“I’ve been waiting 2 c a movie like SuckerPunch my whole life.”
- Madame Rosebud’s Twitter
Director Zack Snyder has so polarized his viewers, pitting those who adore his cinema du right-this-moment and supernatural genius for imagery against a growing throng who detest his style-style-style approach to storytelling, that seeing his latest work is a mere formality. Sucker Punch, a wild, unclassifiable 109-minute trip crammed tight with dragons, zombies, robots, hot chicks in fetish garb and about five million other things, is not going to be the work that finally convinces the haters that they’ve been in the wrong all along. It is, instead, Snyder’s ultimate statement of intent, his eardrum-blasting, eye-melting, jaw-dropping Ulysses. He’s not trying to make friends; he’s trying to blow your fucking mind.
He’s also revealed himself as one of the only genuinely feminist directors working in the Comic-Con fanboy vernacular. Sucker Punch is going to save us all, and I’m not kidding. It’s a call to arms for every young woman who has ever felt powerless in a world of men, a Dolby Digital battle cry for every girl who can’t relate to the intolerable passivity of Twilight‘s Bella Swan. Sucker Punch doesn’t have a single scene of its young women agonizing over the affections of this or that petulant hunk. If a vampire and a werewolf were fighting over a Sucker Punch girl, that girl would machine-gun them to shreds, rip their hearts out, eat them and stomp on their steaming remains. And she would look unimaginably hot doing it.
But let’s back up for a moment.
For such a divisive director, Snyder’s not been at it very long. Debuting with a surprisingly effective (if utterly subtext-free) remake of Dawn of the Dead, Snyder blew up with his adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300. Morally grotesque but aesthetically supercharged, 300 was a massive hit, and it allowed Snyder to more or less write his own ticket. He cashed in every single cent of his capitol with a mega-budget film of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and that’s where things get complicated. To some, Watchmen is a hyped up, ugly bore. To others (and it should be pretty clear where I fall in this) it’s the JFK of comic book movies, a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of pop culture, politics and brutality. It also made one thing resoundingly clear: Snyder’s as good as his material. Where 300 preserved with clarity Miller’s romance with hard right wing fascism, Watchmen is every bit as morally complex as its source. Snyder never tries to make his “heroes” anything but the reactionary vigilantes they are, and the liberal superman who turns out to be the story’s “villain” essentially saves the world. To the surprise of probably one or two people, a dark vision of a ruined world sprinkled with sex, violence and sexual violence, didn’t do huge business.
And then there’s the movie about the cartoon owls.
Which brings us back to Snyder’s fifth film, his first not based on pre-existing material. Even that, though, is a misnomer: Sucker Punch plays like a compendium of every fascination that pop culture nerds have ever held dear. If you’ve ever seen a 70s album cover or detail work on a van, you’ve probably seen a lot of Sucker Punch. What’s surprising is what Snyder has decided to do with his images. He’s taken a half century of typically male fantasy material and made all the men in the story either faceless or impotent. This is an epic-scale fantasy about a teenage girl.
Many critics have called the storytelling muddled and confusing, but the text is almost ludicrously simple: Babydoll (the hypnotic Emily Browning) is sent to an institution after an attempt to kill her rapist step-father winds up deep-sixing her little sister. At the exact moment that she is to be lobotomized, burying her dad’s secrets forever, the film jumps into her mind’s eye. From there, we chart her and her friends’ attempts to escape the institution, represented in her dream as a sort of burlesque brothel where the inmates have to dance for male clients. Every one of Babydoll’s “dance” sequences takes the film one level further into the dream world, illustrating her quest as hardcore fantasy action.
So basically, it’s like Bob Fosse stuck his dick into an Xbox. It’s Lola Montes meets Heavy Metal meets Brazil. It’s Gloria Steinem making an electro-prog concept album with swords. It’s the New Feminism and it FREAKS ME OUT.
It’s also, bizarrely, the first movie I’ve ever seen that really gets burlesque, the idea that a sexy woman on a stage can hypnotize and weaken the most powerful man in the world, bring time to a standstill and plunge any viewer into a realm of pure fantasy. That we don’t see the dances is almost beside the point (though apparently, many numbers were shot; this is a rare film where who knows what the director’s cut will look like?). This is about what actually goes on in the mind of a sex object, a fact that has brought out much of the latent misogyny in fanboy culture.
Browning’s startling lead performance is supported by turns from Jena Malone (heartbreaking), Jamie Chung (SMOKINGLY HOT), Abbie Cornish (playing intensity a little too hard) and Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical, for fuck’s sake) as fellow inmates. Supervising them in both fantasy and reality is a Polish therapist, Dr. Gorsky, played by Carla Gugino, who has not only become one of the most reliable actresses currently at work, but a figure of lush, almost comically bodacious sexiness. She looks like an inappropriately foxy Italian widow, and Snyder gives her scenes of Douglas Sirk-ian melodrama, knowing that little is more captivating onscreen than an outrageously beautiful woman in trouble.
Almost every man in the film is a grotesque caricature of male privilege. From Babydoll’s incestuous brute of a step-father (Gerard Plunkett) to the institution’s depraved chef (Malcolm Scott) to the genuinely loathsome man who runs the ward like his own personal candy store, Blue (Oscar Isaac), this is less a rogue’s gallery than a Bosch mural. The two men who aren’t self-evidently evil are Jon Hamm’s ambivalent lobotomist (he really only has one or two scenes, delicately played) and Scott Glenn’s mystical guide, known as Wiseman. Glenn’s job is to spout vague platitudes, but he’s wonderfully touching in the role. Notably, Wiseman may be a father figure, but his main lesson is that the women in this story can’t rely on him. They have to rely on each other.
Of course, you could also argue that this is mainly, and most prominently, the sort of film in which a bunch of astoundingly hot women gun down a train car full of cyborgs on a distant planet (this does happen). It’s true that Snyder may be the most imaginative and, importantly, coherent designer of action scenes working in Hollywood right now. He merges the mad visual abstraction of Japanese manga with the lovingly choreographed combat of classic Hong Kong. Indeed, every scene in which Babydoll and her co-horts drop into fantasy is so intensely imagined, so richly designed and so viscerally presented that it’s almost exhausting. This is, on some level, a movie about hot chicks in fetish gear fighting dragons, and every moment they’re doing so is geek kryptonite, the kind of holy-shit spectacle that cinema was invented for.
But really, Snyder’s not just plugging a female character into a traditionally male role (as much geek fantasy reductively does): he’s actually talking about what it means to be a female struggling against a male hegemony. This is a story about a young woman gathering the tools to hold her own and eventually triumph when she’s in a system designed to take her power, about learning to get a sister’s back when she’s in need.
The fantasies on display may be Snyder’s, but his avatar is a brutalized young woman. The story may be his, but his narrator is an older, wiser female voice. In the closing moments, Snyder’s dark fairy tale finally gives us a few moments of light and hope. The nameless narrator, who has spent much time ruminating on who it is that really controls our destinies, finally gives us an answer: “It’s you.” She isn’t talking to the boys. It’s sentiments like that which make Sucker Punch the kind of film that I’d be okay with my niece watching.
You know what? I bet you’ll fucking hate Sucker Punch. The reviews have been brutal, and even the fanboys have turned on it, many criticizing it for not being sexy enough, for not having a story they can relate to, for not making sense. Yeah, you’ll probably think it’s a big bunch of bullshit and nonsense, sound and fury signifying nothing.
I’ll bet some girl out there sees it and finally doesn’t feel so alone and powerless anymore. And I bet she slays a fucking dragon.