A Modest Proposal in Defense of Sucker Punch

The other day, my brother and I went to see Sucker Punch. I’d promised him we’d go together long before I’d heard all the terrible reviews. Despite the warnings of La Belle Amelie and others, I was disappointed. This is not because it was bad or offensive ““ which it was! ““ but because it could have been so much worse. The true failure of Sucker Punch was in its lost potential. It was never going to be a great movie, but I think that with just a few minor adjustments, it could have been at least a good one.

A quick note about the rest of this discussion: I’m not going to post a summary of the plot in full; LBA more or less did that in her post, and there’s a fairly extensive one on Wikipedia. But I do explain important parts in bits and pieces, and it does assume familiarity with the film, either through seeing it or having read enough terrible reviews to get the gist. In other words, here be spoilers. There are also spoilers for a couple of other works that I’m using for comparison, none of which are less than 20 years old.

ZACK SNYDER SHOULD HAVE SHUT UP

My biggest problem with Sucker Punch was something that reverberated all around the feminist blogosphere, and that is that this is emphatically not a female empowerment film, no matter how much Zack Snyder thinks he wanted it to be. He has said of it,

Our hope is we were able to modify [the sexy stereotype costumes] and turn them into these power icons, where they can fight back at the actual cliches that they represent. So hopefully by the end the girls are empowered by their sexuality and not exploited. But certainly that’s where they come from, the journey is asking, “What do you want to see? Well, be careful what you want to see.”

He has also commented,

It’s all about power, the movie. So any time you’re dealing with power and men and women, you are on the edge with everybody. So this movie is all about being on the edge in that way. Like when is a person strong, and when is a person weak. That’s what it’s all about, you know, and when to take advantage of that. And when do you have to dig deep down inside yourself.

So, in short, he’s calling it a female empowerment film without using those words. And yet, when you watch Sucker Punch, it is clearly exploitative. I don’t necessarily think that exploitation is a bad thing ““ no wait, hear me out ““ if the movie were framed in a different way.

It’s implied Babydoll has been abused. After her mother dies, she’s set up for her sister’s murder and locked away in a seriously deficient mental institution where the situation is so bad, she retreats into two levels of fantasy to escape. Her efforts to free herself end up failing miserably, and she’s lobotomized anyway based on falsified documents. This is, without a doubt, a truly terrible situation. But if it had been framed as the bleak, horrific story it really is, then it would be at least a moderately interesting look at the mind’s fight to protect itself.

Babydoll was not crazy when she went into the Lennox House, but she certainly was by the time Doctor High Roller showed up. Let’s not pretend the short skirts and big guns are empowering. Let’s show that one is the vestige of reality peeking through, and the other is the mind’s last ditch effort to defend itself against that cruel and harsh reality.

LOSE THE OPTIMISM

I paint a pretty bleak picture of Sucker Punch‘s plot here, and it is quite unsettling. But for some reason, Snyder decided to go for a happy ending of sorts. Doctor High Roller claims Babydoll “wanted” the lobotomy, Sweet Pea escapes, and Doctor Gorski rescues Babydoll from the abusive orderly. Is all of this really necessary? I’d argue that it would have been much more satisfying if it had gone for a full-on brutally depressing finish, in the grand tradition of Brazil and 1984. Now, I am certainly not arguing that Zack Snyder is the same caliber creator as Terry Gilliam or George Orwell. But I propose that an ending that reflects the harshness of the preceding hour and forty-five minutes would have made Sucker Punch more coherent. Further, it would not have been very difficult to achieve this end.

First, along the vein of Zack Snyder keeping his damn mouth shut, Doctor High Roller could have kept his incredulity after performing the lobotomy without delivering the now-infamous line, “It was almost as if she wanted me to do it.” (I will never look at Jon Hamm the same way. And that’s just sad.) Alternatively, he could even still say it, but with Doctor Gorski demonstrating a little bit more horror at the sentiment. In my version of Sucker Punch, the orderly’s accomplices don’t mysteriously have a change of heart for no apparent reason, and Babydoll isn’t saved from his clutches by the good but inept Doctor Gorski at the last moment. We instead fade to black, on what further horrors we can only imagine.

These are minor modifications to the final scenes that would change the whole tone of the movie. It’s would remain horrifically bleak, but you’d get a better sense that that’s the whole intention. A satisfying movie doesn’t always need a happy ending; I’m not quite sure what the fascination is with giving us one. My depressing conclusion would be much less damaging than the idea that Sucker Punch was intended to be empowering and uplifting in such an environment.

SURPRISE US

I thought it was intriguing that Snyder bothered to show us a reality within a reality but spoiled it in the first ten minutes of the film. Instead, if we’d been led to believe that the whorehouse was the true reality, with the battles a clear coping mechanism, then later revealed the true frame in the moment of Babydoll’s lobotomy (perhaps flashing back to how she got there ““ that’s some great footage), it would have been a much more interesting story. Much like The Occurrence at Owl Creek Ridge was a fantasy of freedom on the brink of death, the entire first level fantasy could have been a fantasy of freedom before the death of Babydoll’s mind. Again, I’m not trying to say Snyder is Ambrose Bierce by any stretch of the imagination, but this simple twist could have made Sucker Punch a much better film than it was.

The blurring of reality in the final scene, where Sweet Pea encounters their wiseman on the bus, I was so sure that Snyder was going to pull a St. Elsewhere and fade back to an image of Sweet Pea in solitary confinement at the Lennox House. It was her story, after all, and the whole thing could have actually been her fantasy or hallucination. And yet, that doesn’t happen; the audience is supposed to accept that Sweet Pea truly does escape. Again, I ask why? What possible benefit could there be to the ostensibly happy ending? A fade to black of “this was all a dream” might seem like a cop-out most of the time, but in the context of the inescapable cruelty of the Lennox House, this dismal, depressing ending is much more fitting.

These three things ““ framing, lack of optimism, and the element of surprise ““ could have turned Sucker Punch from an eye-rollingly upsetting story into something more enjoyable (if still upsetting). Would these suggestions fix all the movie’s problems? Of course not. A quick stop by Rotten Tomatoes will net you links to scores of bad reviews. I’m certainly open to hearing other opinions on this. Trust, I have some pretty bad taste in movies and am not going to try to hide it. But I can’t stop thinking that it could have been a very different kind of movie if Snyder would have stopped trying to make it into something it’s not.

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Sucker Punch promo image courtesy Warner Brothers

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BaseballChica03

Political hack. Word nerd. Stays crispy in milk. Oxford Comma user. Blogger since 2001.

9 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal in Defense of Sucker Punch”

  1. Sucker Punch wanted to be everything to everyone and, in the end, couldn’t decide what movie it wanted to be or what audience it wanted to target. Skimpily dressed babes with guns and stuff blowing up real good for the bros and comic book geeks? Check. Rape-revenge fantasies and flimsy “girl power” themes as a nod to the ladies and/or feminists? Check and check. Agreed that the “happy ending” was tacked-on and fake. The heroine gets lobotomized and almost raped, her friends are killed in front of her and the fact that only one of the four escapes, just barely, is somehow supposed to make it all better? Not so much when she’ll be institutionalized for life as a best case scenario or returned to her scheming rapist of a stepfather at worst.

    The pictures were pretty, to be sure, but the supporting story was a half-baked mess. The fantasy sequences were all over the map-WWII, samurai, etc-with no sense of the reason behind why they’re jumping around so much or why those periods were chosen. The alternate realities were poorly developed and had no framework that the audience could make sense of them within.

    And it is too bad. The trailer was a knockout. And the first fantasy sequence, where Baby Doll faces down those two behemoths with “Army of Me” thumping along to the action, was really something. It could have been a great movie if Snyder had taken so much care with the rest of the story.

    1. Sucker Punch wanted to be everything to everyone and, in the end, couldn’t decide what movie it wanted to be or what audience it wanted to target.

      Amen! I could not have said it better myself. To your other points, it would also have been a better movie if the pretty fantasy sequences had any sort of consistency or at least rhyme or reason to why they were chosen. (My brother sat next to me muttering the whole time about how X weapon was anachronistic in B time period, and I was all, “THIS is the only thing you can find fault with?” But I digress.) But even then, I’d have been willing to buy the fantasies as a jumble – almost stream of consciousness – if the rest of the storytelling were tighter.

      1. I’d have been willing to buy the fantasies as a jumble – almost stream of consciousness – if the rest of the storytelling were tighter.

        Exactly. You can do absolutely anything on film, as long as your reality follows some sort of logic and makes sense to your audience. I’m thinking of District 9, the Matrix or Inception here-the worlds were completely removed from what had come before, but the groundwork was laid about what they were like and what could be expected. So even though the subject matter was out there, the story worked, because you had a frame of reference to make sense of it in.

        With Sucker Punch, you got the impression that Snyder was going for a mindbender, Matrix or Inception kind of vibe. But Snyder is not as ruthlessly disciplined a filmmaker as Nolan or the Wachowskis are, so he couldn’t keep all of the balls in the air long enough to bring the film across the finish line. Sucker Punch brings sense to my questions about why, when filming Avatar, James Cameron was meeting with language experts and botanists and doing things that I thought were completely tangential to the act of film-making. My friend explained that in paying attention to such details, Cameron was fleshing out his world and making it realer and more authoritative to his audience. At the time, I thought that was a little obsessive, but Sucker Punch is a perfect example of a film which could have benefited greatly from a filmmaker with that sort of obsessive attention to detail. Hell, you didn’t even get the impression that Snyder had a grasp on concepts as simple as what an emotionally traumatized person or a rape victim would behave like. He simply treated those things as Very Bad Things to use as dramatic devices to hang his pretty pictures on.

  2. Great commentary!
    I don’t think the movie can be rescued from its opening montage, which (though totally captivating) sets up a situation that Snyder seems to feel Babydoll is justified in feeling guilty for. I think Snyder wants us to think she does want the lobotomy because she feels guilty for abandoning her sister. (You see her guilt build in each battle scene as she becomes more and more culpable for things that are bad) He sets it up as a redemption story, but it’s not Babydoll who needs to be redeemed. Father is the villain. I mean WTF, right?? If it’s supposed to be empowering, where’s the scene where Father gets his boy bits cut off? THAT would be empowering.

    1. Interesting! I hadn’t thought of it that way. The opening montage was really gripping for me, and I’m glad it was included in some way, but I can definitely see the guilt now that you point it out. Certainly, I think that’s what her escape was about. And Sweet Pea being the one to escape is an interesting choice because she is the one who followed her sister to protect her and also was unable to do so.

      Hear hear, on the part about the father needing redemption or punishment of some kind if this is supposed to be “empowering”. It’s not said explicitly, but the way Babydoll backs up in terror when she realizes her mother is dead, you just know that this is not the first time he’s abused them. Most likely, she realizes (as he does) that he now has free rein over them. Terrifying.

  3. I haven’t seen Sucker Punch because of the awful reviews, but your take in it is interesting to me, because it reminds me a little of what I think the original Stepford Wives film accomplished. (Spoilers of SW ahead, in case anyone cares) In that film the heroine is smart, strong and fairly independent, but ultimately loses her battle against “the man”. The first time I saw SW I was a teenager the end shocked and horrified me; I couldn’t believe it would end like that. But you know, all these years later and it has always stuck with me as an incredibly interesting/depressing social commentary on women in our society, in fact, I think it may have even become more relevant today with the evolution of things like the “Real Housewives”. I’d be curious to hear your take on SW (the original of course, I haven’t seen the remake) and if this makes any sense to you at all.

    1. Interesting connection! To be honest, I haven’t seen the original Stepford Wives in a long time. (Don’t waste your time on the Nicole Kidman remake, by the way. It is appallingly bad. Spoiler alert: They give it a happy ending. Again, a happy ending on this kind of movie? WTF.)

      Anyway, I agree that the original SW was an interesting look at fighting “the man” because in the end, she lost. And I think we’re supposed to take from the film (I haven’t read the book) that it’s frightening that she lost her battle. The problem with Sucker Punch is that Babydoll losing the battle (i.e.: getting lobotomized) is seen as a good thing, somehow? It’s such an odd message.

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