Thoughts on film, animation, and the world.
By Q. Le
Sucker Punch - Postmortem
On Wednesday evening I sat down dead center, facing the giant IMAX projector. I was about twenty minutes early, and looking around I immediately noticed a jarring demographic that was primarily male, the occasional female friend here and there amongst groups of college to post-college men. The advertising for Sucker Punch had certainly hit its demographic mark.
Minutes passed and before I knew it, the opening montage of Baby Doll’s life going into shambles intercut with telephoto focuses on details and anachronistic, nondiegetic music coinciding was unfolding in classic Zack Snyder style. It was exceptional, as expected.
Then two hours passed, and as I left the theater I felt a twinge of sadness, shame, and disappointment. Amidst the onscreen explosions, grandeur aerials and gratuitous action scenes involving scantily clad women, I felt absolutely nothing – no excitement, no awe, not even a moment of fun. What I had witnessed was a movie that had failed on multiple levels, levels that with perhaps more introspect and tasteful aesthetic finesse could have so easily made Snyder’s original story work. The trouble, I suspect, is that Snyder doesn’t truly understand the goals he aspires towards: here he attempts to bask in the glory of the ridiculous and obscure known and beloved by anime fans alike and simultaneously tries to empower the very women he forces into the most misogynistic of lens possible. The saddest part is that I think this was completely unintentional. I asked myself,
Where did everything go wrong?
It seems the concept of Sucker Punch was doomed to go wrong easily or burdened to succeed difficultly from its inception. For starters, Snyder attempted the inexplicable and, frankly, the impossible – to tout five young women as individualistic, strong, and enduring while filming them in the most traditional of male gazes possible. I’m speaking, of course, of the same paradox that arises with many superheroines and supposed strong women that could just as easily be mistaken for supermodels if we didn’t see them in action.
There is nothing wrong with a strong female that also happens to be sexually attractive. There is, however, a strong discrepancy in how one chooses to frame and focus on said strong female – and in the case of Sucker Punch, the framing only allows our five heroines to be heroic in a fantasy realm; back in reality, they’re just as helpless and just as brutalized by the very men they fantasize to overcome. Fantasy, it seems, is just a means of escapism where they can imagine and project their own ideas of a power that does not exist nor are given the opportunity – by Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya – to ever truly practice in the realm that matters, their immediate reality.
As they scheme and scream and suffer, the actresses go along with Mr. Snyder’s pretense that this fantasia of misogyny is really a feminist fable of empowerment.
It is not just that the women are attired in garish boudoir fashions, cropped schoolgirl uniforms and the latest action lingerie. With a touch of humor — with any at all — “Sucker Punch,” which Mr. Snyder wrote with Steve Shibuya, might have acknowledged the campy, kinky aspects of its premise. But even as it exploits, within the hypocritical constraints of the PG-13 rating, salacious images of exposed flesh and threatened innocence, the film also self-righteously traffics in moral outrage.
Focus and framing are everything, and what I saw on screen was a far cry from the female empowerment Snyder enthusiastically and earnestly proclaimed in interviews. Baby Doll’s reality, for starters, is catapulted into a women’s mental asylum that, in turn, exploits its girls’ budding sexual assets to lure in lecherous, well-to-do customers who simply can’t settle for a regular brothel or strip club – their libido can only be satisfied by taking advantage of women with no power or means to defend themselves. If that isn’t already a difficult scenario to project female empowerment that isn’t a caricature, we’ve even got the girls romping around the corridors in what I can only assume is non-standard mental patient attire and more attuned to burlesque teasers. Now top all of this off with an antagonist so hideous, so grotesquely misogynistic and leering that his twitching pencil moustache was only a sick reminder that this man, Blue, was a pimp. A despicable, disgusting, degenerate pimp – who was taking advantage of mentally instituted girls.
Numerous times throughout the film I found myself shifting uncomfortably as men pimped, slapped, licked, kissed, grabbed, and shot terrified, crying, and (mostly) passive women in the perceived reality. This is not the discomfort that arises from having ideas or thematics challenged – it was the sort that makes you feel ashamed of yourself, where you feel like a voyeur who should be doing something to stop what’s happening on screen rather than passively watching it happen, where you start beginning to question your own sense of morality for even looking at the events unfold. Not once are any of these women given the dignity to retaliate, to compose themselves from terror and contemplate the remaining control of their own lives, or even revel in the reasons why they were locked up in the asylum to begin with; the closest this comes to is Sweet Pea wearing her sibling protectiveness on her sleeve, and her sister Rocket responding accordingly. Otherwise, there is not one ounce of reprieve for these women in reality, not a moment where self-respect is evident or allowed: Snyder wants us to see victims, and we see them all right; where female empowerment comes into all of this is victimizing reality is beyond me.
Then there were the fantasy sequences.
What is astounding that for a film that extols feminism as an appeal, somehow Baby Doll, Sweat Pea, Rocket, Amber and Blondie imagine themselves to be clad in what is nothing short of scant. Baby Doll clashes onscreen in pig tails, high heels, thigh-high stockings, a mini skirt and midriff-baring schoolgirl top that echoes suspiciously of male fantasies regarding Catholic or Japanese school girls; her colleagues’ attires, to some credit, echo nothing of specific fetishes, appearing to be only conjured up for the purpose of showing off their assets through the wonders of corsets, fishnets, leather, and panties.
If Snyder had not so enthusiastically proclaim that his film empowered females, then I’d have simply shrugged off this detail as nothing more than useless eye candy aimed for a particular demographic. However, he did say that, and that’s where the problem lies: between these women enjoying their own sexuality versus them creating sexually-charged avatars for a audience, I’d say under Snyder’s directing choices Sucker Punch leans towards the latter since, frankly, there’s no narrative establishment that suggests otherwise.
Worst of all, Snyder explicitly turns the viewer into sexual voyeurs, hypnotically leering at his cast of young actresses. The women, to be sure, are astonishingly beautiful, but they’re also ornate and never fully individuated to emotionally connect the material to the larger architecture of the story.
Strange enough, even the fantasy sequences – separate from Snyder’s serious misunderstanding of true feminism – failed to entertain me. For such elaborate worlds painted with the magic of CGI, the fantasy environment seemed largely to be used as uncreatively as possible (the use of follow-cam and lack of sufficient establishing shots didn’t help either). For so many explosions, bullets, shrapnel and steel occurring around, our five girls are surprisingly unattached from it all – physically, not philosophically – and besides the occasional one-on-one combat situations, they never really went out of their way to improvise with, say, a branch or helmet that was laying nearby. The visual space was largely unused as the girls went about their mission in a linear manner, never once taking advantage of the fact that they were essentially Gods in a fantasy of their own creation. It was nothing short of feeling trapped as the passive onlooker while someone else was playing within the goal-oriented constricts a video game – an utter disappointment, to say the least. Perhaps it’s the fault of what I can only infer as gratuitous use of green screen, where the actors are told to pretend to inhabit a world the filmmakers had yet to fully flesh out; regardless, it’s no excuse for a lack of innovation, considering Scott Pilgrim vs. The World accomplished the feat on a lower budget. If anything, I hoped to walk away from Sucker Punch with some sense of escapist enjoyment attached to its numerous fantasy segments – which, unfortunately, wasn’t the case.
So again we come back to the core problem Snyder and Shibuya faced: how to glorify aesthetics enjoyed by fans of anime and campy overdrive while incorporating real female empowerment. Such a challenge was met and executed by Quentin Tarantino back in 2003 with the installment of Kill Bill, a glorified revenge narrative that had one simple goal: make it fun.
The famous fight scene in “Kill Bill” where the Bride squares off against Gogo and the Crazy ’88s – a revenge flick to its greatest glory.
Kill Bill, at the core of the stylized dialogue and attuned fighting choreography by Yuen Woo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), never let up the pretense that it was anything more than a perfect execution of aesthetics and genre conventions. Themes never echoed beyond their basic roots, never truly challenging the audience to actually think beyond what was happening on screen since what really mattered was style. And in the process of stylizing everything, Tarantino also stylized his characters, in particular his women, to be fleshed-out personas with something more interesting to say and do beyond their own sexual appeal and physical prowess. Some aspects of the revenge epic are so outrageously unrealistic and aestheticized that, in effect, you can sense Tarantino winking at us, “It’s only a movie.” And indeed, what we see in Kill Bill is through a stylized lens that morphs an otherwise psychologically traumatizing aspect into exploitative and, frankly, fun entertainment. That’s what made Kill Bill work: it lived up to what it set out do, and exceedingly well at that.
Sucker Punch, as opposed to what was advertised in trailers, tried to do more than just be fun, and failed in the process. By stepping away from camp for the sake of camp, the bizarre for the hell of being incongruous, Snyder and Shibuya tried to incorporate a linking narrative that held together what was otherwise a hodgepodge of video game and anime cliches; and in creating the linking narrative, they nonetheless created one under the guise (or misconception) of female empowerment amongst a suppressive male world, inadvertently mixing in a very jarring and uncomfortable mix of misogyny and disconcerting voyeurism. The overarching narrative is Baby Doll’s reality, where she and other girls are exploited by men who consider female mental patients a desirable fetish, which in turns drives Baby Doll to fantasize about escape and power while suspiciously still sexually appeasing to the male gaze. This linking narrative is, without a doubt, the biggest mistake Snyder and Shibuya made as a writing team.
In “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” director Edgar Wright celebrated the pop culture glory of video games and was especially creative in how he used the environmental space to choreograph and convey Scott fighting. In this scene, where Scott is confronted with Ramona’s fourth evil ex, Roxy, we get a sense of how “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” used its budget better to appeal its particular demographic of video game and anime fans – something “Sucker Punch” did not live up to. Above all else, watching this cohesive fight sequence is especially entertaining – and not to mention that we get to see two girls beat the living crap out of one another, and tastefully too.
In Dead Fantasy II, Monty Oum manages to create an interesting fight sequence by referencing Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master” amidst volcanic lava. The fighting scenarios are physically impossible and as preposterous as anime and video games get, which is exactly what fans of such enjoy. “Sucker Punch’s” fantasy sequences seemed to aspire towards this level of inanity, but unfortunately I found the sequences surprisingly baseline action, lacking in the sort of creativity and environmental interaction that Monty Oum demonstrates in the above clip.
I suspect Sucker Punch might have worked better as an episodic format, where there are consistent set of characters that go up against new challenges and environments, each episode a self-contained fantasy segment that is detached from any overarching reality or narrative. This approach is what originally drove Monty Oum’s Dead Fantasy project and other likewise over the top action-fantasy-scifi mixups: in Monty Oum’s case, this involved pairing up characters from the Final Fantasy and Dead or Alive game series into nothing short of sexy female characters beating the crap out of one another. Dead Fantasy is preposterous, outrageous, and nonetheless entertaining, and is something Sucker Punch could have easily achieved had it not insisted on a feature length narrative.
Instead, we get a clumpy, clumsy theatrical release that incorrectly proclaims feminism, female empowerment and a girl’s escapism as an excuse to exercise what is nothing short of a male gaze fantasy. Sadly, in trying to appeal to two demographics – fans of wide-eyed, baby-faced school girls wielding samurai swords and guns and those who want to see more empowered female presence on screen – Snyder failed at both. The fantasy sequences weren’t nearly over the top nor creative enough to warrant significant fun, and the reality sequences were so jarringly misogynistic that it boiled down to a portrait of female victimhood, not female empowerment. At the end of it all, I couldn’t have cared less about the numerous anachronism, if there was a reality within a reality, a fantasy within a fantasy, or whatever the hell was really happening within the proscenium stage in the opening – it had not been an enjoyable viewing experience, period.
His scripts aren’t incoherent, they’re simply expressive of a positively infantillic understanding of the powers of symbols, much in the way that comic book artists and video game artists can only ever think in the titillation of an image and not its meaning… Snyder at the very least confines his scope to positively pubescent pursuits, however tired and overdone those may be.
I wish this wasn’t the case, but unfortunately it is with Snyder’s Sucker Punch. I fear, most of all, that Warner Bros will look at the box office numbers and conclude that the audience doesn’t want to see strong females in the forefront, leading to a looping pattern of no strong leading female stories being green-lit (a proposal that made internet headlines back in 2007).
At the end of it all, I like Zack Snyder. He, an indisputably talented visual director with a knack for seamlessly integrating music with imagery in spite of all of his narrative flaws, is earnest and enthusiastic. He is, however, still especially juvenile in his creative endeavors, which became very clear in how his directing choices were jarringly disjointed from the original content in his third feature Watchmen (awkward sex scene much?). I don’t believe he intended to force his actresses into a misogynistic lens, nor do I believe he is misogynistic like Frank Miller or self-indulgent and unwilling to aspire to what he should do beyond what he could do like George Lucas, Michael Bay, or M. Night Shyamalan. I believe, more than anything, that he still has a lot to learn.
He has a long way to go if he ever wants to be considered more than a director of visual orgies, and a lot to learn regarding how he frames his characters, what he chooses to aestheticize, and what the direct and indirect implications are of his directing choices beyond a pop culture surface. He is more than capable of overcoming his current barriers, smiles and all, and I hope that in one of his future projects, we’ll catch him winking at the audience,
"It’s only a movie."
Note: thank you to Viet Le for again for his insightful commentary that helped me shape my thoughts on “Sucker Punch.”
Opening of “Sucker Punch” and additional footage
"Sucker Punch" Featurette
Zack Snyder at Comic Con 2010, talking about “Sucker Punch”
Zack Snyder interview about “Sucker Punch” with the LATimes
Zack Snyder “Sucker Punch” interview with Leicester Square TV