In Defense of Sucker Punch

(31 comments)

A commissioned essay for Eric Rosenfield.

I will admit that I am not entirely sure how to go about constructing a defense of Sucker Punch. It seems to me a film that is its own defense . It’s intelligent, well-made, and has a clear and savage point to make - one that was important in 2011, and remains important today. Above all else, I recommend sitting down and watching it; the theatrical cut, specifically. (The extended cut has at least one change that is, to my mind, without doubt for the worse.) Certainly almost everyone I’ve pointed to has come away from the film broadly sharing my perspective on it. And yet there is a persistent vein of criticism against the film - one that seems to me to fundamentally misunderstand almost everything about it, and that is inexplicably common among people I wouldn’t normally expect such misreadings from. One of whom paid me rather a lot of money to set him straight.

All the same, defending the movie seems strange to me, simply because its critics seem to me, as I said, mostly to simply not accurately describe the film in the first place. So instead, perhaps, an explanation of Sucker Punch.

The author is of course dead, but it seems useful to start with Zack Snyder’s own comments on Sucker Punch, if only to shore up my claim that this is not some redemptive reading where I slyly read against the text, but blatantly and straightforwardly what the text is. Indeed, Snyder has talked about the way in which the film was misread, saying:
I honestly feel like a great majority of the time people just missed it — they missed the movie entirely. They missed the point of the movie. Like when I talk to people about “Sucker Punch,” they would say this is a hollow romp with these girls dressed like they’re from Frederick’s of Hollywood — and I’m like, really? You just need to watch the movie more carefully. But if zero percent of people said, it’s not a de-constructivist comment on pop culture, then I might go, you know what? I blew it.
He elaborates on this in several interviews, frequently returning to the question of the characters costumes:
Someone asked me, "Why did you dress the girls like that, in those provocative costumes?" And I said, "Well, think about it for a second. I didn't dress those girls in the costume. The audience dressed those girls." And when I say the audience, I mean the audience that comes to the movies. Just like the men who visit a brothel, [they] dress the girls when they go to see these shows as however they want to see them.
And, elsewhere:
It’s funny because someone asked me about why I dressed the girls like that and I said, “Do you not get the metaphor there? The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me: dorky sci-fi kids.”
So the next question is how this subversion is meant to work. Certainly simply putting women in skimpy costumes and then claiming you’ve deconstructed audience expectations would be underwhelming, to say the least. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Snyder intends there to be a subversion of those tropes, and we ought be actively looking for one in approaching the film. It’s also, at this point, worth highlighting the title - Sucker Punch - which suggests strongly that we should be looking for a decisive moment of subversion or twist - a moment at which a film that appears to be going one way suddenly turns and becomes something very different - specifically something that attacks the audience.

For all of this, however, the film sets up its methodology pretty early on with its nested series of dream sequences and fantasies. The unsubtle structure of Babydoll questing for the four items that are explicitly highlighted in the sequence of her being admitted to the asylum makes it clear that the audience is meant to read items in the asylum, the brothel, and the fantasy sequences as having clear and identifiable parallels across the sequences.

Given this, there is surely no parallel in the film more important than the equation of Babydoll’s erotic dances within the brothel and the fantasy action sequences. This equation is the main engine of the film - the means by which its MacGuffin, the quest for the map, fire, key, and knife that are necessary for Babydoll’s freedom is visibly conducted. She dances, distracting everybody, while her friends steal the item in question. And each time this transpires, the camera cuts away just as she begins her dance and switches to a gratuitous and over the top action sequence. Then, after the action sequence is completed, the film cuts back to the brothel and the ecstatic reactions of Babydoll’s audience as they stare at her sweat-drenched face. The only way this could scream “we are talking about the male gaze” any louder would be if they named a character Laura Mulvey.

It is at this point also worth highlighting the fact that Snyder is a meticulous director. I mean this in a relatively neutral way, and not as a value judgment. He cuts frequently, and is fond of close-ups, especially during action sequences, where his tendency to revel in that classic Wachowski trick of panning around slo-mo action is pronounced, giving them a sense of careful choreography. (One that goes nicely with the idea that they are in some sense equivalent to dances.) On one level, the fact that one constantly has a sense of Snyder as a directorial presence is important simply because it further supports the sense that this is a deliberate film. But there’s a more important aspect that ties into the larger issue of the male gaze.

Mulvey, in her landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” talks about how “The beauty of the woman as object and the screen space coalesce; she is no longer the bearer of guilt but a perfect product, whose body, stylised and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film and the direct recipient of the spectator's look.” This notion of the fragmentation of the female body is immediately present in Snyder’s visual style, with its close-ups and frequent slow motion shots that give his action sequences stylistic similarities to the erotic dances they are meant to parallel.

But none of this amounts to subversion. Awareness of the male gaze while indulging it is not an improvement; if anything, it makes it worse. To quote myself in A Golden Thread, “acknowledging that something is ridiculous while still doing it straightforwardly just isn’t enough. Ironic distance is not equivalent to dissent.” In other words, what we’re looking for is still an actual moment of subversion - a point where the male gaze goes from being literalized to being attacked.

Certainly the male gaze is subject to a degree of snark from the outset, most obviously in the initial switch from the world of the asylum to the world of the brothel. This comes right as Babydoll is about to be lobotomized, in a sequence that cuts rapidly from John Hamm (in shadow) about to drive the spike into her eye and her terrified face before a voice says “stop” and the camera cuts back to what the viewer expects to be Babydoll’s eyes (and what, for a moment, with the camera focused on the spike and with an extremely shallow depth of field, appears to be them). Quickly, however, it becomes clear that we are looking at a different character, namely Sweet Pea, who quickly critiques the entire scene, saying, “I get the sexy little school girl. I even get the helpless mental patient, right? That can be hot. But what is this? Lobotomized vegetable?”

But more important than the fleeting moment of critique is the parallel it establishes between Babydoll and Sweet Pea. As we’ve already noted, the question of what’s treated as equivalent across narrative levels is massively important to the film, and this is the only time in which two separate characters are conflated. And this sets up the story’s climactic moment as Babydoll and Sweet Pea are on the brink of escape and Babydoll realizes she will have to sacrifice herself so that Sweet Pea can make it, telling her, “this was never my story, it’s yours” and telling her to go have a normal life and to be free.

This is a remarkable moment, not least because it is not entirely true. The film clearly is Babydoll’s story, at least within normative narrative codes. It starts with her and follows her journey throughout. She is self-evidently the protagonist. And yet the film’s act is her transferring narrative agency to another character - one she proclaims to be “stronger,” and, perhaps more significantly, one who has substantially more actual character development fleshing out a life outside of the asylum/brothel.

It is also worth noting that this has come after a harrowing collapse of the “fun” offered by the erotic dances/action sequences. After the successful completion of the first two missions, the third one goes wrong, with Sweet Pea’s sister, Rocket, being killed both in the action sequence and in the brothel, triggering a scene of genuinely disturbing violence as Blue, the violent and misogynistic brothel manager/orderly, guns down two more of the main characters. Notably, these acts of violence are not given Snyder’s stylized gloss - in both cases, the camera cuts away from the character being shot. There is no pornography of violence - only the horrifying echo of a gunshot and the agonized reactions of the girls’ friends. These murders are not allowed to be pleasurable (a word that quickly comes up in dialogue after, as Blue insists that he’s “in the business of pleasure”), but are instead brutal cruelties, positioned as the awful consequence of the male gaze that has dominated the film up to this point.

And so we come to the film’s final monologue, narrated, as with the beginning monologue, by Sweet Pea:
And finally, this question: The mystery of who's story it will be. Of who draws the curtain. Who is it that chooses our steps in the dance? Who drives us mad, lashes us with whips and crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who is it that does all these things? Who honours those we love with the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us and at the same time sings that we will never die? Who teaches us what’s real and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live and what we'll die to defend? Who chains us? And who holds the key that can set us free? It's you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight.
In light of what has gone before, there is no way to read this as anything other than a commentary on the ugly intersections of the male gaze and rape culture that the film has been exploring. And so the overall arc of the film becomes clear - the eroticizing male gaze and the “hot chicks shoot stuff” action sequences are equated, and then the entire ideological position this represents is steadily moved towards its logical and inevitable conclusion and presented back for the audience with a mocking challenge: “is this really what you wanted?” And then, at last, an alternative is presented: one based on female characters with agency, and an audience that is willing to demand better.

And yet shockingly, this was largely missed. To some extent, I think, this is simply down to poor timing. After 300 and Watchmen, Snyder was a director with a reputation for the mindless, and doing a personal project like Sucker Punch was all but certain to get a critical drubbing. Critics saw what they expected to see and thought little of it, and so the film was saddled with a reputation for being the exact opposite film from what it is.

But in 2015, at least, an altogether bigger reason presents itself. The fact that geek culture had a misogynistic streak was obvious in 2011, but in those innocent days long before anyone had ever uttered the phrase “Quinnspiracy,” little yet “Gamergate” it was easy to misunderstand, if not the scope of the problem, at least the degree to which it was entrenched. That a geek culture that thinks a jilted ex airing dirty laundry in public constitutes a major scandal in terms of ethics in video game journalism would miss an absolutely blatant critique of its own sexism can hardly be called surprising. And given the number of useful idiots that Gamergate, the Rabid Puppies, and other campaigns against even the most basic sort of social justice concerns in geek culture have managed to recruit, it’s difficult to seriously suggest that there’s any film that could possibly have been sufficiently obvious in its critique of sexism to actually be noticed. In 2011, nobody could possibly have realized just how willfully blind geek culture was able to be about sexism. And so of course this film got misunderstood. Because it was, and is, simply too completely and utterly right to be allowed to be understood.


This doesn’t explain all the misreadings - certainly it doesn’t explain how a usually smart critic misread the film so egregiously he was willing to pay me $100 to explain it. (Although, really, it’s hard for me to complain about that.) But it does, I hope, explain a film that is only becoming more important and powerful with the passage of time. And it’s long past time we stop letting an obvious misreading eclipse a film that, quite frankly, we need more in 2015 than we did when it was made.

Comments

sunny photons 2 years, 1 month ago

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Froborr 2 years, 1 month ago

Here's the thing, Phil: We know all of this.

We know the film equates action movie/video game cutscene-style violence to pornography. As you say, that's kind of hard to miss!

The problem is that it's not *enough.* It still spends most of its running time uncritically showing that porn. There is nothing in the action sequences that renders them jarring or grotesque--all the elements critical of those sequences are found on other layers of the film. The result is a movie that seems to want to have its cake and eat it, like when people get called out for telling sexist jokes and respond by claiming it was satire. The action sequences remain straightforward, unrepentant examples of Male Gaze-driven violence porn, with music and camera work designed to make us see them as cool, and then after them we get someone saying "Oh by the way, those were totally a bad thing. Also it's your fault they were there."

tl;dr: You're watching Futurama, the show that doesn't endorse the cool crime of robbery.

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Steven Clubb 2 years, 1 month ago

For me, the problem with Sucker Punch is the events in the film are so far removed from whatever the reality of situation is supposed to be that I'm not in the slightest bit invested in their actions.

This becomes pretty clear at the end of the film where I'm supposed to care about a character I have never encountered before, because up until then we had only been showed a second-hand fantasy version of that character. We have no idea why she's in a mental institution, for all we know she's legitimately needs to be there because she's mentally ill and/or violent. All we know is Baby Doll saved her.

Another thing which bugged me is how the psychiatrist somehow ends up lower on the totem poll than the orderly, which is only partially explained by his being a man and presumed to be of greater value. There's nothing preventing Baby Doll from telling her doctor about the planned lobotomy, which, even if they thought her crazy, would disrupt the plan because it would very clearly point to a suspect in the event her "crazy fantasy" came to be... which is ultimately what happened in the movie despite Baby Doll not bothering to tell anyone.

Whatever sub-textual value there is here is buried under a presentation which obscures the characters from the audience. When they got into their fantasies within their fantasies, I was just bored as it was twice removed from reality. "Exciting" stuff was happening, which just bored me to tears because I couldn't connect it with any kind of peril for the characters.

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Theonlyspiral 2 years, 1 month ago

So it lures you into a false sense of security and then blindsides you? Sounds like quite the sucker-punch.

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Froborr 2 years, 1 month ago

How did you get that from what I wrote?

The film didn't lure me into anything, I was dragged to see it by my then-gf and hated every second.

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Froborr 2 years, 1 month ago

Here's the thing: the layer that is 100% pure Male Gaze is colorful and energetic, with exciting music. It's brain-dead video game-cutscene exploitation, sure, but it's also the only layer where the movie appears capable of simulating something vaguely resembling synthetic joy-substitute.

Then you have the brothel layer, which is not quite as colorful or energetic but still has something resembling life to it, and which is where we get the acknowledgment that Male Gaze is a thing that happens.

And then you have the asylum level, which is utterly dour, boring, and lifeless, and where the criticism happens.

So, the film equates the uncritical acceptance of the Male Gaze with color and energy, and criticism of the Male Gaze with dour, joyless drudgery. Which is only one of the most common claims of anti-feminists.

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storiteller 2 years, 1 month ago

I think there was a two-fold problem here in terms of misinterpretation.

For one, the marketing campaign was awful. It didn't suggest any of the multi-layered approach you suggest and if I remember correctly, focused solely on the "sexy ladies shooting things" section. As a result, I think you ended up with the majority of the audience being people who wanted to see the "sexy ladies mindlessly shooting things" genre, who of course weren't going to understand the subversion even if it hit them upside the head. You also ended up with anyone who would want to see a subversive movie like that avoid it because it looked terrible.

Secondly, I suspect (although I can't know because I haven't seen it) that it suffered from the same problem as Man of Steel. Phil made a very compelling argument about Man of Steel offering the same type of subversion, which I thought was very interesting but totally disagreed with. As Froborr points out above, Zach Snyder may be interested in subversion, but he revels in his shallow action sequences way too much to actually have them be good criticism. Even if there is something deeper in there, the movie draws you in and then the end isn't enough of a sucker-punch to actually made you realize the bigger message. It feels like a message frosting put on top of a cake of awful. It feels like he wants to have it both ways.

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Tymothi 2 years, 1 month ago

So, do you think the action sequences being weightless and feeling stakes-free is a deliberate choice? The opening sequence of his remake of Dawn of the Dead suggests he knows how to shoot an action sequence, everything I've seen from him since (I've not seen Man Of Steel or Legend of the Guardians), particularly 300 and Sucker Punch, has been silly looking, glossed over, and cartoony. During the entirety of watching the Sucker Punch action sequences, I kept wanting to hit a button so I could skip the boring cutscenes, and get back to the kernel of the interesting movie that seemed to be under the gloss. Which, seems to me, undercuts what he was trying to do. The "here's why it's wrong for you to enjoy the previous things you were seeing" trick only works if the viewer was actually enjoying those things. Which suggests that it's a better sermon than a movie, and considering the number of people that the sermon didn't reach, not all that a successful sermon, either.

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dm 2 years, 1 month ago

I wrote a big comment blaming Snyder for mainstreaming the worst reactionary politics that were brewing within nerd culture when he made 300, and about how that made him irredeemable in my eyes. I got really high handed and called him my Daleks. I'm glad it erased itself on refresh. But the man is still an asshole who has done more harm than good in this world.

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Wolfboy 2 years, 1 month ago

I've seen the view expressed (and I think it's right) that the idea was that the themes of the move would be a "gotcha" on the original audiences. That would only work if the movie were sold as "hot chicks blow stuff up" right up until it stopped being that.

I think you're right that it backfired, though.

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Tymothi 2 years, 1 month ago

Thinking about it more, I think I need to watch it again. The only time I've seen it was at a preview night, and I don't know if there were any changes between that and the theatrical release. Also, my opinion of it got worse the more I thought about it; I was leaning towards "mildly liked" on initial viewing. So I'll probably give it another go sometime soon.

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Adam Riggio 2 years, 1 month ago

Are you sure you shouldn't blame Frank Miller for the reactionary, conservative, militaristic politics of 300? At least give him the majority of the blame?

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Adam Riggio 2 years, 1 month ago

A brilliant essay, Phil. I remember you having written something along these lines a couple of years ago. As Google helped me remember, it was a brief description when you wrote about Snyder's Man of Steel. I had ignored Sucker Punch when it first came out, precisely because of that terrible marketing campaign that made it seem so empty.

I didn't have the most positive attitude of Snyder after 300 anyway. I wondered whatever happened to the skilled meta-filmmaker who co-developed Incident at Loch Ness. Then I realized it was Zak Penn.

But when I revisited Sucker Punch after reading your first brief recommendation, I found it exactly what you said it would be. This is where I want to pitch my own thoughts on your interpretation. I think you're right that this is what Snyder intended to do with his film, make this feminist-minded condemnation of the male gaze. But I think it was misinterpreted because it left itself so open to misinterpretation. So much of the violent sequences were shot with that incredibly beautiful semi-pornographic artfulness. We really do have too much fun with the sci-fi battle sequences.

You and your critics are both right. I was able to see Sucker Punch for the brilliant piece of feminism it was because you primed me for it. But because of the film's ambiguity, both interpretations can exist side by side in the same moment of thought. I knew what the film was doing, but I also saw the visceral joy of those action movie sequences. I find myself siding with Nathan Rabin, more optimistically, that it succeeded in both being a harsh critique of toxic masculinity and a perfect masturbatory fantasy for self-absorbed male nerds.

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dm 2 years, 1 month ago

Oh, absolutely, but outside the comics world no one had to be exposed to that horrible, racist, boneheaded, fascist rubbish. At least Miller is mostly read by people who know what they're in for.

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dm 2 years, 1 month ago

Full disclosure: when I saw 300 as a teenager I was only vaguely aware it was based on a comic. Frank Miller was, to me, still the ironic fascist that we all thought he was with Dark Knight Returns.

His Watchmen didn't really work for me either, due to the stupid silly looking slow mo and the muddled ending (it really doesn't make a lick of sense if you take away the invented outside threat- Manhattan is explicitly allied to the U.S., so making him the scapegoat would lead to massive recriminations from the USSR), but at least the critique was built into the text. That made it less reprehensible for me.

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dm 2 years, 1 month ago

If Snyder helmed the on again off again Doctor Who film, it would be an adaptation of the Twin Dilemma.

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Matt Marshall 2 years, 1 month ago

I'm not sure it was ever in doubt what the film was trying to do, just whether it achieved it or not. The thing is, I've seen Zack Snyder's other films. Is Sucker Punch him telling us "guys, I know my other films were really really awful, this is what I really think!" Or is it just something more cynical or empty?

Did Watchmen really need all that slo-mo ultra violence and erotic sex scenes?

As much as Sucker Punch seems to want to 'take a stand' against all stuff like that, it sure enjoys revelling in it, the whole 'have your cake and eat it' as people say.

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Nyq Only 2 years, 1 month ago

The films three dramatic layers are oddly integrated. The mental hospital world while "gritty' is just as stylized as the brothel world and while the more fantastical world of the dances are visually different there is still a stylistic continuity that makes them feel like part of the same world while clearly not being.
This puts all three levels in the same sense of unreality. All of it looks equally like somebody's fantasy. The reveal of the bus driver (and the stylized surroundings of the bus station) emphasize that in the final scenes.
This makes some sense if everything is Sweat Pea's fugue state (including the Fort Wayne bus station) but that makes a nonesense out of the start of the film.

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John Seavey 2 years, 1 month ago

We've had conversations about this film before, and I'll say again what I said before: I'm not saying you're wrong, but when a director explicitly and clearly states that to watch his movie is to participate in the degradation of women, I take him at his word. :) If the point of his film is that the people who want to watch it are bad people, then why on earth would I do exactly that?

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Scurra 2 years, 1 month ago

Personally, I thought Sucker Punch did Inception better than Nolan managed to, perhaps because the distinction between the "layers" is far more interesting, and the implications about whether or not we (the audience) have seen all of the layers is potentially a lot more intriguing.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 1 month ago

I think it's worth distinguishing, in the case of the action scenes, between the idea that they are themselves exploitative and the idea that they symbolize exploitation.

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jane 2 years, 1 month ago

I found the action scenes to be very... interesting. For quite different reasons than Froborr suggests. First, the music: women reinterpreting psychedelic Classic Rock songs. I loved the music. By taking over the music, the women have taken over the aesthetic. And to me, that informed everything that followed.

Second, the very ridiculousness of their outfits highlighted to me just how ridiculous the actions sequences actually were -- to me, this was camp. For all the tropes enacted are traditionally tropes of the Male Hero. But now they're conflated with over-the-top femininity -- at once a reclaiming of the tropes by the overtly feminine, while simultaneously casting all those male-hero-wannabees as fetish objects in of themselves.

Third, and most importantly, I thought the action sequences presented some rather telling metaphors, simply through the imagery. The scene where Babydoll eviscerates that dragon's throat -- slicing into a penis, quite straightforwardly. Same for the Sci-Fi train. And in the first one, at the Dojo, shooting the thug through the eye, and hence shooting the very male gaze itself. To consider the action sequences without reflecting on the metaphors therein... is to be ensnared by the eye candy. I think they also represent the fears that underlie the misogyny of the Male Gaze itself.

So I don't find the action sequences to represent "uncritical acceptance of the Male Gaze" at all.

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jane 2 years, 1 month ago

Put her in the Chair.

It really isn't about Sweet Pea's escape. It's about Babydoll's ascension. I'm reminded of Cloud Atlas, actually.

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jane 2 years, 1 month ago

It's very difficult to implicate a blind audience.

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jane 2 years, 1 month ago

How do the asylum sequences fit in with the masturbatory fantasy, though? Those sequences are much more emotionally fraught, and yield no quarter for the male gaze. These scenes are also seen. And in their juxtaposition with the action stuff, I can only hope they take root in the mind of the male gaze, like hookworms.

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jane 2 years, 1 month ago

I'm a tad disappointed no one has yet to invoke the Female Gaze present in the film (as opposed to focusing on what the men see) -- to cut to the chase, mapping out what the women are looking at is key to shedding some light if not turning up the heat on what's really going on here. Not to turn a blind eye, either, but there's something truly transcendent in what isn't even visible to the naked

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Alan 2 years, 1 month ago

I refused to go see The Watchmen once I found out there was no giant squid. I don't care how silly the concept is, that ruined the movie for me because I genuinely believe that the threat of an alien invasion is the only thing that will curb mankind's instinct for internecine conflict.

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Alan 2 years, 1 month ago

For some reason, I am vaguely curious to know what Phil thinks of Joss Whedon's "Cabin In The Woods," which pretty blatantly equates the Audience with the Lovecraftian Old Ones who drive the plot. The first victim is Jules, a highly intelligent young woman who is essentially brainwashed into be a "slutty dumb blonde" because the script favored by the Old Ones demands that such a character be the first to die.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 1 month ago

Once again, I assume "little yet" is supposed to be "let alone"?

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Daru 2 years, 1 month ago

Great essay. I have not watched this yet, more because I was a bit turned off by Snyder's 300 and Watchmen felt a bit off. I did love man of Steel though. So I just had nit got around to it.

I will now though.

Thanks for your comments Jane - I will when I watch it also keep them in mind, especially in relation to the female gaze and this:

"These scenes are also seen. And in their juxtaposition with the action stuff, I can only hope they take root in the mind of the male gaze, like hookworms."

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Chai_Latte 1 year ago

Thanks for this--'Sucker Punch' is one of my favorite movies, and the reasons that you've listed are part of why.

Also I think it's a wonderful look at human responses to trauma, and how one young woman goes about trying to take her power back and encourages her friends to do the same.

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