The first op/ed piece I wrote for This Is Infamous some six and a half years ago, now, was the result of a challenge. Billy The Kidd Donnelly, the site’s owner, and editor, hosted a movie review podcast. And he shit on Sucker Punch, hard. The night’s topic was the release of MAN OF STEEL and the beginning of the Snyder-verse of DCEU films. I called in to defend Sucker Punch, explaining to him WHY he didn’t like it. And the end result was this article. Something to note, this was written long before the Justice League or BvS films were even pipe dreams:
With the release of Man of Steel, I’m hearing the same scapegoat come up again and again in nearly every review I read, watch or listen to. We have to say something negative about Zack Snyder, so we dig for it. We can’t blame him for David Goyer’s shitty script, can we? Absolutely not, goddamnit, the movie was made so well despite the misfortunes of its TV movie of the week screenplay. So, in a move of desperation, it seems people have been falling back on acknowledgment of Snyder’s small portfolio in order to find something bad to say about him.
They like Dawn of the Dead. They suddenly love 300 after a few years of mocking it. A sudden reversal on Watchmen. Once a long, boring mess, they now say it did the best it could at telling a difficult story and captured the visual essence of the venerated graphic novel. The cartoon with the owls (Guardians of Ga’Hoole) was neat, albeit a bit un-family friendly for an adaptation of a children’s story. That brings us to Sucker Punch, which, according to most every person with a professional opinion, literally sucks goat piss through a CG straw and is more than likely the worst movie of all time. Are you kidding me? We have to go there because you, Mr. Movie Critic, didn’t get it? For fuck’s sake, people, this is NOT Last Action Hero or Howard the Duck we’re talking about here! Those are truly bad movies and deserve every ounce of shit they get thrown at them.
Sucker Punch is aptly named. Zack Snyder’s first original screenplay adaptation is by far his magnum opus. This movie is deeper on more levels than Nolan’s Inception, with as many twists and turns into surreal dream worlds. It tells two stories in three planes of fantasy warping reality. Thus, very few people get it. We are Americans. Of course, we don’t get it. Why? Because Sucker Punch, my friends, is a live-action Japanese anime with a Zen plot that most of us rooted in static reality can’t fathom.
It’s easy to pass the movie off as loud and perverse, a fetish fantasy played out on the silver screen. OK, I can see how the imagery can form that opinion; but there is zero nudity or sexual scenes in the film! It seems so simple to just shake your head and proclaim the film as disjointed as its narrative and assume it objectifies women. We’re so used to The Hero’s Journey and Hellenic methods of story-telling, that we’ve forgotten that there are other ways to do it.
Still, most everyone who allegedly dislikes the film cannot deny its beauty. I’m of the opinion they are so engrossed by its imagery, they miss the point. The movie makes you think because it is told unconventionally. Too many Americans don’t like to think during their movies anymore. It’s a symptom of how the Michael Bays of our modern motion picture industry have perverted the legacy of directors like Russell Mulcahy. Highlander had a story. It had character development. It was also panned during its release by critics for the techniques used in making the film: the quick editing cuts, the use of rock music to enhance the visuals, calling it a mess. Sounds like a review for Sucker Punch, doesn’t it? Funny that Highlander is now a classic movie.
For those unfamiliar with its plot, Sucker Punch tells the tale of a young woman trapped in a mental institution who fantasizes about escaping. To those ignorant to its secrets, our protagonist seems to be one Baby Doll, who accidentally kills her sister with a bullet meant for their perverse and sexually abusive step-father. He has her committed to the institution to hide his carnal secrets and concocts a scheme to silence her by paying off an orderly at the hospital to arrange a lobotomy. She is brought in to a common area, on the way we meet all the players that will be represented in our tale. Then, abruptly, the movie cuts to Baby Doll strapped to a chair; a physician hovering over her and sizing up a surgical ice pick to scramble her brains ala Frances Farmer.
A flash of light and an immediate change in the color palette is the first clue that something is amiss. During the prologue, and that is what the movie is up until this point, the colors are muted and gray. This is the moment where the movie changes ever so subtly that the general public misses it. The film essentially becomes Jacob’s Ladder meets The Wizard of Oz. We’ve left Kansas, people and are on a fucked-up ride to the Emerald City.
It is here that we also encounter the first problem many people have with the movie. The argument is “Why would women in a mental institution fantasize about being a stripper in a fetish club?” This is a common misconception. The reality is not all of the girls are sharing this vision! It’s a fantasy concocted by an emotionally damaged, dying brain reacting to a sharp object. She is having the assumed flashback of her life that one has upon death, just as Jacob’s Ladder was a “flash forward” upon death. In Baby Doll’s case, she is recalling the events leading up to that point, but they are influenced by the psychological grooming and sexual abuse inflicted upon her by the step-father. This is why the corrupt and depraved orderly, Blue, is interpreted as the club owner, it is why the step-father is represented as a priest and it is why the institution’s naive on-site doctor translates into a manipulated Madame and dance instructor. They’re all caricatures of their true natures.
Shortly after reaching the strip club we learn of another of Baby Doll’s defense mechanisms to protect her fragile mind from sexual abuse: hide it in a deeper fantasy. We enter the third level, featuring fantasies of battle and fighting back. It is during these points where the movie’s visuals take off full steam. Each and every sword-swinging, gun-firing, ass-kicking moment is Baby Doll’s way of blocking out horrible things that have been done to her. Instead of focusing on the abuse, she instead focuses on the items required to facilitate success for her escape. Her fantastic interpretations of this are what we see.
Then comes the “twist” ending, the “reveal” that pisses more people off than you can imagine. Remember I said this movie had two tales to tell, it features two protagonists. Quickly, from this moment, it is no longer told from Baby Doll’s point of view . . . we’ve now moved on to the movie’s other protagonist, Sweet Pea, the girl who wasn’t supposed to be in the sanitarium to begin with. This left American audiences sitting in the chairs, shaking their heads. The Baby Doll they had bonded with doesn’t even get away? She gets the ice pick and the scrambled gray matter? WHAT? WE WERE ROBBED! Not paying attention were we, clowns? From the moment we go to Oz, the first character we see is Sweet Pea, not Baby Doll. Each scene in the club centers around or includes Sweet Pea. Sweet Pea calls the shots, tells them if she says it’s over, it’s over. Finally sounds like the Hero’s Journey to me, but with her story told from Baby Doll’s perspective! Baby Doll’s eventual self sacrifice to find enlightenment and happiness is a common Zen theme in Asian film. Baby Doll knows she killed her sister and could no longer live with that memory, she also knows that Sweet Pea doesn’t belong there. By allowing the lobotomy to happen was her salvation. She even tells Sweet Pea, “This was never my story, it was yours.” The thing is, we see and hear this from Baby Doll’s fantastic perspective, another storytelling point that drives Americans batshit, they feel they have to bond with the face most often on the screen. Forcing them to do otherwise causes mental implosions.
With the strike of a mallet, the color pallet again mutes and we return to the real world, bringing us to blissful closure for Baby Doll, a reckoning for the institution staff and Sweet Pea’s liberation.We close to the movie’s credits as it opened, calmly fading to black, sending the movie out with a whisper with Sweet Pea’s narration quietly questioning her place in the world. American’s hate anti-climatic endings. A need is felt to end action movies with big explosions and a ton of people dying. Not here. Sometimes a gentler approach is required, especially in a movie as epic with its internal scope as Sucker Punch The movie paced itself with over the top action throughout. Ending it on a softly played note was brilliant.
Zack Snyder is a genius. He has unlocked the secret to adapting animation and comic books to the screen. He is the master of this realm. Regarding Sucker Punch, we see nearly every element present in an anime from Japan. Foremost, they share young women with big tits and owl-sized eyes in schoolgirl uniforms kicking ass with samurai swords. Think of an amalgam of Sailor Moon and Blood, The Last Vampire and you have the template for Baby Doll. Anime and manga (on the comic book level) tend to jump between realities frequently; we have plenty of that here with Sucker Punch, delivering in a surrealistic manner not dissimilar to a dream. We’ve got more hot chicks with guns and swords to make Robert Rodriguez jealous, armies of robots, a mysterious mentor, giant mechanized battle armor, and a seemingly impossible quest with an enigmatic riddle for its final test. All ingredients to most any random anime, we’re only missing tentacle demons and Kaiju. Snyder was smart and other than the first fantasy combat that has a decidedly Asian theme (Most likely another hint that this is a live-action anime!), he incorporated familiar Western visuals and myth, and instead gave us German zombies and Dragons. This is another reason I believe that people tend to center on the visuals. We tend to latch onto what feels familiar to us. In the case of Sucker Punch, it is these very fantasy segments that distract the common American from the movie’s true story and leaves them dissatisfied with the movie as a whole. For myself, however, Sucker Punch is a masterpiece of subtle storytelling and visual imagery. The movie will gain notoriety and popularity over time. I rest assured, knowing the day will come when it is given four stars, not one, on a cable channel guide.
December 29, 2020 at 3:27 am
This is some of the most condescending, presumptuous, straw man filled screed I have ever read in my life. Did it ever occur to you that people understood this film and thought it was bad anyway? Your main argument seems to stem from this assumption that American audiences only like Michael Bay, but this film was largely panned by the exact same critics that pan Michael Bay films.
December 29, 2020 at 10:07 am
Thanks for reading.
January 29, 2021 at 5:58 am
Lovely insight! I was just thinking about Sucker Punch this morning and had an epiphany about it.
Back in 2014, I disliked Sucker Punch because it was very different to what I used to watch, and as a teenager, you’re influenced by what other people think or say cause you want to be included and the easiest way is to agree with them. Your friends, social media, critics…
When I think about it now, it was kind of annoying to watch because it looked like of my own life. I think we tend to dislike what’s familiar and disturbing to our subconscious, maybe cause it’s a reminder of some trauma that we buried deep inside. I grew up in a toxic environment with an abusive father and used to fantasize all the time in order to protect my mind. It worked as an escape from the horrors of my reality, a reality in which I felt powerless. But ultimately, I had to take action. I had to take the loss and leave everything behind me. A salvation required sacrifice and I was willing to pay for it. And the ending, as in Sucker Punch, turned out very anti-climatic and unlike the thousand times I imagined it in my head.
Re-watching this movie today was a whole new experience. I’m glad to see someone took the time to write about the pure greatness of Sucker Punch.
January 29, 2021 at 5:28 pm
January 29, 2021 at 2:02 pm
I enjoyed your analysis of Sucker Punch. Like you, I’m one of the minority who loves the movie. The fantasy scenes were a thrill ride of fun. I’m a woman – hell, I’m a *senior* woman, and I loved seeing those women kick some fantasy Nazi ass. I think your references to Japanese anime is spot on. It’s a rare moment when I finish a movie and I immediately want to watch it again. Plus, Scott Glenn – come on! His role as pseudo Yoda/Kenja was perfect. I’m disappointed it received such a poor rating.
January 29, 2021 at 5:27 pm
Snyder’s getting much over due appreciation for his work as of late.
January 2, 2023 at 8:18 am
Spot on, sir! It was a great movie and maybe people didn’t like it cuz they weren’t comfortable with the underlying plot of her in an asylum. 🤷🏻♂️
January 13, 2023 at 5:46 pm
One of my all time favorite films. Thanks for your post.
Yes indeed this is Sweet pea’s story. Along with the color pallet, the music is crucial to the film. As The haunting version of “sweet dream” creeps in, we see the curtain rise on a stage with Babydoll in her bedroom. As camera pans around to show her entire bedroom we find the 4th wall no longer open, telling us, from the start, this is a play. The metaphors are continuous. Every song is meticulously chosen and arranged for each of the fantasy sequences. Using “I want it all” mashup for the mayor is brilliant.
I love this film, not only for how it looks, but how it sounds. Every aspect of the film, fight choreography, color grading, music, sound mix and cast all work together to creating a “feeling” of what Zack Sydner wants the audience to feel.