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.
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.
Sucker Punch promo image courtesy Warner Brothers