Ladies with guns “Reservoir Dogs” toward the camera

Into the Snyder-Verse: Sucker Punch

Oh yeah, I guess I watched this movie a while ago. I kind of forgot I watched this movie? Or, more accurately, I remembered I watched it, but forgot a whole lot of the movie itself.

It’s hard not to watch this movie through the lens of Zack Snyder’s later personal history, by which I mean there’s an almost unavoidable element of asking “how does Zack Snyder view mental health?” But you can’t even look at that question without first wondering if this movie, set in a mental asylum and taking place almost entirely in the moment before a transorbital lobotomy, has anything to do with mental health, and the more I thought about it, the more I landed on saying no. To the extent Sucker Punch is about mental health, it is about how systems of “treatment” are used to enforce patriarchy, which it does by conflating an Arkham-esque mental asylum with a sort of Moulin Rouge fever dream cathouse.

This is, incidentally, NOT A SUBTLE FILM.

I don’t think we’re ultimately meant to read any of the female characters as suffering from mental health issues but to imagine them, similar to the lead character, (ahem) Babydoll, as victims of the same kinds of oppression that land her here. There may not be enough character present in any of the supporting cast to definitively make this call, but I will say that if “no one in this asylum actually has mental health issues” is a jump, it’s one that moved me away from actively hating the movie’s message. Leaving mental health on the table, you end up with a “kick depression’s ass!” parable that summons up a character’s inner demons as actual damn demons to be punched in the face. Which is not really how mental health works, and, like conversations around “fighting one’s cancer” results in a winners and losers model of wellness that’s more about personal virtue and strength than about actual medical treatment.

So let’s say that we do, in fact, have a movie set in a mental asylum that is not fundamentally about mental health. Let’s say it’s about Babydoll acquiring the necessary strength to become a scantily-clad princess who saves herself. The first noticeable effect of this plot is that it effectively reduces all the other women in the cast to tools for Babydoll’s empowerment. They are largely interchangeable and pretty much disposable. Scott Glen has more character development as the explicit NPC in each successive fantasy setting. This isn’t a great move, but it could work if Babydoll had any sort of character development beyond “gets strong.” She’s defined entirely by trauma and resilience, and trying to imagine a post-Sucker Punch path for the character is, for one thing, obviously not the point, but for another, completely impossible.

The other impossibility within the plot is any sense of stakes. There is a structure available to this movie wherein, through a series of escalating video game-like quests, Babydoll builds herself up, or manages her trauma via metaphor, or, I don’t know, something more substantive than what we get. One can imagine this story with an arc. Instead, we get Babydoll in her first fantasy iteration already an utter bad-ass, followed by a series of set pieces where she and the team, led by the aforementioned NPC Scot Glen, fight to collect McGuffins in the fantasy worlds that will aid their escape from the cathouse. Except the cathouse is also a fantasy?

But look, this is not a movie that begs to be judged on plot. The plot’s a skeleton for Snyder to hang the set pieces on, so let’s talk a little about them, particularly since this visual aesthetic will largely define DCU movies up until Shazam (Aquaman switches out the color palette, but in principle still feels like it hangs together visually with Man of Steel, Wonder Woman, etc). As will become even more clear when and if I get to Snyder’s DCU work, I don’t love it. The overuse of CGI feeds back to the point where the actual actors stop feeling real. It doesn’t scale down, it only scales up. So interpersonal scenes come off flat and clunky (see Kevin Costner’s “maybe you shoulda let that busloada kids die” speech and, to be honest, his death, or the complete waste of Jeremy Irons as Alfred, not to mention Amy Adams as Lois). Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck (and Jason Momoa) do well within this aesthetic—their woodeness (and Momoa’s cartoonish counterpoint to it) makes them comfortable within the reversed uncanny valley where Snyder sets his films from here out. Snyder’s films have a way of making their more talented, nuanced actors (Adams, Irons, Ezra Miller) stand out as bad.

For the record, I think Patty Jenkins manages to humanize this visual aesthetic to exactly the tenor in which it ought to operate for most of Wonder Woman. There’s space for the small stuff, and the big stuff hinges on moments that feel iconic. Up until the movies closing sequence, all the action feels like it has weight, even when there’s heavy CGI and that weird, Snyder tonal wash rendering everything into greys and sepiatone. Jenkins even uses the muted colors to pop certain scenes, and Diana’s costume comes off not as dull as Superman’s but as a kind of relief for the eyes, a swath of color tearing across the scene. And with Aquaman, James Wan throws in a bunch of purples and greens, and uses the weightless feel of the CGI to contribute to the buoyancy of the underwater sequences. Call it the uncanny trench.

The women in Sucker Punch aren’t given that much to do beyond “be badass,” and it’s hard not to get an echo of Frank Miller’s Sin City comics in their “they are sex workers (sort of) but also empowered because they are killers” portrayal, and the set pieces work within themselves. The actual visuals are strong, if sometimes weightless, and surely there’s an audience for whom “it’s a video game come to life” is a bigger selling point than it is for me (or not: the film barely recouped its production budget). But there’s no build to the plot, no stakes within the scenes, and the three layers of the film play hard against each other, preventing any kind of coherent reading. It borders on feeling like an anthology, like the old Heavy Metal cartoon, or a collection of very expensive music videos, which is odd because the film circles around and then, thankfully doesn’t deliver, a big dance number.

Okay, I have to stop right here, because as I was typing this, I thought to myself, There must have been a dance scene in there, right? And no, there wasn’t, at least not in the theatrical release. But there WAS this cut scene with Oscar Isaac and Carla Gugino vamping the fuck out of Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug” which…maybe redeems this movie entirely?

I mean, it is also a complete “what the fuck is happening” bit of schtick that feels lifted from Baz Luhrman’s journal of bad ideas.

Mostly, I found myself wondering who this was for. It felt like the feminism-by-dudes/strong-female-protagonist trend taken to an illogical extreme, jumping off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer clutching only the baggage of trauma and leaving any concept of character behind.

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” -Frank O'Hara

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