I am a nerd. My case of Nerditis concerns storytelling. I like all of the different things that go into telling a story, from dialogue to character development to plot structure. I love a good story, but sometimes I also love a bad story. I like to examine why a story is bad, and discover what went wrong in the telling. There is no better example of this in recent memory than the movie Sucker Punch written and directed by Zack Snyder. I really like Sucker Punch, but I also kind of hate it.
I am going to be examining the theatrical release and the extended cut disc release. I am going to talk about pretty much everything that happens in the movie so be warned that there are spoilers ahead if you care. To be honest knowing what happens probably won’t spoil or enhance your viewing experience either way where this movie is concerned. Onward!
Sucker Punch was hugely hyped before it came out. There was a San Diego Comic Con panel and cool character posters and the preview trailers were pretty cool looking. A big deal was made about it having a female empowerment angle. At one point it was described as “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns”. A lot of people got really excited, myself among them.
Then it was released in theaters and it did terribly. It got bad reviews. More than a few individuals took issue with the idea that Sucker Punch was doing any favors for women in media. I don’t think anyone got taken in by the hype as much as I was and even I found it disappointing. But why? To find the answer we must look at the story.
Sucker Punch is the story of a young woman called Babydoll. No matter what anyone may claim, even the movie itself, Sucker Punch is all her show.
It is some time in the 1960’s, although most of the visual aesthetic looks closer to any earlier part of the century, Babydoll’s mother has just died leaving she and her sister in the care of their evil stepfather. After seeing that his wife left everything to the girls the stepfather gets angry and decides to rape them. Babydoll gets a gun and manages to accidentally shoot her little sister instead of the stepfather even though he was standing at point blank range giving him everything he needs to get her committed to an insane asylum. And so begins her convoluted ordeal.
At the asylum evil stepfather makes a deal with a corrupt orderly named Blue to forge a signature and have Babydoll lobotomized so he can take all the inheritance money for himself. This is followed by a quick but kind of compelling musical montage of Babydoll’s time at the asylum and then… the scene of Babydoll’s arrival repeats but everything is different. And this repeat scene is really where everything falls apart for the story but I will explain that in more detail later.
The evil stepfather is now a priest dropping her off at a theater/nightclub. Babydoll is now a grown up orphan being sold into prostitution. Doctor Gorski becomes Madame Gorski. And the corrupt orderly Blue is now an all powerful boss. We are introduced to the rest of Babydoll’s “team”, Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber, and Blondie. If you have seen the trailers you pretty much know what happens next. Babydoll and the other girls plot to escape from the night club bordello and earn their freedom and as they acquire each item needed they have a crazy fantasy adventure in their heads where they dress up in equally crazy sexy battle costumes. This was the central conceit of the movie. Everything takes place in a fantasy world and we are seeing it from the point of view of the girls’ imaginations. The story was meant to be a commentary on how women are objectified and how these young women use that objectification to their advantage. All of that sounds like a really great idea for a story. So why didn’t it work? Why did it rub so many people the wrong way?
To understand you need to take a closer look about what was really happening. Here is your first major spoiler, Babydoll gets lobotomized. And believe it or not we are expected to be okay with this but more on that later. Babydoll does not escape the asylum and she does receive a lobotomy. In the split second before she is lobotomized she remembers everything that happened to her at the asylum but she remembers it through the lens of a fantasy world she creates. Everything that happens in the night club bordello world is all in Babydoll’s head. Everything about that world is colored by her perception of the events and people around her. As I said before, this is Babydoll’s story; most of the movie is her having a really long hallucination.
With that in mind the story makes a lot more narrative sense. We are not seeing any of these other characters as they see themselves; we are seeing them as Babydoll sees them.
Babydoll creates a world where she and her cohorts are performers and sex slaves to mirror the abuses that occur within the asylum. She transforms her psychiatrist into a bordello madame. Then she goes a step further and creates another layer to the fantasy world where she is a sword and gun wielding fighter in a sort of military schoolgirl fetish costume. In this world she fights evil samurai giants and meets a wise old man who offers her guidance. She then goes on to bring the other girls into the adventures where she gives them their own sexy warrior costumes and together they fight steam powered undead soldiers, slay a dragon, and steal a bomb from robots on a train. One of the complaints about the movie was how the girls were dressed. If these fantasies were about their empowerment why did they dress up in sexy costumes? Well the answer is that it was not for their own empowerment, it was how Babydoll thought they should be empowered. The idea of taking the sexual objectification and turning it into a weapon for their own empowerment is an interesting idea but also one that is hard to execute. It becomes further complicated by the fact that their sexuality is irrelevant in the various adventure scenarios. The enemies they fight are not concerned with such things. But maybe that is part of the point. It is a world where Babydoll’s sexiness is her own and not something someone is using her for. But even if that is the point that explanation does not satisfy everyone. Maybe it was all the shots of Babydoll’s skirt flying up, maybe it was the ridiculous high heels, or maybe it was the fact that the display was still built more on male fantasy than any female ideal of sexuality.
Another thing people did not like about Sucker Punch was the ending. I found it to be the most disappointing thing about the whole experience. As I said at the end Babydoll does get lobotomized but she let herself get captured and taken back into the asylum so that Sweet Pea could escape. Sweet Pea goes on to steal some clothes and hop on a bus to god knows where. The Wise Man from Babydoll’s fantasy adventure world is the bus driver and helps Sweet Pea evade the police. Then we get a line of fortune cookie wisdom and the movie is over. Making the Wise Man a bus driver could have been a good artistic narrative tool but ends up being a hollow gesture. The end credits of the theatrical release are shown with an energetic musical number of Blue and Madame Gorski singing onstage together that still seems totally inappropriate. The scene was meant to be in the movie itself and was included in the extended cut where it makes more sense.
After watching the extended cut and thinking it over I find myself asking a lot of questions. When I came to the revelation that almost everything takes place in Babydoll’s head the questions only multiply because with that in mind you then have to call into question everything that happened in most of the movie.
Here is another major spoiler if you are still interested. Three of the girls die. Rocket, Blondie, and Amber are all killed during the movie. Rocket gets stabbed. Blondie and Amber both get shot by Blue. These events occurred in Babydoll’s night club fantasy world. So are any of them really dead in the real world of the asylum? Did Babydoll imagine their deaths as they were removed from interacting with her? Were Rocket and Sweet Pea even really sisters or did Babydoll make up that relation to serve the fantasy?
Lets for a moment assume that everything Babydoll imagined did really happen. This raises the biggest question of all. How the hell did Blue the main antagonist get away with it all?
If Rocket, Amber, and Blondie are really dead didn’t anybody notice? Okay I get that it’s the 1960’s and no one is that concerned with the fates of mentally ill girls, but don’t you think that having three dead bodies turn up at the same time would still raise a few eyebrows? And what was Blue really doing to the girls in the asylum? We know he was forging signatures for medical procedures and probably a few other types of backroom deals, but when it comes down to it he was just an orderly. Babydoll may have imagined him as being all powerful in the night club bordello world because he was her primary tormentor but in the real world I think it would have been a lot harder to run a prostitution ring out of an insane asylum without anyone noticing. We saw that he had accomplices to his shady dealings but the asylum must have had more than five employees, not to mention any number of doctors on staff.
Speaking of doctors there are also the questions raised concerning the character of Doctor Gorski. Exactly what is the audience supposed to think of her? Are we expected to sympathize with her? When you think about it she is kind of terrible.
Dcotor Gorski is supposed to be treating a bunch of mentally ill young women at the asylum and yet she is oblivious to the abuses occurring right under her nose and it takes a girl getting a lobotomy for her to realize something is wrong. Which further makes you wonder why Blue used her signature on the lobotomy order when she was opposed to the procedure, Gorski can’t be the only doctor on staff can she? And even if she is that would just take her potential incompetence to new heights?
I think the best way to examine Doctor Gorski is to look at how Babydoll sees her. In the night club world she is Madame Gorski who is in charge of the girls and the performance side of the night club business. The Madame may have good intentions trying to prepare the girls to survive in a corrupt system, but when it comes down to it she is still a willing and active participant in that corruption. Likewise in the real world of the asylum, Doctor Gorski wanted to help the girls but she failed to be there when she could have made a real difference and they had to take matters into their own hands.
Okay let’s get back to the ending. In the end Babydoll sacrifices herself so that Sweet Pea can get away. Shortly after the lobotomy Doctor Gorski finally notices that something fishy is going on. Blue is then exposed and arrested at which point he sells out the evil stepfather in a bid to save himself. Babydoll sits there with the exact same facial expression she has been wearing for most of the movie. Sweet Pea rides a bus into the sunset onto a happy ending… or does she?
The more I consider it the more I see that Babydoll is not just the subject of the story but the storyteller and she is not a reliable one. We can’t really trust anything that happened in her fantasy world. How do we really know that helping Sweet Pea escape was a good idea? Think about it. What do we really know for sure? We know that Blue and the stepfather were evil. We know that there were shady deals and abuse going on at the asylum. We also know that it was an insane asylum. It is possible that some of the girls were put there wrongly but it is also likely that any number of them were in fact mentally ill and needed treatment. The only things we know about Sweet Pea are the things Babydoll imagined about her. So in the end the only thing we know for sure is that Babydoll helped a mental patient escape from an asylum. Hooray?
As I said before this is Babydoll’s show. The movie tries to claim that this story was really about Sweet Pea and her journey to freedom. That is wrong. Sucker Punch is really about Babydoll’s journey of self redemption. Freedom was never an option for her so instead as part of her journey she wins freedom for her friend. Babydoll then submits to the lobotomy allowing herself to be destroyed as penance for the death of her sister and perhaps at some level maybe she also knows that it will lead to the destruction of her enemies. Unfortunately everything around it is so ridiculous and contrived that it does not register on any emotional level.
So Sucker Punch was not a very good movie and upon deeper examination… it is still not a very good movie. But we should not simply dismiss it. As someone who loves storytelling, I think we can learn a lot from this movie. Sucker Punch wanted to be something big and great, and maybe it could have been, but at some point it tried to be “all the things” and it just turned into a mess. I don’t expect anyone to love Sucker Punch, I don’t even expect you to like it, but if you are going to hate it or anything else please examine why you hate it.
Oh yeah and one more thing… I don’t actually have one more thing I just wanted to use that line from the movie.