i need to stop writing this post before i convince myself that sucker punch is actually brilliant

Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s new Superman movie, is coming out this weekend. I’m going to use that as a reason to write about Sucker Punch, his last movie, because I’ve been wanting to write about this hot mess ever since it came out two years ago.

Although it’s probably not very good in the final analysis, Sucker Punch plays with a lot of smart ideas, including an ironic self-awareness that most blockbuster action directors never mess with. In case you’re wondering if I’m just trying to find something complex about this movie, worry not: This self-consciousness is plainly implied by the movie itself, and even if Snyder can’t really figure out what that means or what to do with it, I like that he tried.

We’re immediately put on notice by the first image, a slow crawl forward through a theater that moves toward a curtain with the Warner Bros. logo on it. That curtain opens up onto another curtain with the production company’s logo, which in turn opens directly onto the first scene. In this very first image, then, we are being given a staged scene that is patently artificial, since of course we don’t normally watch the action of a movie take place on a theater stage unless it happens to take place in a theater. It’s the film equivalent of breaking the fourth wall.

What’s brilliant about this introduction is that it breaks the fourth wall of the cinema art, but by showing us the conventions of another art, traditional theater. If we were sitting in the theater the movie is showing us, what we’d be seeing on stage would just be the action of the play; it’s only because we’re watching this through the additional framing of the film that it becomes a marked convention. I’m getting more enthusiastic about this just thinking about it.

Anyway, the opening minutes set up the movie like this: the young woman/girl Babydoll (played by Emily Browning) is our protagonist, and a clash with her stepfather has landed her in an insane asylum, with the imminent threat of a lobotomy. The details of why aren’t really important so long as you understand that Babydoll’s one big goal in the movie is to break the hell out of the asylum.

Once Snyder has established all of that, he makes another big gesture of reflexivity. Quickly he shows us Babydoll being taken to her lobotomy, but just as they are about to drive the spike into her head, cut to a rehearsal of a play depicting the lobotomy scenario we were just watching. Now the imminent lobotomy victim is still a Babydoll-type character, but the character is being played by an actress (an actress played by Abbie Cornish — not the one playing Babydoll) who gets up to start complaining to the director. As the camera pulls back, we see that the rehearsal is playing out on the same stage that I was talking about before, the one from the beginning of the movie. With the director in the foreground, the actress starts complaining about the script:

This is a joke, right? Don’t you get the point of this? It’s to turn people on. I get the sexy little school girl. I even get the helpless mental patient, right — that can be hot. But what is this, lobotomized vegetable? How about something a little more commercial, for godsakes?

….which could just as well be said about the movie we’re watching. There it is: Snyder is acknowledging that he’s in on the joke of his own movie, namely, that this movie started off with a preposterous premise that had all kinds of creepy soft-core connotations to it, and that maybe a lobotomy is not a good way to end it.

I see this little auto-critique as a big bet on Snyder’s part that he can wink at the audience — because that’s the function of this line from the actress — and get them on his side. The problem with this kind of self-consciousness is that the bet needs to pan out, and if the rest of the movie is kind of a hash, which this one is, the bet bombs even worse than if Snyder had just tried to make something completely straight-faced and not self-conscious at all.

Still, I like the fact that Snyder tried anything that gonzo to begin with, and he spends a lot of the movie trying out fun ideas that work with this idea that the film is a play of images more than a realist story of any sort whatsoever. For one, there are layers of fantasy upon fantasy. This new reality we’ve cut to (the one of the play rehearsal) is some combination of cabaret and brothel where Babydoll and her allies are now some combination of showgirls and prostitutes. At this point, you might be legitimately confused about whether the asylum or the cabaret is the reality of the story, and that’s only cleared up subsequently through editing.

The rest of the movie is given over to Babydoll and a posse of friends collecting a series of tools they’ll need to get out of the brothel-cabaret-asylum, and each of these is visualized as an action sequence that takes place in yet another layer of fantasy on top of the brothel fantasy. These sequences each have their own particular brand of nutty, B-movie free association, mixing old-school bomber planes with dragons and castles (and a cover of “Search and Destroy”), or putting reanimated “steam-powered” German zombies in the trenches of WWI, with some mecha thrown in for the hell of it. I take this as Snyder saying to the audience: “I know this doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t need to, because it’s fun, right?”

This approach is all faintly post-modern without being really explicit about it, but another scene hints at post-modernism in a subtle and fresh way. (Or at least fresh to me; maybe he ripped it off of somebody.) Snyder begins the scene backstage, with the girls talking while putting on their makeup at a line of mirrors. As the conversation goes on, the camera passes through a mirror, but instead of digging into a wall, we just find another set of girls talking — three-dimensional mirrors of the girls who began the conversation. (Below, in the top screen grab, Vanessa Hudgins’ head is on the right, and we see her image in the mirror on the left. A second later, in the bottom screen grab, the camera has moved closer to the face on the left, and is just about midway through the mirror on its way clear to the other side.) It’s a cool scene, and the mirror move is particularly suggestive because it’s about literally penetrating surface and image. This seems like the kind of thing you’d never get to do in a Fast and Furious movie.

You may be asking what my complaint about this movie is, after all, since normally I love all this stuff. The problem is that Sucker Punch seems to want to be a Hallmark card: All of Babydoll’s fantasies are deployed as examples of the power of imagination to reshape reality, and it’s done in a heavy-handed, voice-over-enabled manner. Whatever else I’ve mentioned here about self-awareness and ironic detachment, the movie has a message of generic uplift that would seem to be its primary directive, and the ending seems to imply a degree of fate and inevitability. Instead of being open-ended and inscrutable, the movie aspires to tell us that everything will be alright as long as we exercise the power of personal will. Apparently, Snyder was just kidding about being in on the joke of his own movie: He wants us to take it seriously after all. But by that point, I’m not inclined to.

2 thoughts on “i need to stop writing this post before i convince myself that sucker punch is actually brilliant

  1. This movie has one brilliant conceit: Instead of showing the audience extended dance scenes, with the characters performing some kind of dance routine / cabaret number, they show us THE COOLEST ACTION SCENE IMAGINABLE. This happens like four or five times in the movie. I began to agree with the director: I would rather be watching 5 hot cos-play chicks fighting mechanical zombies or giant animatronic samurai than watching actual humans, limited by the laws of physics and gravity, perform some kind of interpretive dance. Really, its a conceit I wish more directors would indulge. Films like “Chicago” and “Burlesque” could be immediately improved. And if there was some way to just show the male audience members the “sucker punch” scenes while the female audience members saw the actually-scripted dances, these sorts of dance movies would make way more successful date films.

    • Somehow, even though we only see Babydoll’s faint dance gyrations before the scene switches to the fantasy-action sequence and as it ends, I still have the impression that the dancing is lame.
      Oh, yeah, and I didn’t really get into how good the action sequences are in the movie, but some of them are great, as communicated by your all caps.

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