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Consumed With Hate? Sucker Punch

🥊 Mama Said Knock You Out...

The Crime: Sucker Punch
The Guilty Party: Zack Snyder
Overview: Snyder crafts a hyper-stylized meditation on feminism and audience complicity in sexual-violence-by-proxy that fails on just about every level but you kind of have to admire it for what it's trying to do.

Why I Don't Completely Hate It...

Another week, another content warning for sexual assault. We'll do something lighter next week, I promise.

I am not a Zack Snyder fan. There are things he's good at, for sure: He's got a distinct and well-executed auteur style (I don't love it, but it's definitely singular and finely crafted); he's got a great sense of scene geography during chaotic action sequences; he's got a vibrant visual imagination; and he's great at shot composition. He uses these talents to create instantly-recognizable and iconic visual tableaus. The things he's not so good at, however, are the things that I really care about in my stories. He does a consistently poor job of marrying theme and character arc to narrative. He's quick to sacrifice substance for style. His tone is all over the place. And for someone whose oeuvre is dominated by comic book movies, he doesn't seem to understand comic book characters. Like, at all.

I've not taken in his entire filmography, but my reactions are generally pretty meh. I didn't care for 300, which was a host of contradictions that, frankly, annoyed me. (Why, for example, is it a major plot point that they kick someone out because his physical deformity prevents him from fighting in a phalanx when literally no one in this movie ever bothers to fight in a phalanx?) I was bored by Dawn of the Dead and Man of Steel. Watchmen was fine, if a bit misguided in its approach to the material. Batman v Superman is a garbage fire that's going to get its own entry later in the year, believe you me. So that's the context I want you to have when I say that Sucker Punch is my favorite Zack Snyder movie.

Sucker Punch tells the story of Babydoll, a teenage girl whose abusive stepfather sends her to a mental institution to be lobotomized, but first she's going to be routinely raped by an orderly's "clients" that he pimps the teenage inmates out to. We never see this, thankfully, because as soon as she arrives, she befriends some other girls awaiting the same fate and the movie jumps into a level of metaphor where the girls are actually dancers in a cabaret/brothel. They're plotting their escape and the key to this is that Babydoll is so good at dancing that the men who come to see the show are entranced by her. But instead of ever seeing her dance, we instead jump into another layer of fantasy where the girls are fighting steampunk WWI mechs or giant robotic samurai or fire-breathing dragons or... whatever. In the end, the escape plan mostly fails, but one of the girls escapes and Babydoll gets lobotomized anyway.

Yeah, hard to imagine why this one didn't catch on with audiences. It's a very bleak film that covers up its bleakness with gritty orange fantasy violence. There are too many layers of abstraction for viewers to put together what exactly is a symbol for what--what the text as metaphor can inform us about the subtext (read as: what's actually happening in the story). The action sequences go on for entirely too long, and the tone is just everywhere, going from quippy action one-liners to the main character getting lobotomized to a song-and-dance number that plays over the credits. And then there's the title. Did you ever figure out what the titular sucker punch was? It doesn't really relate to the story at all. Seriously, what is this mess?

Let's be very clear about one thing: the movie does not work. It's a film that's heavily thematically-driven made by a filmmaker who just doesn't do a good job of wrangling theme in his movies. But I think it's worth unpacking because Snyder actually has something to say if you're willing to put in a little leg-work.

So let's take a look at this layer cake of clumsy metaphors. Again, there are three levels of narrative going on here. There's the reality of the film in the psych ward, a reality that we barely spend any time. There's the cabaret/brothel, which is where the main chunk of the plot takes place and which is intended as a sanitized re-imagining of the aforementioned psych ward. And then there are the lengthy action set-pieces that are divorced from each other and from the rest of the narrative entirely. These are visual metaphors for Babydoll's dancing in the brothel, but that's not the actual reality of the film. So what are these action sequences supposed to mean? What are these private dances that Babydoll is so exceptional at?

Yeah... Those are rape scenes. The subtext is that she is having non-consensual sex and is performing with enough gusto that other people are planning to use this as a distraction so they can escape a mental institution. And yet these sequences on-screen are the action set pieces that the entire movie was built around, that was sold to you the viewer. These acts of violence that you paid money to see are a metaphor for an act of sexual violence going on off-screen.

And that is the sucker punch. The movie is the very thing that it's parodying. Snyder is making the claim that fetishizing teenage girls on film is so terrible that even attending such a movie is an act of sexual violence, and he's accusing you of being either engaged or complicit in this violence by virtue of having watched his movie. Once more for the kids in the cheap seats: If you went to see Sucker Punch because it has girls in skimpy outfits doing cool action stuff, then as far as the movie is concerned, you are a rapist.

Wow, right? The gauntlet has been thrown down. The lines in the sand have been drawn. I mean, that right there is a bold statement.

Or, it would be, if it ever came close to landing. Audiences walked out of this movie confused, not challenged. There's just not enough connective tissue to link the different parts of the metaphor. Nothing happening within the action sequences reminds you that what you're actually seeing is a "dance" or what the implications of that might be. And these scenes go on for so long and are so disconnected from the rest of the narrative that they feel like little mini-movies within the larger one rather than, you know, the whole meta-textual point. The metaphors are never reconciled, and the themes are never realized. Ergo, the sucker punch of the title is a swing-and-a-miss.

So at the end of the day, this movie is an interesting failure from a man whose ambition far outstrips his capacity to realize it on film. And I find that charming, in its own way.

Next week we're going to jump back to the written word with Dick Van Dyke's memoir on aging: Keep Moving.

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.