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.
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.