inconsistencies are signals to the audience that something is off; that not everything is what it appears to be. The “real world” story is set in the 1960s, so how could Babydoll have fantasies that involve mecha and cellular headsets? Would she really imagine a colony on a moon of Saturn? Well, it’s all a fantasy, and I would argue that steampunk zombies are not intrinsically incompatible with orcs and androids in the landscape of the mind. When you see the girls communicating via headsets in a WWI setting, the movie is telling you that you are watching an unreliable narrator. The story she is spinning is not entirely on the level; Babydoll and Sweet Pea are winking at the audience.
5. The story takes place on too many levels of reality. I submit that there are fewer levels than you think. I believe the movie actually only has three levels of reality. 1. Babydoll’s “real world,” and, 2. The fantasy brothel. Babydoll’s “sailor suit” worlds are actually all aspects of the same level, the Bordello; they just look different. Notice that there is never a cut or a dissolve when Baby starts to dance. Instead, the audience sees a close-up of Baby closing her eyes, then the camera spins and we see the world from her perspective: snowy pagoda, WWI trenches, dragon castle or space colony. Sweet Pea and Baby are the only ones we see in the sepia-toned “real world” – i.e. supposedly the place you and I inhabit.
6. Whose story is this? Sucker Punch is not Babydoll’s story. She even says so herself at the end. This is Sweet Pea’s movie. Sweet Pea is the narrator. The audience may assume that Babydoll is the protagonist of the story because she is the first character seen, but she isn’t. When Babydoll enters what Blue calls “the theater,” Sweet Pea is sitting forlornly on a bed onstage, mimicking the position Baby was in when the curtain opened in the very first scene of the movie. (Think about what that opening curtain means! Babydoll is putting on a show!) The first time we move from “Reality” to “Bordello” comes just as the Doctor is raising the hammer to lobotomize Babydoll – yet Sweet Pea is the one who hollers “Stop!” onstage in the fantasy realm. Sweet Pea is the focal character; she is in charge. Babydoll never speaks a line of dialogue until she saves Rocket from the Cook in the Bordello level some 20 minutes into the movie, which is long after Sweet Pea has been seen talking. And, finally, one of Sweet Pea’s early lines: “I’m the star of the show!”
7. Why does the audience never see Babydoll dance? Clearly, that fact is a major clue about what’s really happening: The audience never sees it because if the narrator is Sweet Pea, who falls under Babydoll’s spell, she cannot witness the dance itself. As soon as Babydoll starts to sway to the music, the scene immediately merges with a fantasy landscape, and Sweet Pea sees Baby in her uniform.
8. What’s up with Scott Glenn’s character? The Wise Man is one of the most conventional characters in the movie! He is there to aid Babydoll on her quest for freedom. His character is a classic part of what Joseph Campbell calls “the Hero’s Journey” He is the wise mentor, the Supernatural force that guides, trains and offers counsel to the aspiring hero. Glenn’s Wise Man appears in all the action-fantasy levels, and sets the goal at each stage.
9. Sucker Punch was beaten at the box office by Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules, so it must suck. Did anyone seriously think that an edgy, envelope-pushing male-skewing fantasy would defeat a safe, generic family movie aimed squarely at children? The fact that Sucker Punch was only beaten by less than $5 million ($19.1 million vs. $23.8 million) on the opening weekend is actually pretty positive. Box office figures mean nothing in the real world, and the continued emphasis on them is utterly baffling. Reporting box-office returns is just a symptom of the current American vogue to reduce everything to an easily digestible nugget of pseudo-information. (The Dark Knight’s receipts beat Batman Begins. So what? How is the world affected? It isn’t.)
So what do we take away from all this? That the fantasy segments of the movie all take place in the microseconds before the Doctor slams home that hammer and lobotomizes Babydoll. She spent her five days in the opening sequence (that montage during which she is seen crying on Dr. Gorski’s couch) and then was pithed by a spike sent into her brain at the very end. In the course of the fantasy, she came to terms with her fate and accepted that while she could not save herself (or her sister) she could (and did) save Sweet Pea. Baby really did help her escape, as proven by the burned-out janitor’s closet, Blue’s stab wound and Dr. Gorski mentioning that Baby helped another inmate escape. Babydoll’s mind escaped to that fantasy world, and if she was lucky, it stayed there.
Look, I can understand that not a lot a people want to invest much thought in two hours of escapist entertainment, but that doesn’t mean the movie was a crime against humanity. I may be completely wrong about all my conclusions here, but I did it because Sucker Punch made me think… and it entertained me.