Baby Doll and the steampunk zombie Nazis: 9 notes on Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch

1) In Sucker Punch, women in militarized Sailor Moon outfits jump from a helicopter onto an exploding train as it rushes towards an Oz-like city at night. In another scene, Baby Doll twirls in the air and attacks a 30 foot tall Samurai with her sword. Is this third wave post-Madonna feminism in action?

2) When one reads Zack Snyder's promotional comments, one could think so. The March 25th issue of Entertainment Weekly defends the film thus: "Sucker Punch may look like it gets its kicks from women in titillating getups, but Snyder's intention was to explore female objectification. Baby Doll's look is supposed to be `the personification of innocence and vulnerability,' causing the skeevy male characters to target and underestimate her. `The women take control of the sexual trappings foisted upon them, even turn them into weapons,' says Snyder. `The challenge was to confront the concept of the exploitation of women without creative exploitative imagery.'" ---Is Snyder's claim valid or just marketing spin?

3) Except for Scott Glenn, who wisely plays "Wise Man," there are only skeevy male characters in Sucker Punch. Be it an obese cook, a twisted evil stepfather, Jon Hamm as the lobotomizing doctor/high roller, Oscar Isaac as Blue Jones (the murderous pimp who runs the insane asylum), or the grotesque greasy-haired lecherous mayor, every male figure is an extreme obvious creep. As a guy watching Sucker Punch, I felt demeaned. Even in their scanty outfits, the female characters can at least kick butt.

4) Every time Baby Doll is supposed to dance for the men, the film cuts to one of her dreams of military conquest where she kills extra tall Samurai, steampunk zombie Nazis, dragons, killer robots, etc. Apparently, the dance scenes were shot but then deleted except for one inserted into the end credits (but I had left the theater by then).

Meanwhile, characters who watch the dances swoon and look agog, applauding rapturously after each one (we see that). It seemed strange for a film to continually praise scenes that it just skipped over. On the other hand, it seems very American to cut out erotic dance and substitute it with PG-13 violence.

5) Speaking of PG-13 violence, the fantasy-sequence villains of Sucker Punch (the aforementioned tall Samurai, steampunk zombie Nazis, dragons, and killer robots, etc.) are all rendered cartoonish by their obvious lack of humanity. We can't see blood because then the violence would merit an R rating, so the villains sprout flashes of light when wounded, or leak gas, or crumple into piles of CGI metal on a speeding elevated train. It makes all of Baby Doll's and Sweet Pea's and Rocket's (etc.) intensive fighting techniques a little silly. For more about the sinister effects of the MPAA on the film, check out George Russell's article.

6) I still wonder about the fact that both Abbie Cornish (who is amazing in Bright Star) and Jena Malone (of Donnie Darko) have major roles in this movie. As Melissa Silverstein wrote: "The one thought that kept coming into my mind was, what the hell is Abbie Cornish doing in this film?" Still, Abbie defends her choice:

“Throughout my life I had done different forms of martial arts. My mum was the Australian National Karate Champion and I’d learned Capoeira in Brazil. I danced as a teenager, I grew up on a farm, I rode motor bikes, horses…I used to run a lot just out in the country with my dog, so the idea of doing this film was amazing,” Cornish said. “Someone once asked me if you could play any character in a film what would it be, and the first thing that came to my mind was to play ‘The Godfather.’ Imagine that, that would be awesome. Of course there are so many roles that are male roles that as an actor I would love to explore, I would love to play, and then when you get a female role that explores some of those things and you get to be physical, it’s so incredible.”

7) Snyder mentioned somewhere that he drew inspiration from Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when writing Sucker Punch, and (spoiler alert) the ending of the film certainly bears that out. While one would think that Baby Doll would be the opposite of Randle McMurphy, she isn't. She turns out to be a doll-like variation. Oddly, Sweet Pea's story concludes much like Chief Bromden's.

8) When I first saw the teaser trailer for Sucker Punch way back in July 29, 2010, the movie looked intriguing. Ever since, with every new trailer and marketing tool, it has been steadily becoming more banal. When I learned of the five objects that Baby Doll searches for, I couldn't help thinking of every other quest movie that uses the same device.

9) In a later trailer, as soon as I heard Scott Glenn say "Begin your journey. It will set you free," I groaned. When I watched the film, I enjoyed the fight scenes, the random bombed out cathedral, the trenches, and the burning zeppelins, but I missed the music of the trailers (for instance, Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks") in comparison to pallid cover songs ("Go Ask Alice") on the film's ponderous soundtrack. I still prefer the rapid-flash incongruous imagery of the trailer to the compromised finished product. Sucker Punch seems better-suited as a logic-free dream vision than a story loaded down with a point and a plot.


Unknown said…
Honestly, the sexed up outfits the actresses wear is what has kept me from watching the film. Not that I'm a prude but the fact it seems the only way to get a job in a movie is to prance around in your underwear. Objectification of women, No thanks.

Other than that the action & special effects looked interesting. I'll watch it on Netflix or anywhere w/a ffwd button.
Sam Juliano said…
I've stayed away from this like the plague, but it's more a matter of there being a number of other things out there that I need to see than a purposeful avoidance. Great to have a review taken on the underpinnings like this piece.
Thanks, BelleVida,

My significant other didn't want to see Sucker Punch for the same reason. I wonder if Mr. Snyder meant to alienate much of half of the human population that way?

Thanks, Sam,

You are lucky to have so many options of so many movies to see. I do like Snyder's attempt to find some way to combine Japanese, steampunk, World War I, feudal Samurai, Wizard of Oz, zombie, and Cuckoo's Nest imagery into one vivid brew, even given the film's other problems.
Richard Bellamy said…
Good thoughts, Film Doctor. I've posted my own review, so I'll just say a few things here.

I agree about the preview. There was a chemistry to it that I missed in the full-length movie.

Not that this matters - but I didn't take the German soldiers to be Nazis. The setting for that sequence is WWI with the trenches and no man's land and a zeppelin and biplanes. Also, they apparently run on "steam-powered clockwork," as the Wise Man says - so I didn't take them to be zombies. Again, not that it matters. They could just as well have been Nazis in a WWI setting.

The dance you missed during the credits involves the Russian dance teacher - not one of the kick-butt girls. At first I thought it was odd that you never see Baby Doll dancing, but then I thought it worked because when she's dancing, she's in one of her liberating fantasies.

Thanks for your input, but you just deconstructed a good portion of my title. What are they then? Steam-powered clockwork Krauts? Fizzy Huns? Whistling teapot Jerries? You say it doesn't matter, but it does matter that the viewer has some context for understanding these assorted enemies or they end up being so much pseudo-dangerous free-associative cultural soup. That may explain why Warner Brothers keeps releasing those animated explanatory videos for the movie ("The Trenches," etc.), to try to fill in a back story for villains that scarcely amount to anything in the movie. Snyder might've been better off not making any sense, not explaining anything.
Richard Bellamy said…
"Whistling teapot Jerries." I like that.
JeanRZEJ said…
Everything I read about this film makes it sound like a Paul Verhoeven film, a straight-faced satire borne out of the very elements it is built to criticize. The near universal negative critical approaches seem to bear out this idea, but, then, so would a truly terrible film. After everything I had heard about the film before it came out it seemed to be the only sensible reason to make a film such as this, and lo and behold his talk about the film seems to bear this out. Now, whether he succeeds is at question, but it seems like most people don't even consider the possibility of irony. Basically, is Sucker Punch 'Showgirls for the Tomb Raider generation'? Even asking that sounds like some piece of preposterous dialogue out of a Verhoeven version of The Player. I actually want to see him make that film, by the way.
Thanks for your thoughts, JeanRZEJ,

You might be right. Sucker Punch ultimately reminds me of The Fifth Element in that it appears to reflect the director's youthful interests (both movies have a strong adolescent sense of creativity), and both films carry visual elements that transcend the weaknesses in the plot. While I can understand the serious critical problems with the movie, I agree that the critics may be missing some of the irony. There's no doubt that Snyder intended to mess with his audience. I also wonder if he meant to alienate just about everyone in the process.
JeanRZEJ said…
'There's no doubt that Snyder intended to mess with his audience. I also wonder if he meant to alienate just about everyone in the process.'

Sounds like Verhoeven! It really depends on who your audience is, anyway. As Greenaway, a man who knows much about alienating audiences en masse (intentionally in some cases) says, and here I paraphrase: It's much more difficult to be a good film watcher than it is to be a good film maker. That is to say, it doesn't matter what the filmmaker does if the viewer shuts himself off from possibilities that the filmmaker explores. I don't know that there are many films that are crafted with a great deal of ironic intent that can be appreciated by a viewer who completely misses the point, so I wouldn't really count the preponderance of misreadings against the film. Now, it doesn't seem that people who read the film properly enjoy it too much, either, so I think the biggest problem with the film may be that nobody likes it, not that it alienates a lot of people. Whatever Snyder's intentions, or perhaps it may simply be a cause of expecting too much of notoriously passive viewers (in combination with not crafting a very compelling film), I think the hooplah surrounding the film is great. Rarely does a film so upset people unless Gaspar Noé (or Peter Greenaway) is at the helm. I haven't fully scanned the internet, but I haven't seen one person defend the film along the lines of a Verhoeven satire, but at least you asked the question. It doesn't seem anyone else has. On the other hand, there are numerous examples of the kind of cinematic muckraking that would make The National Enquirer blush if they were into film reviews, and I can only hope that their tasteless nonsense is done with tongue in cheek. There was a Slant magazine piece that bemoaned the pop culture references in Sucker Punch - and it was full of pop culture references. These things... I just don't know, man. Baffling. Sucker Punch: the cinematic equivalent of yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater, now playing in empty theaters.