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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

31 Comments

  1. sunny photons
    May 5, 2015 @ 3:04 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Froborr
    May 5, 2015 @ 5:10 am

    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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  3. Steven Clubb
    May 5, 2015 @ 5:33 am

    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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  4. Theonlyspiral
    May 5, 2015 @ 6:29 am

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

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  5. Froborr
    May 5, 2015 @ 6:39 am

    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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  6. Froborr
    May 5, 2015 @ 6:55 am

    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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  7. storiteller
    May 5, 2015 @ 6:55 am

    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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  8. Tymothi
    May 5, 2015 @ 10:08 am

    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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  9. dm
    May 5, 2015 @ 1:35 pm

    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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  10. Wolfboy
    May 5, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

    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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  11. Tymothi
    May 5, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

    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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  12. Adam Riggio
    May 5, 2015 @ 6:33 pm

    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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  13. Adam Riggio
    May 5, 2015 @ 6:49 pm

    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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  14. dm
    May 5, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

    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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  15. dm
    May 5, 2015 @ 7:20 pm

    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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  16. dm
    May 5, 2015 @ 7:22 pm

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

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  17. Matt Marshall
    May 5, 2015 @ 11:58 pm

    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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  18. Nyq Only
    May 6, 2015 @ 10:04 am

    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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  19. John Seavey
    May 6, 2015 @ 10:26 am

    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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  20. Scurra
    May 6, 2015 @ 12:47 pm

    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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  21. Elizabeth Sandifer
    May 6, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

    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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  22. jane
    May 6, 2015 @ 8:32 pm

    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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  23. jane
    May 6, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    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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  24. jane
    May 6, 2015 @ 8:41 pm

    It's very difficult to implicate a blind audience.

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  25. jane
    May 6, 2015 @ 8:45 pm

    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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  26. jane
    May 6, 2015 @ 9:28 pm

    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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  27. Alan
    May 7, 2015 @ 2:35 pm

    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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  28. Alan
    May 7, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

    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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  29. BerserkRL
    May 12, 2015 @ 12:13 am

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

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  30. Daru
    May 12, 2015 @ 10:27 pm

    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."

    Reply

  31. Chai_Latte
    June 9, 2016 @ 5:30 pm

    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.

    Reply

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