After a long and protracted nightmare, and a week after everyone stopped caring, I’ve finally seen Sucker Punch and can talk (sort of) intelligently about it.
I’ll be honest – I haven’t read a lot of reviews, not even those written by my best friends. I try to experience films without someone else’s voice in my head, especially if I’m going to write about them, because I don’t want to ape anyone’s voice. But I read a lot of reactions because Twitter was lit up over the weekend. It was fascinating to see the bile and passion hurled at this film. I became desperate to see it primarily to know what side I fell on. Would I be one of those who thought it was a misogynist fleshfest? Or would I see it as a feminist screed? Would I love it? Hate it? I became more interested in my reaction than the film. (As I sat in the theater, I thought what a costly experiment that actually was, and shouldn’t I just spend my money to hang out with Bradley Cooper? But Cooper can’t write my column. Sucker Punch was going to provide material.)
As usual, I fall in the maddening neutral zone that doesn’t win academic grants, and doesn’t bank in a lot of online traffic. I thought the film was all right. I didn’t love it. I didn’t loathe it. The fundamental problems I have with it are, I imagine, what many have already pointed out. The characters are thinly sketched, and the performances (save for Oscar Isaac’s) uninspiring. The narrative layers are ludicrous. The fantasy effects are a hodgepodge of slick references that firmly paint it as Zack Snyder’s fantasy world, not Baby Doll’s. It also played my least favorite story trick ever, which was to have a narrator that is relaying events that he / she cannot possibly have seen.
The crucial problem is the overarching threat, though. I feel like this was a script that originally had a lot more sinister eroticism and sexual danger, and it was whitewashed for ratings and box office purposes. I think this is a big reason as to why the story fails, especially in the third act. It’s well-publicized that Snyder cut the sex scene between High Roller and Baby Doll for the rating, and it takes the intensity, symbolism, and emotion out of the ending. The dream layers would be thin enough, but without the real sleaze of the brothel or the hospital, we have no sense these girls are actually preyed upon. If we did, the battle scenes would make slightly more sense. They would be a release of anger and frustration, and we’d be invested in the outcome. (The video game analogy lobbed at Punch doesn’t quite work, but the music video one does. I care about diffusing a bomb in a video game. I don’t care if a pop idol succeeds.)
I had read The Art of Sucker Punch several weeks ago, so I came into the film with a lot of background as to what Snyder’s ideas and intentions were. One of his failings (and Sucker Punch exploits it terribly) is that he gets very caught up in details and epic “awesomeness,” and it don’t always translate. There are things in that book – the smiling rabbit, for instance – that are supposed to mean a great deal to Baby Doll, but they got lost somewhere in edits, rewrites, and action plotting. I know Snyder had a very solid idea when he started out on Sucker Punch. It was clear from his book foreword that he was very taken by stories of mental institutions, the women put in there, the barbaric “cures” and how one might cope with the crime and sentence put upon her. It was a story he wanted to explore in all of its cold brutality. It’s unfortunate he wasn’t able to really tell it, but I can applaud him for trying, and hope that next time (and I do think there should be a next time) he has someone who can rein in his worst impulses. There’s a good director here, and an original, vivid mind at work. It bothers me to see so many people saying “To hell with this guy!” because this is a man who is desperately trying to be innovative, and share his enthusiasm and inspiration. He doesn’t always succeed. Maybe that’s enough for a lot of viewers. I certainly know people have very, very strong feelings on his films – and I’ll freely admit I don’t share the criticisms of Dawn of the Dead, 300, or Watchmen – but that, I think, means he’s got more worth than even his harshest critics want to admit.
I think Sucker Punch is a stumbling block for Snyder, not the defining thud of his career that it’s being portrayed as. Frankly, I don’t think it’s as wretched a product as some are screaming it is. But no one is going to get noticed if they say “Eh, it has flaws, but there were some interesting things there. Curious to see the Director’s Cut.” No, they’re only going to get followers and hits if they scream it’s the death of cinema. Sucker Punch is not the death of cinema. Not by a long shot. It’s just disappointing, primarily because its ambition exceeded the collective talents behind it.
But let’s jump to the really furious debate. Is it a film for the male gaze, or is it third wave feminism? Well again, I fall somewhere in the disappointing middle, though I lean towards “feminist.” Snyder has stated, again and again, that he wanted their clothes and their attitudes to make men feel uncomfortable. He wanted them to be using sexuality as a weapon. He wanted them to own it and turn the kinkiness of fishnets and corsets inward. Is it effective? Kind of. It is a little too shallow and silly, and the designs are based primarily in what Snyder thinks is cool or sensual. I wish he’d had each actress work with Michael Wilkinson to design her own warrior costume, because I would have liked to have seen the results. I suspect that a lot of the same elements (stilettos, corsets, thigh-high stockings) would have been present, mixed liberally with more armor, leather, duster coats, military trappings, and black eyeliner. If you give a girl a treasure box and say “Design your warrior costume. Pick anything you like. We’ll make it look good on you!”, a girl will not pick sweatpants and a hoodie. If she claims she will, then I pity her lack of imagination, and would ask her what statement she’s trying to make. Who is she trying to impress, hmmm?
What did impress me was that while Snyder gave them little to wear, he didn’t shoot these young women in an exploitative way. I had heard accusations – “masturbatory” was a word thrown around a lot – that he had, so I did the pervy thing. I focused on the T&A and looked up Baby Doll’s skirt. Does he zoom up it? Does it fly up? Does the camera linger on her boobs? On anyone’s boobs? Any crotch shots? Any arched backs and porn expressions? No. It was not the feeling I experienced during Sin City, Tomb Raider, The Spirit, Charlie’s Angels, or the Megan Fox snippets of Transformers. There are directors who shoot as if they are fondling their actresses. The camera becomes very penetrative. As a woman, it has made me feel uncomfortable. Sucker Punch was a rare exception to that. I admired them, I thought they looked good, but I didn’t feel as if I’d just visited Fleshbot.
Frankly, Baby Doll owns the hell out of that sailor outfit, and she does it because it’s forced on her. When she realizes in that first fight what she’s capable of, I sense that she keeps it on as a badge of honor. She walks away uninjured despite wearing thigh-highs and high-heels. It’s impossible. She knows it is. And she exults in it. I’m not sure the subversion works (and some of that may even be due to Emily Browning’s performance), but it’s an attempt and at least it didn’t leer at its characters, which is more than I can say for any other latex clad lass. When Baby Doll & Company stride down that WW1 trench, there was no bouncing flesh, no slow pan over thighs and curves. They were soldiers, daring anyone to raise an eyebrow and offend them over gender, over their clothes, over their right to be there. There wasn’t a single moment where they had to explain themselves or their abilities to anyone. I kept waiting for the Wise Man to goad them on with some sexist dig or someone to wolf whistle at their outfits, but it never happened. Did I stand up and cheer over it? No. It wasn’t remotely at that level. But I did admire the confidence and swagger of its presentation, and accepted and understood that they wanted to wear those outfits into battle. I believed they had chosen them for the cool factor, not for how they made the onlookers feel.
Now, I’ve worn a lot of crazy things — corsets, costumes, stilettos, fishnets, belly shirts, and halter tops. I’ve worn them all because I wanted to. I was proud of the way they looked. There’s pleasure in the restrictions, the exposure, and the feel that have absolutely nothing to do with the male gaze, and everything to do with your own attitudes and desires. It’s the same reason I love wearing make-up. It’s the sheer pleasure of putting the stuff on and seeing a new face – my face, but tweaked – emerge. I love going out with that face, and owning it. Many of the so-called “feminine” things I do to myself — manicures, pedicures, my jewelry, my lingerie, my perfume, my haircuts or high heels — I actually do for myself. I resent anyone who tells me it’s all symbols of patriarchy and oppression. I’ve been told – as if I don’t know my own mind – that I do it for men, all for men, and that I just can’t accept this subconscious reasoning. It’s difficult for some to accept that a woman might take any pleasure from the appearance, sight, and feel of her own flesh. (Surely men experience this – the way a certain outfit looks, or the way their hair is styled, or the cologne they like – and it is also disconnected from its possible sex appeal?)
It may not be fashionable to admit it, but I liked that about Sucker Punch. I got where it was coming from. There is a part of me it tapped into who has always wanted to put on an impractical outfit and fight monsters. In my mind, it’s always been the equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando, with just as much exposed skin and muscle, but with a little more style. Lots of leather and metal, preferably. I’d like to cut people in half, lug around a big gun, and fly bomber planes. Perhaps I’d like to do these things because they are what a man would do, or maybe it’s the bloodlust inherent in all of us. How do you know what I, as a woman imagines when she’s idle? You don’t. Perhaps Snyder shouldn’t have tried to guess either, but at least he thought beyond “She would imagine a beautiful wedding!” He sees women as possessing some backbone, as not being completely alien from a man. It’s a step forward.
If you want to say the movie is dumb or a mess, I’ll agree with you. I won’t (I can’t) argue that Snyder has penned some third-wave feminist manifesto. He hasn’t, and he indulged his own quirks too much so that Sucker Punch isn’t as deep or as revolutionary as it could and should be. But I don’t agree that he’s somehow double-crossed audiences and tried to pawn off sexist imagery for feminism. I don’t think he believes girl power lies only in masculine fantasy and imagery. I think he truly tried to take what bothers and annoys him about the exploitation of women (including, perhaps, his own fetishes), and tell a story that exploded them. Unfortunately, it didn’t really ignite, but I can salute Snyder for at least trying to think it through.
I also appreciate the dialogue that’s sprung up around the film, and what its characters, their clothing, and their actions represent. It’s the conversation I wish would spring up around more girly garbage like He’s Just Not That Into You (a film that is far, far more of a feminist horror show than Punch), or Michael Bay’s use of Megan Fox. It seems we only have it around Twilight installments, so it’s nice to have one around a movie with explosions, swords, and guns. Perhaps this is the first ping of a bigger and better discussion and movement for women in cinema. But I fear it’s just the brief flare-up before the mainstream oogles the next piece of pouting action ass trotted out in a summer blockbuster, with nary a whisper of concern or sexism to be heard.