Sucker Punch (2011)

Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch (2011) provides escapism filled with robots, dragons, steampunk zombies, scantily-clad women, lobotomies, and loud covers of your favorite classic rock songs. According to various interviews, Snyder intended the film as some sort of feminist critique of sexist geek culture, but judging by the overwhelmingly negative critical reaction and dismal box office performance, it’s safe to say he didn’t quite get his message across. The movie is a lot more entertaining than its scathing reviews would indicate, but Sucker Punch ultimately falls into the same trap as other allegedly subversive movies like Starship Troopers, in that the finished product isn’t noticeably different from the thing it’s supposedly critiquing.

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In the 1960s, a young girl who we come to know only by the nickname Babydoll (Emily Browning) tries to cope with the unexpected death of her mother. However, she doesn’t get long to grieve when her abusive stepfather discovers that her mother left her entire estate to Babydoll and her sister. In a drunken rage, the man moves in to kill and/or sexually assault the girls, but Babydoll pulls a gun on him. Unfortunately, she ends up killing her sister instead, and is soon carted off to a mental institution.

Sucker Punch (2011)

Her stepfather bribes the chief orderly (Oscar Isaac) into having her lobotomized. Flash forward to Babydoll strapped into a chair as a doctor begins the procedure. Just as he goes to drive his long metal instrument into her eye socket, Babydoll opens her eyes and is suddenly in another world.

The institution is now a burlesque club/brothel operated by a mobster named Blue Jones (also played by Isaac). Babydoll is apparently being forced into a life of prostitution here, and the first thing Blue makes her do is come up with a dance routine with the help of Madame Gorski (Carla Gugino). Babydoll quickly makes friends with the other girls of the brothel, who all go by nicknames: Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (Jaime Chung), Rocket (Jena Malone), and Rocket’s older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish).

Sucker Punch (2011)

Babydoll is soon ordered to dance for Blue. As music plays, she closes her eyes and is taken to yet another world. Here, she’s dressed in a schoolgirl outfit and standing in a snowy forest. She enters an enormous Japanese temple, where she meets a Wise Man (Scott Glenn) who provides her with weapons and tells her that to earn her freedom, she’ll need five items: a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a unnamed final item.

Sucker Punch (2011)

He then locks her out of the temple, where she’s forced to defend herself against three samurai giants. After she defeats them in a big anime-style fight, she opens her eyes and is once again in the brothel, with the suggestion that the fight we just saw was some sort of stylized representation of her dance. Baby Doll’s routine is apparently hypnotizing and animalistic and erotically charged, but that’s only according to the other characters, because all we ever see in the movie is Babydoll swaying her shoulders for a moment or two before we head into the next fantasy fight sequence.

Sucker Punch (2011)

In their dressing room, Babydoll tells the girls about the five items and her plan to break free, which is all the more urgent because a “high roller” will be there in five days to claim her. Most of the girls are on board, though Sweet Pea fears her sister might get hurt and requires more convincing. But eventually, she comes around and the girls decide they’re going to steal the items they need (one at a time, of course) while Babydoll is distracting all the men with her dancing.

Sucker Punch (2011)

While Sweet Pea steals a map from Blue’s office, Babydoll dances for Blue, and closes her eyes and is transported to a steampunk World War I-inspired scene. The Wise Man appears as a general, and orders the girls to do battle with mechanically-reanimated German zombie soldiers to obtain a map. After a long fight where Amber pilots a giant mecha-gunner decorated with a pink bunny face, they get the map and Babydoll opens her eyes to find herself back in the brothel.

Sucker Punch (2011)

Next up, Amber volunteers to be in charge of getting the “fire” on the list. She decides the only way to do this is by stealing a lighter out of the pocket of the mayor, one of the brothel’s frequent customers. (Really? They can’t figure out any other way to start a fire? It’s a nightclub in the 1960s, aren’t there matchbooks everywhere?)

Sucker Punch (2011)

As Amber goes for the mayor’s lighter, Babydoll dances, closes her eyes, and is soon flying above a medieval castle under siege by orc-like creatures. While onboard a World War II-era bomber, the girls get orders from the Wise Man/General to find a baby dragon, slit its throat, and pull out the crystals in its throat that make fire. Babydoll manages to do this, but also wakes up the dragon’s mother in the process. But after Amber the pilot creates a distraction, Babydoll kills Mama Dragon, and once again opens her eyes and is back in the brothel.

Sucker Punch (2011)

The next “dance” sequence involves the girls trying to steal a knife from the nightclub’s head chef, while in the fantasy battle sequence, they’re on an alien moon, fighting off robots in order to disarm a bomb on a train before it reaches a city.

Sucker Punch (2011)

Unfortunately, they’re unable to disengage the bomb and have to bail out, and Rocket ends up giving her jet pack to Sweet Pea so she can escape, sacrificing herself. Rocket gets blown up along with the city, while in Brothel World, the chef has caught onto the plan and stabbed Rocket to death.

Sucker Punch (2011)

Blue is outraged and locks Sweet Pea away, and then forces Blondie to confess the plan to him. Just before Babydoll is set to dance for the high roller (Jon Hamm), Blue confronts the girls in the dressing room, shooting Amber and Blondie at point blank range. He then attempts to rape Babydoll, but she pulls out the chef’s knife and stabs him in the neck and steals the next item on the list: the key that Blue wears as a necklace.

Sucker Punch (2011)

She uses the key to free Sweet Pea and the two start a fire and make their escape. Unfortunately, a group of mobsters stand in their path. In an instant, Babydoll realizes the unnamed item on the list is herself. Proclaiming that “this was never my story”, she tells Sweet Pea to get away while she distracts the mobsters. She knees one in the groin, which earns her a punch in the face that knocks her out cold.

Instantly, she’s back in the insane asylum, as the doctor (also played by Hamm) finishes the lobotomy. But he’s disturbed by the look Babydoll gave him just before he did it, and talks about it with her psychiatrist (also played by Gugino). They soon figure out the signature on the lobotomy order was forged, and the police quickly show up to arrest the chief orderly.

Sucker Punch (2011)

It’s then revealed that everything that happened in the brothel actually happened in the asylum, and all the girls were really Babydoll’s fellow patients, which I guess means the chief orderly killed two patients and nobody was bothered by this? Regardless, we see Sweet Pea making her way back home. At a bus station, she’s stopped by police, but the bus driver, who also happens to be the Wise Man/General, vouches for her and allows her to ride his bus to freedom.

Sucker Punch (2011)

The action scenes were this movie’s main selling point, but they’re way too visually busy, with every available inch of screen space taken up by computer graphics. And there’s not even the slightest attempt to play by the rules of real-world physics here, which along with Zack Snyder’s trademark overuse of slow-mo means there’s not much in the way of suspense or tension in any of the battle scenes. With only a few exceptions, these sequences are about as exciting as watching someone else play a video game.

Though I have to say, many of the individual shots in the movie are visually stunning. There are a lot of amazing designs in this movie that could easily make for a great coffee table book or proudly displayed on any geeky art fan’s wall. The cinematography is pretty incredible too, and I’d have to say the combination of the two makes this movie a lot more bearable to watch.

Sucker Punch (2011)

All of the fight scenes are set to new covers of songs from bands like the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, and the Eurythmics (the last one sung by Browning herself), and they’re surprisingly not bad. Personally, I’m wondering if the battle scenes would have come off as less overbearing with a classier, more orchestral score, but the soundtrack is a definite selling point here.

Despite the few good elements of the film, the story is so out there that it’s easy to get confused. By that, I don’t mean the story is hard to comprehend, as I think anyone in its target audience will understand the basic elements. But it’s filled with enough strange and awkward moments that you really have no idea what the point of it all is, or why the story was told this way.

You might think Babydoll is retreating to fantasy worlds to better cope with her situation in the mental institution, but if that’s the goal, why would she come up with a fantasy of sexual slavery that’s arguably even worse than her reality? Or is she just nuts and having major hallucinations? And in either case, why would a young girl in the 1960s be visualizing robots and samurai warriors and orcs and alien planets in the first place? Could it be she’s actually visiting parallel universes, after all? The existence of four animated shorts that explain the backstory of each fantasy world certainly backs up the possibility, along with the fact that Babydoll sees the Wise Man in her fantasies even though she never actually meets him in real life.

And the strangest part is that even though the whole movie is about Babydoll learning how to fight for her freedom, we find out at the end that we were somehow mistaken, and the movie was really about Babydoll learning to fight for Sweet Pea’s freedom all along.

Sucker Punch (2011)

Clearly, Sucker Punch is trying to put forth some sort of message. If Zack Snyder wanted to make a movie that was about nothing more than sexy women fighting dragons, he could have easily done so. The movie is obviously trying to be something more, but its message is mostly buried under overbaked visuals, uneven performances, and sparkling dialogue like “Don’t write checks with your mouth that you can’t cash with your ass.”

Of course, the overwhelmingly negative reviews have led a vocal minority to declare Sucker Punch a misunderstood masterpiece with profound things to say about authority and feminism and conformity and the patriarchy and objectification and so on. While the film is entertaining enough, and not nearly as bad as the reviews indicate, I think the hardcore Sucker Punch fans are giving the film and its director way too much credit, especially considering how Snyder would completely mishandle Superman just a couple of years later.

What Snyder has given us in Sucker Punch is a half-baked message about how its target male audience should be ashamed of itself for enjoying this kind of blatant fan-service (apparently, that’s the “sucker punch” of the title), while also trying to get across another half-baked message about how girls can be (in Snyder’s own words) “empowered by their sexuality and not exploited”. But it really doesn’t go much deeper than that, and I’m pretty sure even those simple messages flew right over the heads of the teenage boys this movie was evidently made for.

Sucker Punch tries to take aim at misogyny, and yet still wants to us to be entertained and enthralled by women being terrorized, abused, locked up as sex slaves, and forced to fight robots in lingerie. It’s a bit of a mixed message. If this movie truly was “misunderstood” (which I doubt), then the fault for that lies squarely with its director, not its intended audience.

[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]

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  • mamba

    I’m still trying to figure out WHEN it all happened…I don’t mean the year, I mean the main movie starts when she closes her eyes BEFORE the icepick lobotomy, and ends with the pick going into her head DOING said lobotomy.

    So the entire sequence if her meeting the other girls, forming the plan, dancing multiple times, escaping, etc…occurred in the few SECONDS between the icepick and her drooling? Or if she was flashing back to previous events before the start of the lobotomy, in which case we have no reference for her time at all there, nor why they are even bothering with her at all.

    That’s not even going into the logic of the story itself, which has none.

    Zack, can’t you just tell a story without assuming the audience is telepathic? :)

    • Bouncy X

      my take was that the lobotomy was just a sorta wrap around. all the “adventure” took place before it but its just edited this way. its something Alias did a lot of, you see events unfold and just when we’re about to hit a major moment, we flashback to see how the character got where they are and then we eventually come back to that moment and finish it and go beyond it. if that’s what they intended, they should have had some sorta title card saying “48hrs earlier” or whatnot right when we switch to the brothel world. granted that wouldnt explain the change from asylum to brothel but i think thats one thing the movie doesn’t need to explain. it explains itself after the first viewing.

      i enjoyed this movie a lot. saw it in theaters and bought the director’s cut steelbook when it first came out. the director’s cut doesn’t add anything substantial but i do prefer that version, even with the musical number! but yes, some people give it way more credit than it deserves. its just a pretty movie with pretty girls kicking ass in different geek-ish settings. doesn’t need to be any deeper than that for me since its just a movie you know?

      and i loved the soundtrack so much i bought the CD. my fav is definitely the Sweet Dreams cover.

    • Zack_Dolan

      as i stated somewhere above, there actually was never meant to be any point to it at all. the shorts were conceived independantly to just be live action anime wank fests of everything zack snyder thinks is totally rad. both the brothel and the asylum were tacked on after as a simple excuse to get from short to short. the pathetic female empowerment msg claims just came about bcs they realized that they just spent 100 mil to make what is essentially a 13 yr old boy’s first wet dream and that they had to at least pretend they were aware and winking at the camera or they’d be lynched as horrible sexists

  • Another thing that always bothered me is that the mobster guy kills Amber as punishment for attempting to escape, but then kills Blondie as well for snitching. What stupid logic is that? Why on earth would you murder someone who’s willing to turn in their fellow conspirators? Doesn’t that set a terrible precedent that no one should tell you anything?

    It was around this point I considered walking out of the theater. I probably would’ve been better off doing so.

  • tcorp

    Generally, if your message is so convoluted that no one understands it, your message probably isn’t that smart. The smartest people I know are smart precisely because they can break things down in a crystal clear way.

    • Jenny Mingus

      Yeah, the idea that “obtuse for the sake of being obtuse= intelligent” really needs to DIAF. Or as xkcd, who has a cartoon for just about everything, put it: “Communicating badly then acting smug when you’re misunderstood is not cleverness.”

    • Zack_Dolan

      to be perfectly honest, he’s all but admitted there was no message or even a point to any of it. he originally conceived the movie as four random eye candy shorts. just random ten minute live action anime homages to everything zack snyder’s inner ten yr old thinks is cool. but they told him he could never get those made bcs there’d be no point to it. it would cost a ton to make and never make any back, and since there were a few common elements between them they told him to make a flimsy wrapparound story to justify all the crap in the shorts. but even then it was still just a rambling mess that amounted to “hot girls fight zombies, robots and dragons, and shoot guns and they have swords and shit” so they tried to polish the turd again, and come up with this horseshit about how it’s all a subversive msg about female empowerment and in the end that just made them look even worse. i don’t blame zack snyder for this, he just wanted to make some live actions cartoons filled with ‘splosions for his own amusement, then all the execs tried to turn into something that would make money and when it failed they piled on the excuses and now snyder is left holding the bag. if this movie made money i’m sure snyder suddenly wouldn’t be the only man responsible for this, if you know what i mean?

      • Cameron Vale

        Still, ultimately, I think he should have applied those ideas and ambitions towards making a movie that’s basically Time Bandits with action babes.

        • Capt. Harlock

          Which was how they basically advertised it. The “Sucker Punch” was all of the BS linking the anime-like vignettes.

  • Alexa

    I hate Snyder’s attitude about the whole thing. He’s all “I didn’t do any panty shots, so the movie wasn’t objectifying the girls” I mean seriously, he is one of the most immature dudes in Hollywood right now :/

  • Wizkamridr

    300- punching and sex
    Watchmen- punching, sex, rape, naked blue guy
    Sucker punch- punching, rape, sex
    Man of Steel- punching
    I have no idea what people were expecting from Synder when he did his Superman movie.

    • DamonD

      I guess, more sex.

  • Maybe I am just an alien, but I did not have a hard time following this movie.

    Movies and shows that are about invincible sexy women fighting monsters are just as demeaning and crass as brothels, they are there for a male audience who is disgusting.

    The idea that women are somehow liberated by their participation in brothels and prostitution is crazy, and a byproduct of a society that thinks lobotomies are rational responses to women stepping out of line.

    The movie is a series of stories within stories told out of order to create juxtaposition of the narrative elements, a totally linear presentation would not have the same impact (I would point to “Cloud Atlas” as an example of how this was done to much greater effect, but for some reason that movie is not as well received as I think it should be).

    I like the music, I like the visuals, I liked the movie. It is perfectly watchable, not a classic or must see. It is just fine.

    • tcorp

      “Movies and shows that are about invincible sexy women fighting monsters are just as demeaning and crass as brothels, they are there for a male audience who is disgusting.

      Pushing other issues to the side for the moment, is that really true of all shows with “invincible sexy women”? I don’t exactly look at a show like “Covert Affairs” (which I don’t watch) and think, man, that is demeaning to Piper Perabo and women everywhere. If you’re right that that’s the point of Sucker Punch, it seems too broad to have any truth.

      But besides that, those movies and shows aren’t as demeaning and crass as brothels and prostitution. First, some sex workers would disagree with you in the first place. (Some say that they’re empowered by sex work, but we won’t get into that.) Second, sex trafficking is a serious problem. Even if we assume that you’re right, the effects of each problem substantially differ in form and magnitude. So the comparison not only loses force because of its mixed presentation, but also because the comparison isn’t that strong to begin with.

      I understand the cultural argument you’re making. But I want to challenge this notion you brought up because I hear so many people of the “postmodern persuasion” repeat it. You can deconstruct something, but you can’t conflate two things that have obviously different implications. Abortion isn’t murder, though both end in a “life” being taken. Likewise, a videogame with scantily clad volleyball girls isn’t forced prostitution, though both are objectifying.

      • I did not say that I necessarily agreed with the movie’s message, but that seems to be the message that I see. The expression, “Putting the pussy on a pedestal”. By portraying women as impossibly perfect sexpots you fail to see them as people, but as objects of desire. That is dehumanizing and a perspective worthy of contempt.

        I like a lot of super badass women in fiction, She-Hulk, Buffy, the Major from Ghost in the Shell. But all of them are just as complex, human, and worthy of analysis as anything. It is the knock off characters that are made by less talented people that offend me. Those characters constructed by a marketing committee that says, “what do we have? Can you make it a sexy blonde? That seems to be in these days.” Rather than constructing characters they are constructing products. The hallucinations/dreams in “Sucker Punch” are that to the Nth degree. Ciphers that these women construct themselves into as escapism, but are just as demeaning and hollow as any stripper.

      • Zack_Dolan

        yeah the difference between a strong female character and a sex object is intent far more than anything else. the strongest, most intelligent, self motivated hero can be reduced to ogling pervy fantasy based on who’s running the camera. there’s no way to say it’s all one way or the other, in any circumstances, not just this one. Bayonetta is a good example. on paper bayonetta is a strong, clever, quick witted, hero of many talents, but in practice she’s a freaky spined giant legged protitute with retarded gun shoes and all the overtures about empowerment don’t really change that, even if it’s in there. Where as the inverse, like say, dune, where one of the main characters, lady jessica, is an actual prostitute. she is the royal concubine who’s sole purpose in life is to be a sex object that sells her body and bears the duke children, but she is never sexualized or portrayed as an object. she is always a character with incredible mental powers and her own self agency and she is a big part in changing the universe. I’m actually fairly sure she never even has to do her duty on screen, it’s just part of who she is. The intent and the execution really make all the difference.

  • Nasty In The Pasty

    The worst movie of 2011…and this was a year that had a Transformers AND Twilight sequel, so that’s saying something.

  • The_Stig

    You talk about slow-mo being Zack Snyder’s trademark, but what about the jar of urine he uses for a camera filter?