Zach Snyder has failed colossally with his latest film Sucker Punch. I don’t mean that the movie flopped or won’t make the studio money, even though it’s been beaten at the box office by the sequel to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and a movie where Matthew McConaughey remains full shirted. I don’t even mean the film is a failure because Snyder didn’t do what he set out to do. Sucker Punch bears all the hallmarks the director’s style: gorgeously choreographed action scenes, slick music video production styles, and an almost Kubrickian chilliness. I have no doubt that the movie came out exactly as the writer/director intended. Unfortunately, the task he set for himself was impossible.
Sucker Punch fails because Zach Snyder set out to make an exploitative movie about the exploitation of women. Which sounds all meta and awesome in a postmodern way, but isn’t possible to render in the medium of film. As Truffaut observed it’s impossible to make an anti-war film because no matter how hard the director tries to convey the horrors of war, there’s a primal appeal in watching violence. A badass is a badass, and if you film him being a badass it’s going to look cool no matter how squeamish you might personally feel toward badassery. Sucker Punch is about the exploitation of women and the lengths that his characters will go to in order to escape their male oppressors. The movie has a slightly muddled metaphysics, but basically takes place in three separate (but interconnected) levels of reality in a way that call to mind the far superior Inception, but is still its own creature. Both films share a sense of complexity and find their strength in the labyrinthine constructs of the human mind, though Sucker Punch takes itself far less seriously.
At the start of the film, Snyder shows us a montage that establishes our protagonist Babydoll just after her mother dies. The time frame is indistinct, but Snyder seems to place the action in the 50s or 60s. Her stepfather, a leering brute who we see in a rage at being left out of the will. In the first minute, he shifts from economic exploitation of Babydoll and her sister to a clearly lascivious interest. While attempting to save her from the wicked stepfather’s advances, Babydoll accidentally shoots and kills her younger sister. In the aftermath, the Wicked Stepfather ships her off to a cinematically dingy insane asylum where a sleazy and corrupt (male) attendant agrees to an off-the-books lobotomy behind the back of the (female) head doctor, Carla Gugino. Snyder establishes this as the “Asylum Level” as the film’s ground reality. Here, Babydoll has zero agency. She is literally confined by the males until such time as she can be negated with an icepick to the frontal lobe.
Before long, she starts imagining the asylum as a brothel/burlesque. The attendant becomes a pimp, the stepfather a corrupt clergyman, and the female psychiatrist the head trainer. This is the second level of reality the “Brothel Level.” It is populated Wizard-of-Oz-style by the same people Babydoll encountered when she entered the asylum including her bevy of attractive sex workers: Sweet Pea, Blondie, Daisy, and Rocket. Babydoll is told that “The High Roller” is on his way to deflower her in five days, a span that corresponds to the lobotomy countdown in the Asylum Level. On this level, the male oppressors are exaggeration further into caricatures of corruption and privelege. The cigar-puffing “Mayor” is especially creepy.
Interestingly, at this level of reality Carla Gugino’s doctor is reduced to an active participant of the subjugation of the girls, whereas in the ground level she is only ignorant of the danger posed by her staff. In the brothel, Babydoll is forced to dance. We never see what her dancing looks like at this level, but the other characters all find it spectacular. Males in particular seem to be helplessly enchanted while she dances. The setting and costumes, as well as the pimp’s reaction seem to indicate that a pole might well complement the routine. In any case, the men are so dazzled that Babydoll hatches a scheme to steal the items she needs to escape the brothel (all items that she spotted on her way into the Asylum Level). At least she is taking an active role in earning her freedom.
But every time the music cues and we see Babydoll start to shuffle, the camera pulls in tight and we see what she is imagining as she dances. These fantastical sequences are what got this movie made, and the source of much of the criticism of the film. Sucker Punch works best when Snyder brings us into these “Fantasy Level” sequences. They can get a little samey, and do have the slight echo of a genre checklist that the studio hoped would get the geeks of the world salivating. But the anarchic energy of these scenes makes up for it. It is the cinema of “what if?”. Snyder lets fly with some of the same wild enthusiasm that would lead a kid to wonder, why can’t a cop carry an axe and fight dinosaur robots? The mash-ups in Sucker Punch at the Fantasy Level are the most fun the movie offers.
Babydoll and her sexy sidekicks use mech armor to fight their way through a battlefield filled with steampunk Nazi zombies, engage in aerial plane to dragon combat over a sea of orcs, and engage in gun/sword fights with robots on a train. How could you not like that? The Fantasy Level is the Jungian collective unconscious, so it has room for all these disparate elements to live and breathe together. Babydoll’s tasks in these fictional worlds are her attempts to use her creativity to construct a new reality better and more exciting than the one that exploits her in the Asylum Level. It’s a little like the Imaginationland episode of South Park. Babydoll can use ninja swords against robots despite the fact that the Asylum Level is in the mid-20th century, because in the pure realm of the imagination all the genre tropes that have existed or will ever exist can occur at the same time.
The problem is that in the Fantasy Level, Babydoll acts for herself and in her own interest. She takes the initiative and through her own agency, engages in admittedly bad-ass battles. She becomes the subject of the story instead of its object. At least that’s what Snyder was shooting for. The problem is that in the Prime Reality where you, me, and Snyder all live we are watching these fantasies play out. From our point of view, these empowering acts are just further exploitations. Now, Babydoll and the girls can let it all hang out for us: The Audience Level. And because of that final abstractions, the story cannot rise above the level of exploitation: sexy girls in sexy clothes = teh hawt.
There’s nothing the director could have done. It’s easy to write Sucker Punch off as a tawdry attempt to titillate, but I give Snyder more credit. I think he did want to engage with issues of female agency. Tongue firmly in cheek, to be sure, but the intent was serious. I don’t know how much you can blame him for failing to do the impossible, but as long as he keeps delivering gorgeously constructed films like Sucker Punch, I’ll keep hanging in there for the film that perfectly matches his ambitions to his abilities.