Sucker Punch has received widespread dismissal from film critics, many of whom have used their reviews as opportunities to crack jokes about teenage boys, masturbation, or masturbating teenage boys—or to make puns about the film's title. A.O. Scott at The New York Times slammed the film's "pretense that this fantasia of misogyny is really a feminist fable of empowerment," while Sady Doyle at The Atlantic declared that director "Zack Snyder's gooey mix of fetish gear, rape fantasies, and girls-with-guns action sequences represents the nadir of a long, slow, steady decline in action films starring women."
This critical paroxysm against Sucker Punch is quite possibly the most colossal collective misreading of satire since Paul Verhoeven was accused of being a fascist for Starship Troopers. With this film, critics are making the same mistake of confusing depiction for endorsement, but more importantly, they seem continually befuddled by Snyder's manipulation of one of the most powerful cornerstones of mainstream cinema—the fetishized image.
Snyder has shown himself to be one of Hollywood's most effective big-budget satirists: Dawn of the Dead (2004) updates George A. Romero's zombified skewering of consumerism for a digitized, hyperreal era, while 300 deconstructs the tactics of propaganda and fascism so neatly that he put audiences in the uncomfortable position of having to identify with, in the words of one Internet message board post, "gleaming musclemen slaughtering their racial inferiors in glorious red, black, and white." Snyder's translation of the comic book Watchmen into cinematic space is built on the same lines, depicting the grotesque qualities of violence in such a stylized and artificial way that it demands to be seen as self-parody, and yet there is such great resistance to reading political critique into a film that features a costumed vigilante who guns down peace protesters in the streets, assassinates JFK, and wins the Vietnam War alongside a personification of American atomic power.
Snyder's sources all contained the kernel of their own self-criticism, but in each case he amplified the satirical qualities of the material rather than attempt to blunt them for mass appeal. Each of these films understands the psychological power of the stylized image, but rather than Michael Bay-style cynical pandering, they give the audience what it desires while highlighting the problems of that desire. Sucker Punch is Snyder's first original script (written with Steve Shibuya), and in examining how it operates, the most helpful comparison can be found in 300. Read straight, that propagandistic retelling of Thermopylae is highly problematic, but the film pursues strategies that fracture the narrative. It depicts events in a way that not only questions the ethics of those events, but questions the ethics of the way they are depicted and how that depiction translates into political action. (Maybe America is like Sparta; maybe it's like Persia. The point is that the obfuscating qualities of propaganda can be deployed to support either stance.) This strategy is the same one that Snyder pursues in Sucker Punch, which takes on the complicated relationship between the audience and the cinematic image—specifically, the images of women.
The fetishized image
Sucker Punch follows institutionalized mental patient Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who has five days to escape before she is lobotomized. Other patients help with her plan, and the film imagines the group on one level as victimized prostitutes in a dreamworld brothel and on a deeper level as battle-hardened commandos in a series of frenzied military action setpieces. Most criticism of the film fixates on how these women are presented in these fantasy sequences: in heels, stockings, leather, and uniforms—molded into objects of visual titillation. Some reviews dismiss this presentation as PG-13 pornographic indulgence. Others identify it as skewering the trope of the action heroine who kicks ass yet is primarily defined by her sex appeal, but the claim becomes that the critique in Sucker Punch falls apart because the film still presents the girls as sex objects. Neither stance addresses how this fetishized imagery actually operates within the narrative.
The primary tactic in Snyder's repertoire is decontextualization—stripping an image's connection to other images and concepts, and working purely within the realm of the surface. When his films make heavy use of slow motion (as in the opening titles of Watchmen), it flattens the characters into icons, charged with emotional power on the surface but emptied of internal complexity. A similar emptying occurs when fetishized imagery is deployed: both uniforms and eroticized costumes contain all their meaning on the surface, and these kinds of images often crop up in propaganda and pornography, which this film invokes in equal measure. As Sucker Punch strays further from the "reality" of the asylum, everything about the world becomes fetishized and iconic. The girls' actions morph from mundane acts of subterfuge in the asylum to the sexualized abstraction of dancing in the brothel, and further still to the visceral destruction of armed combat on the battlefield. A stuffed animal becomes a war machine, and everyday objects become totems invested with the aura of life-or-death desperation.
The irony is that this oppressive deluge of iconic imagery creates a fracture in the narrative: while these epic, bombastic war scenes are seemingly charged with great significance, they have a hollow, constructed feel to them. Because they exist purely as a collection of fetishized icons, they appear to be detached and disconnected from the events happening in the film's "reality." At the same time, so much of the cluttered iconography in these scenes—gun battles against steam-powered zombies, the "sexy schoolgirl" cutting through armies of fantasy orcs with a katana—doesn't feel psychologically organic to the character of Baby Doll. This appears to contradict the primary conceit that much of the film represents the workings of her imagination. However, both of these incongruities are crucial to the film's overall strategy.
Implicating the audience
The recent spate of films which investigate dream space, such as Inception and Avatar, take great pains to build their foundations in the "real world" of their films; they use exposition and technology to explain how the consciousness of a character shifts between layers and how the events we're seeing have consequences in the overall plot. That kind of justification is crucial to a story driven by suspense and tension, but Sucker Punch utterly rejects this, preferring to move through layers primarily by manipulating the form and style of the film. In this way, it's more akin to Charlie Kaufman's exploration of drama and delusion in Synecdoche, New York, but because of the fetishized content of Sucker Punch's imagery, Snyder manages to sneak this story into the multiplex rather than the art house.
There are three layers to Sucker Punch: the asylum, where the girls are nameless and marginalized; the brothel, where the girls are on display for the entertainment of their audience; and the battlefield, where the girls are all-powerful, goal-driven warriors. For the majority of the film we're in the second layer, where the relationship between audience and performer is most clearly defined—and this relationship is what the film wants to explore. It does so by (1) introducing breaches into the narrative on a stylistic level, (2) creating awareness of those breaches through its dialogue and plot progression, and (3) situating the entire story in a framework where the audience watching the film is implicated in the events they see unfold.
Music and dance as narrative breach
Beyond its deployment of fetishized imagery, Sucker Punch reveals its artificial narrative via other channels, such as in its soundtrack. The film mostly rejects the conventional use of music as an unobtrusive tactic to accentuate the emotional register of events. It also eschews the tactics used by musicals, in which the unrealistic performances are granted a kind of realism by pushing the plot forward and revealing the psychology of the characters. Both strategies aim to give coherence and a sense of progression to a narrative, while Sucker Punch strives for the opposite.
The film's introduction is practically a music video to a cover of the Eurythmics song "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)", and it's almost immediately followed by a sequence backed by a cover of the Pixies' "Where is My Mind?" Not only are both songs covers (echoes of an original), but they also blatantly announce the film's themes in a way usually reserved for the end credits. Both also feature vocals by Emily Browning, injecting the main actor's voice into the film in a non-diagetic, immersion-breaking way. Music continually reveals the film's constructed nature every time anachronistic cover songs and remixes blare from tape recorders and are transformed into the backing track for the next action setpiece.
The film's use of music is intimately tied to the film's use of dance, which is primarily notable for its invisibility. The driving force in the film's brothel sequences is that Baby Doll's dancing has the power to mesmerize its audience, and it's by dancing that she and her compatriots are able to distract their captors and then steal the items they need to escape. But pointedly, no dancing is actually ever shown; every time Baby Doll begins to dance, it signals the start of an action setpiece that the film presents as symbolic of the dance. This substitution of sexuality for violence creates a massive incongruity in which we see Baby Doll sway a little to the music, then immediately jump to an entirely disconnected hyperkinetic military battle, and then just as quickly return to a stationary Baby Doll receiving applause from the brothel's denizens. This is another fracture point where the film most transparently announces how it operates; the effect is disorienting and forces disengagement from the flow of the story while making a thematic connection between the CG pyrotechnics and the girls performing in the brothel. Drawing attention to this disconnect, fellow patient/prostitute/commando Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) comments that Baby Doll's first dance (in place of which we watch a sequence—borrowing from Terry Gilliam's Brazil—where she fights a trio of giant samurai) looks like meaningless "gyrating and moaning" that's nothing but titillation.
Leveraging the cliché
Sweet Pea's comment is just one of many examples where the film reveals its awareness of its own tactics. Another critical point of attack against Sucker Punch has been its dialogue, dismissed as hokey, clichéd and incoherent. Yet the film leverages these clichés the same way it uses its fetishized iconic imagery: like those images, clichés contain all their meaning (and thus their pleasure) on the surface, and as we progress deeper into the fantasy, those clichés become more visible. In the battlefield sequences, The General (Scott Glenn) speaks almost entirely in platitudes like "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything," and any dialogue that doesn't directly drive the action forward is the type of one-liner audiences have heard in countless action films before this one. Like the fetishized imagery, the dialogue is pushed to such an artificial extreme that it approaches self-parody, detached from concerns of narrative tension—just like how the battle sequences mostly dispense with the labored process that many action films go through to justify why the heroes need to slaughter their enemies, and instead relies on the audience recognizing that zombies and orcs need to be destroyed because that's what happens in these sequences. The battlefield layer is pure decontextualization composed of setpieces extracted from other action stories and sutured into this one, worlds constructed entirely of surfaces.
This tactic extends to the brothel layer, which cycles through a pastiche of other genres, ranging from melodrama to the women-in-prison film to the war film. We jump from plot point to plot point by whipsawing through genre clichés, from maniacal brothel owner Blue (Oscar Isaac) executing two of his girls while cackling, "We hate snitches!" to Sweet Pea cradling her fallen sister/comrade Rocket (Jena Malone) as she says with her dying breath, "Tell Mom I love her." In these scenes where the characters are fully enmeshed in their own drama, moments which should be powerful are sapped of that power by an ironic distance. These moments are clichés because they have been deployed in countless other stories which built their plots around justifying those moments—and Sucker Punch brazenly deploys them like it deploys its cover songs, removing the context and thus revealing the artificiality. On the other hand, when the film speaks with self-awareness, it speaks with clarity, as when Rocket explains the workings of the brothel to Baby Doll: "We, my dear, are the main attractions…we've got to make them feel special."
The Gorski reversal
Of course, a film breaking its narrative and being self-aware about it is not automatically significant; at its worst it can lead to Meet the Spartans-level filmmaking. To understand Sucker Punch's endgame with these tactics, we need to examine the character of Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino). Gorski is significant in that she is the only character to have a real name in the asylum and brothel layers, rather than the diminutive nicknames given to the women and the generic descriptors of power given to the men—making her perhaps the closest thing to a "real" character in the story. (Blue may have a name in the brothel, but in the asylum he's merely a nameless orderly.) Gorski's name is repeated throughout the film and becomes central to the plot, as her forged signature authorizes Baby Doll's lobotomy.
While for most of the characters the process of fetishization through the layers of the film amplifies existing traits (the predatory stepfather becomes a predatory priest, the women's resistance becomes more explicit and visible), in Gorski it produces a reversal. In the asylum, Doctor Gorski is at the top of the visible hierarchy, and as soon as she discovers her authority is being subverted, she brings power to bear and punishes the offender. However, in the brothel Madam Gorski is just as victimized as the other women. She's utterly dominated by Blue and accedes to all his demands; he tells her that she's just as complicit in exploiting the girls, and yet Gorski is sexualized and put on display for the brothel audience as well. This reversal makes the function of the brothel layer clear: it's the realm of artificial representation, where reality is distorted and manipulated to craft images that give pleasure to the audience.
Implicating the audience, part II
As mentioned earlier, the content of those images—fetish wardrobe, military gunporn, sci-fi and fantasy clichés—aren't organic to Baby Doll's character. They're not organic to any of the film's characters; they're being imposed from the outside, and they're the implied and assumed desires of the film's target audience. When the audience in the brothel sits and watches a sexy dance, the audience in the movie theater sits and watches a frenetic, fetishized action sequence. Like the nested sets that appear on the stage of the asylum/brothel, Emily Browning is Baby Doll is Sucker Punch, working to perform for the pleasure of the audience and to mesmerize that audience with an illusion—and when that illusion breaks, it inspires alienation and even revulsion in an audience that begins to question what it sees.
It's one of the first things that Sweet Pea announces: "Don't you get the point of this? It's to turn people on. I get the sexy little schoolgirl. I even get the helpless mental patient; that can be hot. But what is this? Lobotomized vegetable? How about something a little more commercial, for God's sake?" Because of all the stylistic and narrative roadblocks thrown up between the audience and the characters, it's nearly impossible to identify with them as "real" people. This leaves only one significant way to identify with anything in the film: the act of watching a spectacle.
This is how Sucker Punch implicates the audience that watches it; in the film, the people who are doing the same thing that we're doing are a parade of predatory men and powerless women. The satire resides here, in that the reviews that claim these images represent false empowerment are merely repeating what the film is already saying. We see the mechanisms of how exploitative cinema works because this film pushes forward an example where all the breaks and the seams are showing, and it ends with the belief that in the face of that kind of exploitation, the tendency is for people to lobotomize themselves, to turn off their brains and just go along for the ride. It's a deeply tragic message driven by the knowledge of the true power of the fetishized image. Sucker Punch knows that these images, seemingly charged with significance, have the power to turn brains off—which seems to include the brains of most critics.
Even if you don't agree with it, I thought this defense of the movie was well written.