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May 2, 2011 | by  | in Film |
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Sucker Punch

If there’s one lesson Zack Snyder can take from the critical reception of his latest film, Sucker Punch, it’s that hell hath no fury like a critic bored. The knives were well and truly out for Snyder once the projector stopped running, with critics rushing to their keyboards to rage about how boring Sucker Punch was, to rebuke Snyder for his misogyny and to make puns on the film’s title. Even Armond White, the critical establishment’s erstwhile trollface-wearer, drew from the (awfully shallow) well of Sucker Punch’s critical lexicon, calling it “like Charlie’s Angels… doing a Kill Bill remake.” It took Oscar Moralde, a writer for Slate, to call out the above reaction as “the most colossal collective misreading of satire since Paul Verhoeven was accused of being a fascist for Starship Troopers.”

Turns out Oscar Moralde was right.

Sucker Punch is probably one of the most important Hollywood satires of our generation, a frenzied attack on the myth of the ‘action woman’ as dreamed up by the Hollywood patriarchy, a superficially feminist construct undermined by the toxic grip of the male gaze. Snyder unpacks this fallacy for the audience in three easy steps, starting with the violent, hyperkinetic action sequences that the marketing used to lure fanboys in. This Third Level acts as a level of ‘ultimate’ fantasy for the 18- to 25-year-old demographic, from the genres and mediums it appropriates (Tolkien-lite, steampunk, World War 2, anime, FPS video games) to the particular motifs within each vignette (the costumes, the fixation on technology).

That it appropriates these elements, however, does not mean that it encourages them – something made clear by Snyder’s unexploitative camera (his work in 300 objectified its subjects far more than the clean cinematography here) and, more importantly, the First and Second Levels. These frenetic action sequences are depicted as the result of Babydoll’s ‘fantasies’ – her dances in the second level give rise to her third-level antics, but her imminent lobotomy in the first level, organised by her abusive stepfather and a male orderly on the take, gives rise to the second level’s seedy bordello.

Each level’s existence is necessitated by the exploitation and abuse in the previous level, the ass-kicking heroines of the third level originating from the objectification, cruelty and devaluation of the levels that came before. It’s a meticulous deconstruction on Snyder’s behalf – from the film-set analogy of the second level (Blue as producer, Gorski as director, the girls as actresses, the Highroller as the tentpole film) to the omnipresent rape imagery, Snyder argues that the ‘strong females’ Hollywood is fond of creating are only superficially empowering and are, by and large, the products of a leering 18- to 25-year-old male audience (hell, the film explicitly places the responsibility in the audience’s hands with the final voice-over) and the producers that pander to them. They are poisonous, in other words, and the depiction of said poison is necessary to implicate us in the results of its consumption.

Sucker Punch’s message is important and vital in an increasingly regressive Hollywood (the studio that produced this, Warner Bros, had previously put an embargo on women-led films after the failure of two troubled productions in 2007 that had next-to-no marketing), but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete success. Unlike Paul Verhoeven, an obvious idol of Snyder’s, Snyder’s surface level needs work. It’s not a crime that the third level’s action scenes are vacuous and boring – that’s the point. It is a crime, though, that the dialogue is frequently clunky, that Babydoll is the only fully-developed character in the film, that the music is uniformly obvious and awful. There are obvious problems with Sucker Punch, but, like 300 and Watchmen before it, it’s an adept satire (and intermittently enjoyable); the only difference is that its a message that needs to be heard.

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  1. Former Salient Something Something Michi Langdon says:

    Adam I need to take you around everywhere so you can explain the world to me.

  2. Uther Dean says:

    The representation of an idea, even if intended to subvert said idea, still expresses and reinforces that idea.
    Do you really think that Sucker Punch‘s core audience is really going to leave the cinema totally reassessing their role in the reinforcement of the male gaze as the dominant (if not sole) mode of authorship and viewing in mainstream cinema, Adam?
    Because I don’t.
    Sucker Punch‘s representation of women essentially boils down, for me, to the equivalent of ironic racism. It’s expressing an inappropriate or morally abject thought, but under the pretense that it’s okay because by presenting it as an idea you are automatically commenting on it. I will find the link I have somewhere to the study that shows that irony, the representation of something as correct to prove it incorrect, doesn’t work at all and only serves to reinforce the obvious meaning rather than the implied criticism.
    Zack Snyder makes pornographies, but sells them in quotation marks so as to somehow assuage his and his audiences guilt for their ogling.
    IMHO, obvs.

  3. Adam says:

    Thanks for the comment, Uther. While I can respect your view on this – a number of people elsewhere have mentioned the points you make – I must disagree with them.

    “The representation of an idea, even if intended to subvert said idea, still expresses and reinforces that idea.”

    I don’t think this is a helpful way to look at cinema, or art, at all. It seems to suggest that we can’t depict anything without encouraging its existence, even if we are depicting it in order to expressly denounce it (and Sucker Punch is pretty explicit in its denunciation). It seems totally reasonable to me that a filmmaker should be able to depict what they’re commenting on and criticising without being singled out as ‘reinforcing’ what they’re commenting on and criticising – it seems counter-productive to say that they’re expressing ideas that they’re not simply by depicting the thing they’re critiquing.

    “Do you really think that Sucker Punch’s core audience is really going to leave the cinema totally reassessing their role in the reinforcement of the male gaze as the dominant (if not sole) mode of authorship and viewing in mainstream cinema, Adam?
    Because I don’t.”

    I despise this argument, because it assumes that a film is only worth as much as its basest audience. A film is a film, not the people watching it – if a theme exists, then it isn’t negated by however many people don’t take it from the film. When this argument was made about Fight Club, it wasn’t true – the film’s incredibly caustic approach to the notion of the alpha male isn’t diminished because the people it was criticising misread it as a rallying cry to make fight clubs. When this argument was made about Scott Pilgrim, it wasn’t true – the film’s criticism of its target demographic and its emphasis on getting a life outside of pop culture wasn’t negated because it went over the audience’s heads. And so it remains here – there are potentially arguments about the message’s clarity (though I think these themes are so obvious in Sucker Punch that it’s hard to argue for lack of clarity), but in reality, this argument says more about the critic’s expectation’s of the audience, and the audience itself, than it does about the film.

    “It’s expressing an inappropriate or morally abject thought, but under the pretense that it’s okay because by presenting it as an idea you are automatically commenting on it.”

    Except it’s not ‘automatically’ commenting on it – as I elaborate on in my review, Sucker Punch goes out of its way to comment on the ‘third level’ action sequences by depicting them as the products of toxic patriarchal dominance and objectification (the ‘second level’) and then as the products of reprehensible rape fantasies, misogyny and exploitation (the ‘first level’). It’s not giving us action sequences with nerd-bait settings and ‘sexy action girls’ and trying to present it as a comment; it’s using the levelled nature of the narrative and an extensive number of symbols and metaphors to tie those action sequences to the aforementioned exploitation, objectification and misogyny of the ‘male gaze’ and the producers who sate it.

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