Sucker Punch (2011)


”For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the sheltered will never know.”

Although I think Watchmen is the best superhero movie yet made, I have not belonged to the Zack-Snyder-is-a-genius crowd until now (after all, Watchmen was simply based on existing comic-book storyboards). But Sucker Punch impressed me like few movies ever have.

I know why Sucker Punch has been getting bad reviews from professional critics. It is because those critics have taken the movie the way Warner Bros. executives have marketed it: as a mindless CGI-action blow-out for an audience of high schoolers. Critics were told to leave their brain at the door, and they duly did as they were told. Well, the joke is on them, and Zack Snyder will get the last laugh: they all got sucker-punched.

What happens in this special effects-crammed comic book-like movie is that Baby Doll (played by the stunningly beautiful Emily Browning in what may be the performance of her life) is framed for her younger sister’s death by an abusive stepfather and put in a mental asylum for young women. Here, she and the other patients are helped by the well-intentioned psychiatrist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) to go through therapeutic measures designed to make them understand and deal with their past problems, comprising a healing process, or, for the involuntary patients, a progress towards freedom. In the movie, this process manifests as new layers of reality. As Baby Doll’s journey of self-discovery and freedom develops, the asylum morphs into a brothel. From being problematic and uncontrollable mental patients, the women in the asylum have now evolved into whores – sexual objects under male control – which is actually a freer state than before (after all, now they are useful and not just a problem), but still a distinct form of slavery. Baby Doll performs erotic dances that blow the minds of the brothel’s clients. These dances are represented as extreme action scenes (some reviewers maintain that they are Baby Doll’s fantasies), where the girls of the asylum/brothel are fighting in amazing surrealist wars, wielding swords and big guns and fighting dragons in apocalyptic wastelands. These action scenes are not just fantasies, however; they are symbolic of social changes that advance the social history being chronicled in the movie. Each action sequence comprises a quest for an item essential for the purpose of shedding the shackles of enslavement.

The character of Baby Doll eventually turns out to be an invention of the real main character and narrator, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), and the other characters, too, are all different aspects of Sweet Pea, contributing to her therapeutic healing process. This is the surface level story that the movie is telling: Sweet Pea is coming to terms with the death of her sister, who remains a living character through most of the movie (Rocket, played by Jena Malone), as it takes Sweet Pea a long time to accept that she is dead. And only once she has done so, can she be sane and free.

Sucker Punch is a deeply serious, mature and artistic movie. The more you think about it, the more it will reward you. Any viewer that bothers to pay attention will catch on to the surface story of Sweet Pea and her sister’s abusive past which is projected on-screen as the seemingly imaginary Baby Doll character, whose quest for freedom parallels Sweet Pea’s psychological healing process. But let us go deeper, for this remarkable movie is another Matrix, another Pleasantville, and another Inception.

I simply can’t help quoting something from Euripides’ Medea here:

Let the sacred rivers run uphill to their springs;
all principles of order are reversed.
For it is men whose thoughts are treacherous,
who break their oaths sworn on the gods.
But songs of praise will turn my life to good repute,
since honor comes to the race of women
and insults shall cease to defame us.
Now the ancient poets’ muses can stop
their hymn on our unfaithfulness.
For time has much to say about the lot
of us and men throughout the years.

We now live in an age where time has begun to say something about the historical situations of men and women, and Sucker Punch is to a very great extent Zack Snyder’s song of praise for women, and a description of the role of women up through human history.

The apparent main character, Baby Doll, is essentially a representation of female sexuality, and her situation – the erotic dances – depends on how the surrounding society feels either threatened or impressed by it, which changes up through history. Early on, society mainly feels threatened, and is compelled to impose restraints and control measures on female sexuality. Hence the asylum and the brothel. In more modern and liberated times, however, culture as a whole is becoming increasingly impressed by feminine beauty and self-determination, as reflected in the fashion industry and the alleged objectification of women, which is actually, to a great extent, a worshipping and a new discovery of beauty and sexuality that sets the stage for the genders being equally powerful. This is represented by the action scenes where the girls become increasingly take-charge in their attitude, stand up for themselves and become icons of action that are in no way inferior to their male counterparts. Action is not just a masculine thing.

This is what the movie is chronicling. The historical development of women and their plight is a harsh and ungrateful journey which is however crowned with redemption and vindication in the foreseeable future. Male dominated world history progresses from seeing women as dangerous femme fatales and to finally accepting them as equal partners, resulting in the abolishing of the patriarchy. Sucker Punch doesn’t show the end of this process in explicit detail; it focuses on symbolically representing one woman’s – Sweet Pea’s – development inside the confines of an oppressive social structure, and her eventual release from it. But the overall implication for cultural evolution – the transition from patriarchy to gender equality – is implicit in the symbolism.

Sucker Punch is an absolutely brilliant movie – a multi-layered art movie wrapped in the guise of some over-the-top gaudy action blow-out. This, gentlemen, is entertainment!

The Triple-Play DVD + Blu-ray release features an extended cut of the movie that provides some much needed additional details and story points, most notably Baby Doll’s much more in-depth encounter with “the High-Roller” – a pivotal scene that was cut by the Warner Bros. bozos in the theatrical release. Extra features include animated shorts and a Maximum Movie Mode that is probably the best one of its kind yet. A magnificent release!

Sucker Punch is out on DVD and blu-ray 8th August 2011.

Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung, Vanessa Hudgens, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac and others.
Runtime: 110 min. (theatrical) / 128 min. (extended)
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★★

Blu-ray Rating: ★★★★★


  1. Kevin Matthews says

    I think this movie, to open-minded viewers, can be interpreted in an impressive number of ways. I interpret things differently from yourself but am still impressed by the whole thing and found it enormously sad to read so many reviews from people who had, it seemed (and I hate to use this phrase when it comes to movie talk), missed the point.
    Great review.

  2. Mike Ewins says

    I hated this one. The critics were right to tear it apart for the sexual politics, because this is the male chauvinist version of female empowerment, and I find that quite worrying. If you don’t mind, I’ll quote my original review:

    “Sucker Punch isn’t misogynist, it’s just stupid. Women won’t feel badly represented because the characters here aren’t recognizable as women. They’re cardboard cutouts, 2D shells of real people… Do I hate the fact that Snyder’s idea of female empowerment is to dress his characters up like they’re in a strip club and then make them do battle with fantasy creatures half clothed? Yes, but I’d hate it more if he actually made them feminine, made me care about them, made them sympathetic and real – and then dressed them down for banal combat.”

    Narratively Sucker Punch is a mess (the level-based structure reminds me of a videogame, and it’s stodgily edited; maybe this is fixed in the Extended Cut, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to sit through a longer version of this tale), but then, that wouldn’t intrinsically stop it being fun. What stops it being any fun – or at all engaging – is the lack of any kind of substance behind the style.

    I don’t think the social allegory is as profound as you make it out to be (although it’s damn well argued), and it comes down to this: Zack Snyder is a technician, and a fetishistic one at that. He’s not an artist, a poet, or even a feminist. He knows how to light and score a scene, and make it cinematically alluring. He’s relatively good at framing a shot to make it look appealing to 14-year-olds (which is why that marketing worked a treat), and that’s where all his problems stem from; he’s not empathetic toward his characters. They’re just avatars which allow him to do “cool stuff”.

    Subtlety is also a big problem here.The proof? The fact that Snyder shoots a scene of domestic violence like a music video, with the lyric ‘Some of them want to abuse you’ playing over the image of a father beating his daughter. I felt like I’d been slapped in the face, and then I realized that the movie was two hours long, and the worst was yet to come. This was one of the most disappointing realizations of my year thus far…

  3. Mike Ewins says

    That said, this is a brilliant, brilliant review. I just don’t agree.

  4. Tue Sorensen says

    Well, obviously, if it made you feel that way, its style doesn’t work for everybody. Not much else I can say, really.

  5. Olly Buxton says

    In the trailer (which as I’ve noted before deserved an Oscar category of its own) the domestic violence snippet was accompanied by When The Levee Breaks. A better choice, but Zep are notoriously reluctant to permission their music for films so I suspect wouldn’t allow it.

    I don’t think Snyder had any women’s empowerment agenda at all, so criticising him for his execution of it (as many people did) seems pretty rough.

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