Glam Slamdunk: In Defense of ‘Sucker Punch’

Everyone is entitled to their fantasy, from fresh faced young boy to decrepit, raincoat wearing perverts. According to many in the film critic community, however, director Zack Snyder isn’t permitted to offer up his. Actually, the maker of such hits as Dawn of the Dead and 300 would probably argue that he didn’t make his latest movie for himself. Instead, one envisions a well thought out thesis in which newly empowered female adolescents, beneficiaries of 40 plus years of overt feminism, become the recipient of his unhinged eye candy on crack stream of sacrilegious action beats. You can just hear him saying, aged white males and the ‘dudes’ in the dull geek community may not get it, but the little girls…they understand.

Ever since its release on 25 March, Sucker Punch as been the heavy bag for a near universal journalistic disdain. Reviewers have been falling over themselves trying to find clever, conceited ways of barbequing Snyder and his fetishized, sexualized combination of crazy girls with guns. They lambasted the story, haranguing its ‘style over substance’ mannerisms, and picked apart everything from the music used to the random homage nature of the fantasy sequences. With few exceptions (yours truly as part of the dissent), most abjectly hated the film. A few have called it the worst of the year (and we still have Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill to look forward to). Opinions are just that – personal views and judgment call estimations. While many have “respected” the effort, they’ve also deplored the result.

However, the hate being spewed at Sucker Punch suggests something much deeper going on. References in the revilement have been all over the map, from comparisons to the Pussycat Dolls to Kill Bill. Others can’t get over the tarted-up whores down in Whoreville approach. The main complaint seems to be that the movie makes little or no sense, the plot about a young girl, institutionalized for attacking her gold-digging stepfather (and perhaps, preventing the rape of her younger sister), moves from Snake Pit to Las Vegas lounge act so quickly it will make one’s aesthetic spin. From then on, the narrative out Inceptions Chris Nolan by going from nut house to cat house to various CG satellites all in a video game like design of goal/search/destroy and boss control.

Some have even suggested that there is another version of the film out there, a ‘director’s cut’ which explains more, adds some since excised musical numbers, and basically gives the Barbie doll bad-asses of the story more depth and emotional heft. Such a suggestion may have merit, since Snyder did vivisect his interpretation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen to remove an entire subtext (the whole comic book/Tales of the Black Freighter element), only to stick it back in come DVD/Blu-ray time. Maybe there is a more fully realized version of Sucker Punch out there, waiting to be rediscovered by those with no tolerance for it the first time around. Of course, it could also be the tanker full of gasoline ready to reignite the controversy all over again.

None of this offers up a defense of the film, mind you. None of it prejudging why critics (and for the most part, audiences) didn’t care. However, there is a single word which goes a long way toward giving Snyder and Sucker Punch back some dignity. It’s a sentiment that writers crow about, pundits preach about, and film schools foam over. It’s such a rare commodity in fact that it’s weird to see its champions chastise it. The word, naturally, is “vision.” Debate its merits as a movie, as an emotional epiphany or catharsis (or lack thereof), a character study or miscreant male masturbation material, but Sucker Punch is one of the rare film that finds a specific means of vizualization and runs like Hell with it. It is literally unlike any movie made in the last few years.

Something similar happened a few years back with Speed Racer. The Wachowskis, fat from bringing the Matrix full trilogy circle, were given their choice of projects, and the result with a candy colored hallucination based around the classic Japanese anime from the ’60s. Utilizing lots of computer graphics and a wild whiz-bang style, the brothers crated a cartoon on steroids, a study in old fashioned narrative contrivances and new millennium moviemaking skills. Slotted for the Summer season, it became the fashionable “love or it hate it” title of 2008 – most siding with the latter. Three years later, Snyder has delivered something quite similar, and once again, the cruel cons are far outweighing the parsed out pros.

Vision remains a primary pet peeve for most critics, the lack of same stunting many an otherwise sensational cinematic idea. Every year, promising efforts come down the distribution pipeline and many threaten to rewrite the artform’s rulebook. Hardly any ever do. As a matter of fact, the reliance on the cliches and contrivances of the past permeate everything about the current showbiz state. Now, no one is suggesting that Sucker Punch doesn’t do the same thing. You can see parts of many previous movies in its all-encompassing style. But few have found the magic wand wielded by Snyder. From the moment the movie opens, a baroque stage suggesting that everything we are about to see is a “production,” this film announces its outsized, unreal intentions.

Granted, the character names all suggest forbidden fruit and jail bait. You don’t put someone named ‘Rocket’ or ‘Baby Doll’ in mini-skirts and cleavage revealing leather and believe you are making some manner of anti-sexist statement. But as part of the whole empowerment argument crafted in recent years, Snyder is merely reflecting his times, telling young girls everywhere that they can dress provocatively and kick ass at the same time. Of course, men running around shirtless with their jockey short bulge showing doing the something similar would be considered laughable. Sucker Punch wants to celebrate the gradual transformation of the woman from second class citizen to sex object to sex ‘bomb’ in one two hour assault. It then throws in the paternalistic nature of the villainy (priests, stepfathers, male orderlies) to make the point even more obvious.

All polemics aside, this remains one amazing looking movie. No one is making this kind of celluloid canvas right now – no one. Name another film that looks like Sucker Punch, that puts together the random bits of pop culture and cinematic stepping stones that this one does. Sure, Snyder is recycling, but he does so in such an innovative and arresting way that, all outrageousness aside, the results define the inherent magic in movies. Take the initial battle between our heroines and WWI steam-power German zombie soldiers. Sucker Punch turns the standard firefight into a reference heavy homage to various media (sci-fi, cyberpunk, war films) that its impact is undeniable. Similarly, the train battle against faceless androids argues for another mishmash of meaningful film archetypes. Sure, we’ve seen what Snyder is offering here, just not in the same surrealistic way.

For many, however, vision will not be enough. Others will argue that optical wonder is not enough to counterbalance the film’s many faults. All of that can be granted out and still not suggest that Sucker Punch is, somehow, a motion picture affront. Sure, it’s complicated and often incoherent, a subplot or song sequence away from coming together completely. It does walk dangerously close to the border between explanation and exploitation, and never really resonates on a wholly human level. But Snyder’s pre-Superman sidestep is not an abomination. Call it a noble failure or a flawed success, but it definitely fills the big screen with a visionary approach that almost all of current mainstream moviemaking lacks. Naturally, this will not be enough to sway opinion. If his fantasy was to put everything he had, imagination-wise, up in the screen, Zack Snyder succeeded. He is entitled to do so, after all.