Sucker Punch is possibly the most spectacular failure I’ve seen in a while. It’s certainly ambitious, it’s got lots to praise, but there are far too many efforts falling flat or possibly offending for it to be considered a success. Aside from its merits or lack thereof, I want to look into what this movie means. This isn’t a comic cinematic experience, it’s an original screenplay, but it might just be the best visual representation of what comics mean. I believe Sucker Punch to be a statement on what comics are so hit the jump to see how I make this conclusion.
To kick things off, I should state that I am a fan of Zack Snyder. I don’t think he’s the greatest director in the world but I have liked all that he has created, up to Sucker Punch. There seems to be a very counter-culture movement of bashing Snyder as being overrated even though I’ve never seen anyone proclaim him as the best. His movies have made money and been received well at times and in places, but he’s never been compared to the masters. I certainly don’t place him on any pedestal of height, I just know I dig the movies he’s made. So, I openly state I have enjoyed his movies but that should in no way bias what I have to say about Sucker Punch.
If you look at many of the broad brush strokes of Sucker Punch you will see a multitude of familiar tropes and iconography from the world of comics. Not all of them are used effectively, or at least it would appear not, but they all have something to say about comics, both the content and the state of play right now. Some comparisons will be literal and some are metatextual. Now, let’s go through the looking glass, people, and see just how it all breaks down.
The main agenda of Sucker Punch is that a young girl, known only as Baby Doll, is set up in a mental asylum and will undergo a very under-the-table lobotomy within days. By taking her off the table, the lecherous step-father will go untouched for his crimes. Once imprisoned, the girl disappears into a fantasy realm where reality is skewed to not be quite as dire, though it still isn’t what you would call a brilliant situation. We are then transported periodically from this locale to yet a deeper realm and this final terrain is completely fantastical, as well as being lyrically violent.
The layers within layers approach has garnered many comparisons to Inception and while the similarities are there the problem with Sucker Punch is that it fails to establish any internal logic to aid the audience in following what happens. No explanation is offered as to why Baby Doll is able to so convincingly create these alternate realities, nor how real these levels within the narrative are. You simply have to commit yourself to it or prepare to constantly question the screen and receive no answers for two hours.
The aspect of dealing with real world problems by substituting yourself into a position of power and strength is a narrative conceit upon which superhero comics are nearly always built upon. The superhero genre is full of spandex clad behemoths substituting the perceived flaws or setbacks of the person within, be it anger management issues, the defeat of guilt, or a physical handicap. No matter what the obstacle to be overcome, the hero can become someone new with the dazzling aspects and abilities to overcome that which troubles them in the night.
Sucker Punch never states it but its theme is that of a superhero tale. The lead hero, or so we see Baby Doll as, is able to slowly overcome her impediment of imprisonment by staging a break out that we only see through her warped new reality. In this reality, which is a burlesque theatre, she is gifted the ability to dance better than any of the other girls. In fact, any man who gazes upon her gyrations and pulsations is rendered relatively still and useless, a fact the girls take advantage of to enact their plan of retrieving certain plot tokens which will aid their freedom.
Baby Doll’s dance, which triggers the effect in men and the shift in narrative, is like an overly feminine set of Nega-Bands or a Lantern Ring. This is what she uses to make the transformation, this is her oath, her code, her secret message to enter the clubhouse of the supreme beings who live with victory and laugh in the face of despair. Having the girl use a dance to become powerful is about as subtle as having a guy burp or an old person chatter their false teeth but in the end it works. Snyder directs it so that it’s still interesting and intriguing.
We never see Baby Doll completely dance, her hidden power obscured even from us, and so when she works her magic we are thrust into a third level of fantasy where things are closest to being a superhero comic tale. This warped and hyperviolent realm is where all the characters are imbued with inherent fighting ability, a wide array of fantastical weaponry, and a range of opponents on which to exact vengeance and frustration upon. All of this isn’t explained or given any sort of real set up or back story, we just have to believe and accept. Much like the science of comics you have to give yourself over to it, you have to believe.
Each time we are transported to this level of reality, the motif and theme is different. The iconography and branding is usually a pastiche of styles and genres. We get the Kaiser’s Germany, dragons, techno-citadels, and manga style samurai. In each iteration, the foes the girls face are all inhuman. These henchmen aren’t to be mourned because they are clockwork German soldiers or gnarled up monstrosities or annoyingly determined robots. The girls don’t have to deal with the guilt of killing another human because it’s not built into the scenarios.
Comics might use humans within the ranks of HYDRA or A.I.M. but they surely don’t dwell on the massive losses counted in any battle because the henchmen don’t matter, it’s a simple but always sure fact. A hero needs to be able to cut loose, with the full array of power at their disposal, without having to worry about due process or the damage they inflict. When the big fight comes, with the true opponent, then the cause and effect of battle will be measured but in the early levels of any narrative the leads just need some cannon fodder with constant bad aim to plow through with no second thought. Sucker Punch is very careful to ensure all levels of violence are filled with disposable goons the girls can toss aside easily and with extreme prejudice.
To really see if these girls are superheroes you only need to address them, they all get bitching codenames to operate by and if that isn’t a superhero trope then I don’t know what is. Baby Doll, Sweat Pea, Rocket, and Blondie are all protected to some degree by their nom de plumes. Then there is Amber who is saddled with a real name, presumably her real name. I doubt she’s codenamed after the tree resin, unless her superpower is trapping mosquitoes who hold precious DNA. However, if you analyse Amber’s character you will see she hasn’t earned a sweet codename because she doesn’t fight in the battles, she flies the transport and is the hired help. She’s the Jarvis or the Alfred of the group, though mildly more attractive.
You have to look at the fact Snyder made this an all female cast, for the heroes, and understand that means something. Snyder is addressing the concept of female superheroes as they really would be, to some degree. Or at least as we should start to see them. Comics are filled with Spider-Woman and Batwoman and Ms Marvel and Zatanna and the common theme between them all, and so many others, is that they are extremely attractive examples of the female form. In fact, their aspects of proportional body ratio and aesthetic appeal is one of the reasons comics isn’t always taken as seriously as we, the fans on the inside, always hope. The sex appeal is not realistic and it can be a negative.
Yet, the sex appeal is still used to sell, and successfully does so, and it is never really taken seriously. Do we really think a female who can fly would wear a skirt, or really short shorts, or anything but a set of long pants? Honestly? Is a woman who is perhaps one of the strongest beings in her universe going to parade around with a sash loosely tied around her waist while leggings show off every inch of thigh and a bit higher as well? Women are rarely portrayed realistically in comics, either through overall visual appearance or the function of how they present themselves, and yet it never changes. Critics have slammed Sucker Punch for having Baby Doll fight in heels when comics have been having Emma Frost and Psylocke enter battle routinely wearing costumes that would be considered titillating on a catwalk, no less in a fight with other testosterone fuelled men.
Zack Snyder shows us exactly what comic females look like in the real world. His girls are all physically prime specimens, they wear the least they can while still earning a box office friendly rating, and they then do things in these suits that appear ludicrous; yet we read these sorts of antics each month so how can we, the comic fans, really judge this harshly?
I find it amazingly interesting when people find a comic character attractive. And I don’t mean being able to admit when you see a fine form, I mean the drooling fanboys who will seek out sexual images of their favourite heroines, and will comment on what sexual conduct with these imaginary, two-dimensional, creations must be like. If you don’t think these people really exist then you clearly haven’t been reading Our Valued Customers. When I see a comic character thrust into a spandex outfit that covers the nipples, the pants happy area, and maybe a smattering of sideboob for structural purposes I can only shrug my shoulders and realise my favourite medium has yet to take itself seriously in this area. I don’t find it attractive and so when these girls in the movie come running out in skimpy costumes and start busting heads and flipping over blades I also don’t find it stimulating. Especially not in some sexy manner. But I’m a guy who also finds lingerie football repulsive. If you like the feminine qualities of the female form then why do you want to see it matched with the most masculine and aggressive of activities, battle?
The girls are attractive, no doubt, but they lose that appeal when the violence interjects into the scene. But this is the conundrum of females in comics; they’re there to look good but they also need to make with some of the action. It’s almost a contradiction of tone and intent. I’d really just prefer they were present t be characters, to have depth, to layer the narrative, but when being honest I feel that moment is still firmly set in our future.
The girls are subjected to plenty of battering as well but they rarely amount to anything. None of them break any bones or really show any signs of damage and that’s pretty much what happens in any comic battle. It’s rare to see bandages, scrapes, bruises, or actual pain registered on any character in a comic. Sucker Punch ensures your disconnect from reality stays as strong.
Yet, there are moments in the movie where the violence meeting the ladies becomes rather…uncomfortable is probably the best word. It’s awkward, it’s nasty, it’s just not what any chivalrous man wants to see. Yet, it’s the sort of thing we should be seeing more of in comics because when you punch a lady it isn’t pretty. You only have to see it once to know that, and I don’t care if it’s a guy doing the punching or another lass. This might sound like a double standard but let’s just call it my preference, if I have to have one. Brutality against women will always seem worse, much as it does against children and the elderly, or animals, or those with special needs. Hell, it’s not great to see against a guy either, not really, but it’s the socially accepted norm. Men are built to deal with it, or at least those who look like superheroes look like they can take it. These girls don’t seem built to withstand physical pressure with malicious intent to damage. And even if they are, I still do not want to see it.
We accept our female superheroes battling it out but have you ever stopped to think about what they are doing, what’s being done to them, and how that all makes you feel? Violence in comics is always glorified, and rarely holds real consequences, and Sucker Punch gives you exactly what you always get and then flips it on its head with absolutely nasty and terrible outcomes as the film progresses. It shows us what truly happens, whether we like it or not. Sucker Punch is a statement on the concept of female violence in comics and maybe it’s a representation of where the girls go when they end up in the refrigerator.
There is a sexual quality to all that is on display in Sucker Punch, and it’s even in the way it is presented, but it’s not really exciting to watch. Not by the time you’ve seen it all the way through to the credits. This movie might appear to be one giant sex bomb of smut but it’s really a diatribe of how unappealing women in comics can be at times. Or at least, the concept of them taken to real lengths. We gloss over what women in super-battle is and we forget the realistic logistics of it all. We don’t consider what is in the four colour world every week and yet when it was presented on film the majority railed again it. Does that not tell us anything?
People often take the biggest anger towards the way Zack Snyder visually presents his films. They hate his overly paced and fluid direction, especially of moments they don’t deem worthy of anything more than the standard 24 frames per second. Don’t get a hater started on slow motion, you’d think they’d never seen it in another flick before. Yet while watching Sucker Punch a thought came to me, and perhaps I was led there by very early on in the piece making mental notes about how much this film spoke to comics. I found Snyder’s direction to be very similar to the way an artist constructs a tale. Hear me out on this one…
Snyder simply won’t compromise on any scene or moment. He doesn’t want anything to be boring or standard, he wants everything to pop. This insistence on attempting something on everything means his hit ratio is naturally going to be low. Rarely is a filmmaker good enough to make it all pop, and Snyder certainly is not on that level of mastery, but you have to be impressed, if not entertained, by his dedication to attempt to deliver something you haven’t seen before. Snyder wants to make every scene, every angle, every frame, count, and most comic artists bring this same passion to their stories by making every panel count. No artist will admit to rushing off the talking heads pages just so he can spend an extra day on the glorious splash page. A good artist knows that every panel counts, you do not compromise.<
It’s just a shame that Snyder has his 24 panels per second and he’s spreading himself too thin to make them all the perfect image. It’s like he wanted Sucker Punch to feel like a progression of Frazetta prints. The epic scale and the mystical fog of animated feeling swirls through every set piece. You can hate Snyder all you like but you can’t say he’s not trying. I also believe you can’t hate someone for always working their ass off to bring you what they deem to be the best possible ride they can create. Snyder doesn’t set out to annoy or inflame you, rarely does anyone. He isn’t sitting back, twirling his moustache, and laughing at the people subjected to yet another slow motion moment of seeming nil importance. Snyder is working his ass off so don’t hate him. You just don’t have to like his work, that’s fine. Know the distinction. But that’s a tangent.
The last thing I want to look at is how you would present this movie to someone else. Whether you like Sucker Punch or not if you had to sit through it with someone, someone who wasn’t a genre fan, then you’d probably end up cringing at some stage, almost wanting to apologise for the movie, and feeling like it reflected poorly on you and your tastes. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Sucker Punch but I’m glad I saw it with a mate. We’ve got similar tastes and we got to the end feeling the same way. I know if I had taken my wife instead I’d have been wearing it all night. There’s no way I would have lived it down and I would have felt like a heel.
Does this sort of shared experience with a media remind you of anything else in your life you try to share? I got my wife to read Y: The Last Man. In fact, I barely needed to prompt, and she devoured all ten trades very quickly. We even read the latest Spider-Woman title together and she had stacks of questions but she got it. But sometimes she catches me reading other books, things like an Avengers title or Black Panther or even good stuff like Uncanny X-Force or Casanova, and I find the back stories or character connections or villains difficult to explain without sounding a little sheepish. It’s silly and almost juvenile and at times god awful and that was kind of the vibe I got from Sucker Punch. If you’re into comics then you will forgive its faults, sadly, not many people are into whatever Sucker Punch actually is so the pundits were far less forgiving.
Watching a group of young girls battle giant samurai statues and topple zeppelins and slit the throats of baby dragons was fun but it’s hard to explain. Are they fighting for my entertainment or stripping for my pleasure? The same can be said of comics, and especially females in comics.
I don’t think there is any one answer, the truth comes from how we ourselves see our interaction with comics. I don’t mind launching into a lecture with my wife about the X-History of cyborgs and telepaths, I don’t feel bad about it at all. But I’ll also come clean as to when something isn’t exactly perfect, like Psylocke’s costume. I once heard the definition of a geek isn’t someone who loves things that society doesn’t like but it’s someone who will then also talk about these things constantly without realising it makes them an ostracised target. I think that’s interesting to note and it means you truly have to be honest with yourself.
To be honest, Sucker Punch isn’t a great movie. It has some surely great moments, and it is enjoyable, in parts, but it’s just not what it wants to be, whatever that is. It isn’t the worst movie of the year, no matter how much people want it to be, but it does have some very strange moments that do not hit straight at all. I’d place it with the likes of Aronofsky’s The Fountain or Kelly’s Southland Tales in that I wasn’t always aware of what I was seeing, or more why I was seeing it, but I enjoyed seeing it. Sucker Punch is worth seeing, probably only once, and it certainly says a lot about the state of comics. Have you seen Sucker Punch, what did you think of it?
Ryan K Lindsay is an Australian writer who finds time in nearly every day to get words of some description down. He was published by Marvel once, in a back matter essay in Criminal, but he can more regularly be found penning reviews and op/ed pieces on comic news website The Weekly Crisis. His favourites are; character, Matt Murdock; story, Y: The Last Man; novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; movie, Chasing Amy; and woman, his wife.