No movie release in 2011 was more misunderstood and unfairly maligned as a result of misunderstanding than Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch.
Odds are you’ll disagree with that statement. An indication of the movie’s reception by “audiences” (non-professional reviewers) and the critics can be found on Rotten Tomatoes, where audience approval is calculated to be 47%, and of the 196 critical reviews assessed by the site, a paltry 23% of them are considered to be positive.
If that last figure doesn’t come as a surprise, perhaps a comparison with three other movies released in 2011 will: a 23% approval rating puts Sucker Punch on par with Marcus Nispel’s Conan reboot, places it marginally behind the latest instalment in the Twilight Saga, and a long way behind the rehash of The Thing at 36%. Not one of these was as ambitious, challenging or original as Sucker Punch and while you may consider Snyder to have fallen short of his objective, there’s no denying the movie’s ambitiousness, technical virtuosity and originality, qualities conspicuously absent from these other movies.
[This article is in two parts, this first part a look at the critical response to Sucker Punch. Part Two presents my critical analysis of the movie.]
If you’ve read the reviews (or you wrote them), you’ll know that criticising Sucker Punch for being too ambitious is one of the kindest criticism made of it, and far more often it’s described as odious, ugly, stupid, sexist, misogynistic and vile. Even though I disagree with such criticisms I might not have written this rebuttal if I thought the critics making them had understood what they so passionately denounce, but what is remarkable about the vast majority of Sucker Punch reviews is the failure of the critics to understand what they are writing about.
At one extreme, the type of criticism I’m referring to includes the assertion that Sucker Punch is sexist or even misogynistic. At a glance the “gun-toting hotties” in their fetishist outfits might appear to be a “male masturbatory” fantasy, and yes the young girls are subjected to all kinds of violence at the hands of vile men and monsters, but a conclusion that the movie is therefore sexist or misogynistic misses the point. Almost nothing of what is witnessed occurs in reality, or if it did occur, it didn’t actually happen to the person we see it happening to. When this is not understood, the wrong conclusions inevitably follow even when the right question – why are the girls presented as they are? – is asked.
Could it be that the problem is not the reviewers at all but a movie too obscure for its own good, one that is poorly written and directed? Some critics clearly believe so, but as I hope to convince you, it is neither poorly written nor badly directed, and while it is obscure, its obscurity is that of any intelligently written work of art. Some viewers will understand it, some will not. Sucker Punch is complex, but dismissing its complexity as bad writing and poor direction reveals more about our own limitations than the movie’s supposed failings.
For many, confusion starts and ends with a simple misconception that Sucker Punch is a mainstream studio blockbuster – eye candy, action and special effects: an action-fantasy complete with a bevy of beauties showing more flesh than sense on the battlefield. It certainly looks that way, but that’s just one of many sucker punches that Snyder lands with brutal efficiency. Despite the dragons, swords, physically impossible action and other fantastic paraphernalia, Sucker Punch is not fantasy at all, and it is certainly not escapist.
If it can be classified, Snyder’s movie is science-fiction, although not SF as Hollywood tends to dish it up (action, fantasy or horror with a futuristic or alien bent). Sucker Punch is SF in the tradition of writers like the late great Philip K. Dick, a fictionalising-philosopher who found in the genre a narrative form that allowed him to pursue certain sorts of investigation (famously, what is the nature of reality? what is it to be authentically human?).
In his turn, Snyder uses the tools available to the writer and director of SF to investigate an idea, and if you want or need to label that idea, you could do worse than to name it existentialism: Sucker Punch investigates the possibility of an individual becoming a free and responsible agent able to determine and control the reality within which she lives through a sheer act of will. That is what Sucker Punch is about. It is the key to understanding what is going on – what is really happening as opposed to what is only apparently real. Far from an escapist action-fantasy, Sucker Punch is a head-on confrontation with reality.
If that doesn’t sound like the movie you watched, I hope by the end of this you’ll consider taking another look. The clues are all there, the challenge is recognising them for what they are.
But before going on, a synopsis is due for those who haven’t seen the movie – and as a reminder for those who have. I’m going to cheat however by providing Warner Bros.’s synopsis rather than my own, and I’m going to do so because this synopsis exemplifies the surface reading that so many critics and viewers have accepted at face value:
“Sucker Punch is an epic action fantasy that takes us into the vivid imagination of a young girl whose dream world provides the ultimate escape from her darker reality. Unrestrained by the boundaries of time and place, she is free to go where her mind takes her, and her incredible adventures blur the lines between what’s real and what is imaginary. She has been locked away against her will, but Babydoll has not lost her will to survive. Determined to fight for her freedom, she urges four other young girls-the reluctant Sweet Pea, the outspoken Rocket, the street-smart Blondie and the fiercely loyal Amber to band together and try to escape a terrible fate at the hands of their captors, Blue and Madam Gorski, before the mysterious High Roller comes for Babydoll. Led by Babydoll, the girls engage in fantastical warfare against everything from samurais to serpents, with a virtual arsenal at their disposal. Together, they must decide what they are willing to sacrifice in order to stay alive. But with the help of a Wise Man, their unbelievable journey, if they succeed, will set them free.”
Accept this narrative at face value and when it’s finally revealed that Babydoll is not the central character at all, confusion and dismay invariably follow.
Sweet Pea in fact is the protagonist. But that’s not the half of it. Babydoll is a figment of Sweet Pea’s imagination. She does not exist in the movie’s true reality at all. Almost nothing we see happening is in any literal sense the story actually being told. The episodes of action-fantasy in which the girls engage in fantastical warfare against everything from samurai to serpents are obviously “imagined”, but the “fantasy” extends into every scene involving Babydoll.
Babydoll does not exist.
Re-read the reviews with this piece of information and see how they stand up. Their scathing dismissal of the movie begins to look a little shaky.
But what is the literal story?
What we witness is a therapy session in which almost everything takes place in the subject’s mind as she, Sweet Pea, confronts and then attempts to work through the issues which beset her. Apart from a brief moment in which the therapy session is interrupted, everything we see is a form of psycho-drama that exposes the struggle taking place in Sweet Pea’s mind. This includes the opening scenes introducing Babydoll (in which we learn of her sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father and witness her accidental killing of her own sister while trying to protect her) and the closing scene in which Sweet Pea “escapes” the institution.
Consider this as we proceed: Babydoll’s story – the sexual abuse, the tragic death of her sister – is in fact Sweet Pea’s story. It is the reason why Sweet Pea is in therapy. Part of her therapy requires that she acknowledge her past, but her suffering – her guilt over the death of her sister – is too intense to allow her to do so directly. So she distances herself from her experiences, she imagines an avatar and projects her experiences onto that avatar.
The avatar, of course, is Babydoll.
The literal story told by Sucker Punch is Sweet Pea’s journey from “madness” to “sanity” or, more broadly, to her growing control over the reality in which she finds herself. On the one hand, this journey is imagined as a mythical quest replete with fantastical imagery and experiences. On the other, the worlds of her imagination are dark and sordid as a consequence of her horrific experiences and fractured mind.
More of this later.
Did Snyder err in wrapping this philosophical / psychological investigation up in a special effects action-fantasy? Not at all. Those of us who have mined the SF and Fantasy genres in literature and on screen know that the best work in these genres is as thought-provoking and challenging as any other art form. Both genres, but SF in particular, provide the tools that allow writers to undertake certain sorts of investigations that aren’t possible in other genres. (Consider P.K. Dick’s frequent subjection of his characters to an actual break down in reality, allowing him to investigate what lies beyond or beneath that which we take to be real; in realist fiction a breakdown of reality is typically an expression of a character’s psychological collapse, becoming a study of character, or mental illness, and so on.)
The tool that Snyder has most obviously picked from the SF toolkit is the use of multiple realities, layering one upon the other. Beyond this, the protagonist is fragmented and portrayed not as one character but as several (five others at least), all of whom are presented to us as real but who exist only in her mind’s eye.
Most viewers are aware that the story shifts between realities, but most critics, as far as I can tell, have failed to identify which of the realities is “true” – Sweet Pea’s therapy session – and, having failed to do so, their interpretation of the movie as an action-fantasy about the adventures of Babydoll collapses in a heap of muddled ideas and misconceptions.
And having drawn the wrong conclusion, many of the reviewers are remarkably scathing about the movie, finding it to be “odious”, “sadistic and shallow, exploitative and misogynistic”, with its “Gun-toting hotties combat[ing] assorted villains and their robot henchmen in this tawdry, repellent action fantasy” which leaves one feeling “icky for watching a movie that mixes male masturbatory fantasies with gritty scenes of violence against women!”
Others claim that it is a “spectacular flop of fancy, mind-numbingly empty”, “artless and soulless”, its layers of reality peeling back to reveal nothing of substance, “an empty visual exercise”, an action-fantasy devoid of characters and plot. Yet others argue that the movie fails because it’s a flawed enterprise, “[spinning] out of control, until it collapses in a heap, senseless”. Snyder, they say, was too ambitious and set himself a task beyond his abilities. In short that he failed to realise his grand vision.
All of these “critical” judgements and more can be found on Rotten Tomatoes.
And almost all of them – from accusations of exploitation and misogyny to the claim that Snyder fails to realise his grand vision – are the assessments of reviewers who simply haven’t understood what they are viewing.
To be fair, the reasons for the critical and popular backlash against this movie are more complex than the limited candle power of certain viewers and reviewers. For a start, Snyder wraps his philosophical investigation up in the spectacular dressings of an action-fantasy without in fact making an action fantasy: whenever an audience expects pop-corn entertainment but is instead presented with a complex and challenging intellectual puzzle, the result is sadly predictable.
Furthermore, the ideas that Snyder works with and the technique he uses (misdirection and interweaving realities almost all of which are not in fact real) result in the sort of complexity that many audiences don’t favour … especially when they’re anticipating an action fantasy with gun-toting hotties.
Is it worth asking why we are so ill-prepared to engage with complex ideas and puzzles of the sort posed by Sucker Punch? Why not? One reason suggests itself with little effort: for too long we’ve been fed a diet of unintelligent but sensational cinematic mush marketed as SF and Fantasy and we’ve either not learned how to penetrate the surface of what we see or we assume there’s no point applying ourselves. Eyes open, mind closed. Too many SF and Fantasy movies look good but demand little thought. There’s certainly a place for that kind of entertainment but it has become the norm for SF and Fantasy cinema.
And for that we have the Studios to blame for pumping out so much mush and ourselves for lapping it up and making it lucrative for them to do so. While there are numerous examples of intelligent, challenging and thought-provoking SF and Fantasy fiction, there are really only a handful of movies of which the same can be said. At their best, writers of SF and fantasy entertain us while using the fantastical tools available to them to investigate ideas. On screen what we typically get is “entertainment” without the intellectual baggage (and the more of that we’re exposed to, the less entertaining it is).
Trained to dismiss SF and Fantasy cinema as trivial entertainment, is it any wonder that we struggle to recognise the real thing when we see it? Especially when it looks a lot like the big budget special effects extravaganzas that we’re accustomed to consuming like so much junk food. Just as the consumption of junk food has dire consequences for our bodies, so too does a diet of cinematic mush: our critical faculties fail us, our minds become bloated and unfit and incapable of the mental agility required to recognise a complex idea, let alone unravel it.
So we blame the movie. Sucker Punch is only a mindless action fantasy after all. All the money went on the special effects, nothing on the script. Though too often true of genre movies, it’s not always the case.
Which, in a round about way, gets us to the issue of genre and prejudice because this is more of an issue for SF and Fantasy film than any other genres. Those of us who write and read SF and Fantasy are well aware of a prejudice which dismisses these genres out of hand, refusing to see beyond the fantastical veneer. Many of the critical reviews of Sucker Punch demonstrate this very prejudice in their inability to recognise – or their refusal even to consider – that something far more interesting is going on beneath the action-fantasy veneer. They simply do not get past the gun-toting hotties.
There are many sucker punches in Snyder’s movie, but the one that should knock us off our feet is that far from being the vile and stupid cinematic mush described by so many critics, Sucker Punch is a complex, intelligent philosophical investigation of the first order.