It amazes me how, even regarding a movie about women, straight men dominate the conversation. All I knew about Sucker Punch before going to see it was that it looked really cool, and that both men and women everywhere were talking, before anyone even saw it, about how this was going to be “male fantasy masturbation fodder.” I’m sure it is. The costumes are skimpy and the women are hot. But Sucker Punch, like its female characters, has so much more to offer. It’s a shame that so many people allowed the masturbation conversation, as well as their preconceived notions of genre films, to color their experience of Sucker Punch and see it the way the men in the film see the women. At most, as fluff entertainment. At the very least, as unworthy of attention.
What did I see? Not only an effective telling of a harsh story through fantastical, stylized means, but a movie in which women aren’t given agency, but take it. A movie I wish had been around when I was a teenager. A movie that made me think that girls and young women today are really lucky.
(If you care about spoilers, this is not the thing to read. In order to make my points about the movie, I address key plot points. You have been warned.)
I don’t claim to be a genius, but it’s interesting that so many reviewers are calling Sucker Punch “indecipherable” or are getting so many of the details just plain wrong, when I found the movie incredibly easy to follow and see a story, not through “interpretation” but through actual lines of dialogue and actual images on the screen, that no one else seems to be seeing. Let me break this down.
The movie begins and ends with a voiceover narration about guardian angels. About how our guardian angels exist and protect us whether we believe they will or not. They sometimes come to us in surprising forms. “They speak through demons if they have to.”
Then in a lovely, silent opening, we meet Babydoll (Emily Browning), a young woman whose mother passes away at the beginning of the film. She has a stepfather, who seems thrilled that his wife is gone until he reads her will and sees that she’s left all her wealth to Babydoll and her little sister. He gets drunk, gets angry, then makes a beeline for Babydoll to either physically or sexually assault her. We never get to know which, because she lashes out and scratches him across the face. He locks her in her room, and she sees that he is headed for her little sister. She climbs out of her bedroom window, down a drainpipe, gets back in through the front of the house, finds the family gun, and threatens her stepfather with it just as he’s cornered her little sister. She fires, intending to shoot him, but she misses and ends up shooting her sister instead. Horrified, she runs away, and her stepfather calls the police and ends up having her committed in an insane asylum for the crazed murder of her sister.
From the first scene of the movie, Babydoll is someone who will stand up for someone in the face of an abuser. This is important. This is, in fact, the most important part of the whole film, and it’s the part that’s gotten lost in all the other criticism I’ve read. Babydoll is not insane, nor does she go insane. And the visual metaphors employed in the film are for our benefit, not hers. They are not a “coping mechanism” for Babydoll, nor is she “retreating into a fantasy world.” They are a way for us to see this world. They are a way of illustrating her plan to the audience in an intriguing way that isn’t just “Hey, if we steal the key and get the map from the office, we can get out of here.” That movie would’ve lasted five minutes and would’ve been boring as hell. Or worse—just like every other escape movie ever.
Once Babydoll arrives at the asylum, we’re introduced to Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), who runs play/arts therapy sessions in a converted auditorium called “The Theater.” We are also introduced to Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), the man who runs the asylum and oozes corruption. Babydoll overhears that the her stepfather has bribed Blue into ensuring a labotomy for her so that she is removed as an obstacle between him and Babydoll’s inheritance. She hears all of this and knows what’s coming, but in that moment, she also purposefully focuses on a particular fellow inmate for the first time—Sweet Pea—as Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) has trouble expressing herself in her therapy with Dr. Gorski. This focus is also important, so remember it for later.
And so all the ingredients in how we will see the asylum are in place. The asylum stands as a theater in which men control women’s bodies for profit and power, and through which a woman’s best chance at sanity and salvation is through creativity.
Cue the first visual metaphor: the asylum as a brothel/burlesque hall.
It is from here that all the characters get their names: Babydoll, Sweet Pea, Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens, who is never blonde), and Amber (Jamie Chung). Babydoll’s father becomes a priest leaving her in this place as punishment for her sins. Dr. Gorski becomes Madame Gorski, their dance instructor, and dance becomes a metaphor for the fact that Blue is, among other things, selling these girls’s bodies for sex. The lobotomist (Jon Hamm) is then referred to as the High Roller, a man who is coming in five days, not only to lobotomize Babydoll, but is spending a lot of money to “try the new girl” and “watch her dance.”
With Dr/Madame Gorski’s help, as well as the pressure of a deadline in five days, Babydoll gets in the frame of mind to fight. And that frame of mind involves samurai swords, guns, steampunk Nazi zombies, and robots.
Cue the second visual metaphor: Babydoll’s plan as a sci-fi/steampunk/fantasy battle.
The young women are not facing an easy situation. Babydoll’s dealt with an abusive stepfather, she’s accidentally killed her beloved sister, and is now stuck in a place where, before she is to be lobotomized, she and the others must endure being objectified, demeaned, and belittled.
Director Zach Snyder has been criticized for his visual style. Or rather, a criticism is that his visual style is excellent, but that it comes at the expense of “storytelling.” The thing is, in Sucker Punch, the visuals are the storytelling. The visuals and the script are one and the same. Snyder is telling the story of these girls in this asylum by providing gorgeous visuals that are as epic as their situation feels to them. Rather than have young women sitting around talking a la Girl, Interrupted, he shows us just how bad these women have it by comparing their problems to visions of epic battles and carnage. We learn what we need to know about them through the dialogue, the very specific visuals, and the roles each woman plays in the metaphor reality. Babydoll gets a gun as well as a sword, as a reminder that despite her previous use of a handgun, her sister’s death was not her fault and that she still can use it in self-defense as well as in the defense of others. Amber is always given the big machines in the fantasies. She controls the giant robot (with a bunny on it!) and flies the helicopters. She also is given the responsibility of taking the lighter off the mayor, and when Rocket fails to successfully steal the knife from the cook, it is Amber who has the foresight to pick it up when it falls to the ground, even as someone is being killed in front of her. Clearly, Amber is the intelligent one who excels under pressure. Blondie, meanwhile, is the one who is less intelligent, who becomes overly-emotional and cracks under pressure. We see this in how she excels at hand-to-hand combat and shooting people in the face—the least technical, most visceral forms of fighting—and how, in a fit of panic, she tells Blue and Dr. Gorski all about the escape plan, with tragic results. We know that Rocket and Sweet Pea ended up in the asylum because Sweet Pea followed Rocket away from home and into trouble in an attempt to protect her. Sweet Pea, like Babydoll, is fiercely protective of her sister. Rocket is the least mature and most impulsive of them all, but also has a huge heart.
Throughout the entire film, whether or not Sweet Pea participates in the plan is essential to whether or not it is enacted. Babydoll loses hope when Sweet Pea loses hope. When Sweet Pea returns to the group, she gets special congratulations. Babydoll is presented to Sweet Pea first, who gives Babydoll her name, as well as the names of all the other girls. The relationship between Sweet Pea and Rocket is the most well-defined in the film. And when Babydoll arrives, Sweet Pea is there as Babydoll’s father and Blue discuss their plans for her.
And there’s a reason for that.
Because this is Sweet Pea’s story, not Babydoll’s. Those visual metaphors? They’re all filtered through Sweet Pea. How do I know this for sure? Well, aside from everything in the paragraph above, as well as the final voiceover that questions whose story it is, there’s the bus driver at the end. When Sweet Pea finally escapes and gets to the bus station to get home, the bus driver is the Wise Man (Scott Glenn) who was giving them their missions in the fantasy world. If he was a product of Babydoll’s mind, why would Sweet Pea be seeing him on her own after she’s already left? Being that he’s on the bus home, it’s possible that she modeled the man in the fantasy world after this bus driver she’d seen before on this bus. Or, she’s just seeing the same guy as the bus driver. Either way, he’s in her brain, not Babydoll’s.
Sucker Punch is the story of a woman and her guardian angel. It is the story of how a woman who lost everything acted as a guardian angel to a woman who still had something to live for.
However, here is where things get murky. The script isn’t perfect and the ending could’ve used some tightening, but I see it less as a problem and more as the thing that gives Sucker Punch more depth than people give it credit for. It is unclear at the end of the film whether this is a story with a literal angel, or whether Snyder means “guardian angel” in terms of one person being destined to help another person. It is clear that Babydoll is an actual woman who becomes an inmate at the asylum, just as the others are. There’s reason to believe that, in that moment of purposeful focus on Sweet Pea early in the film, Sweet Pea’s guardian angel took her over to “speak through” her. This would also jibe with everyone’s overly-surprised reaction to Babydoll after her lobotomy, which seemed excessive to me in a place where lobotomies happen regularly. They kept saying things like “she’s not there anymore,” as if whatever was in her had gone. The way everyone treated her case as different led me to believe that, even in the context of a lobotomy, Babydoll’s level of “gone” was being highlighted for a reason. Perhaps to indicate that the guardian angel wasn’t using her anymore. However, it is just as likely that Babydoll the person is the “guardian angel,” and she sees her purpose over the course of the film. I’d like to think that all the girls, in one way or another, were Sweet Pea’s guardian angel, with Babydoll acting merely as a catalyst, but that’s just my personal interpretation. A definite position on the matter either way would’ve made this film stronger.
It is a difficult thing to calibrate a performance in a film that is so stylized. While the cast was a mixed bag, there were some lovely stand-out performances. Abbie Cornish as Sweet Pea and Jena Malone as Rocket gave the film its emotional heart and a grounding that balanced the heightened visuals. Oscar Isaac as Blue was the perfect balance of smarmy and charming, and Carla Gugino gave a complex performance as a woman who is part of an establishment that crushes women. The surprise was Jamie Chung as Amber, a minor character I kept being drawn to, both because of Chung’s talent and because she was the one who kept being entrusted to fly things and carry out plans. Vanessa Hudgens was the weakest link, not being able to find the balance between purposeful stylization and truth, overdoing everything. Emily Browning, while believeably tough as Babydoll, still has some growing to do as an actress. Though there were glimmers of a sweet vulnerability, she wasn’t strong enough to overpower the visuals that surrounded her.
But what visuals they were! No matter what you think of the rest of the film, you have to acknowledge that it looks fantastic, and will be giving cosplayers material for years to come. But again, more than that, the visuals tell the story in a visceral, primal way that dialogue just doesn’t do. You can either have a character talk about how hard they have it, or you can have a character be thrown into a building by a fire-breathing dragon, come back to overpower it, and stab it through the skull with a sword. Sucker Punch speaks in the language of images, and does it well.
Sucker Punch isn’t a perfect film, but it deserves more consideration than the outright dismissal it’s been getting. It was a fun, rollicking ride that also had more going on thematically than many people think is possible with a film of its type. I think Sucker Punch will end up being one of those movies that people will realize is wonderful years later. If you have yet to see Sucker Punch, I would advise going to see it with an open mind, and don’t let the pretty shinies distract you from what’s happening to the people. Stuff is happening, and it’s all there if you just pay attention.
Coming up in Part 2: Women, Weapons, and Dealing in Harsh Realities
Teresa Jusino is two years older than Buffy Summers. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com. Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres; she is the editor of Beginning of Line, the Caprica fan fiction site; and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, which is on sale now wherever books are sold! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.