The Punch Line of Sucker Punch
by James Parker
Zack Synder’s Sucker Punch (2011) received diametrically opposite reactions from both movie critics and reviewers alike. As Synder himself explains, some people only caught the top layer of the film, “which is just this girl going crazy and then going on this adventure for no reason” (“Interview”). Meanwhile, others looked a few layers deeper and found that Synder’s movie was actually a commentary of the sexism in nerd fandom. And a small minority saw a third possibility – a discussion of a single person’s demented psyche breaking down in moments of panic while under extreme stress. Depending on which perspective the viewer has, there are multiple levels of enjoyment the movie can potentially provide.
Stage curtains rise as the opening credits run at the start of the movie. The mother of Babydoll, the main character, has died. The step-father is pissed that the mother has left everything to her two daughters and nothing to him. In a rage, he physically attacks Babydoll, and then advances on the younger sister. Babydoll shoots beyond the man and hits her own sister, killing her. After fleeing, she is found by police at her mother’s graveside. The older man brings Babydoll to an insane asylum.
We learn the step-father is paying off an orderly to have Babydoll receive a lobotomy in five days. Just as the lobotomy is about to occur, the scene changes to a burlesque theatre. When Babydoll is instructed to dance, the audience is transported to a snowy samurai scene. With every dance Baby performs throughout the movie, we are sent to another sci-fi or geekdom universe –samurai, war, fantasy, and futuristic.
As the movie progresses, Babydoll and a few new friends are attempting to escape the burlesque prison via collecting four items – a map, fire, a knife, and a key. In efforts to collect these items, three of Babydoll’s four friends are murdered. During the escape of the two survivors, Babydoll sacrifices herself for the fourth friend, Sweat Pea. At the very moment Babydoll does so, the lobotomy back in the asylum world is carried out. The movie ends with Sweat Pea getting onto a bus and leaving all of the mess behind her. That may have been what occurred in the movie, but there was so much more to the story than just that.
In fact, Synder seemed almost shocked at so many people’s inability to understand the message he was trying to deliver. American society has been spoiled at obvious satire presentation, such as those via Scary Movie, Another Teen Movie, et cetera. Today’s audience is no longer capable of identifying true satire. “Do you not get the metaphor there?” Synder asked one interviewer (“Interview”). “The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me – dorky sci-fi kids.” The characters themselves even saw what was going on. At the first and very abrupt scenario change from alsyum to burlesque, Sweet Pea removes her wig and asks, “This is a joke, right? I get the sexy school girl and nurse thing, but what’s this? A lobotomized vegetable? How about something more commercial?” (Sucker Punch).
During the burlesque setting – the scenario that seemingly occurs only in Babydoll’s mind –, Rocket explains that everyone has their own dance routine. “We practice it, we practice it, we practice it, and the men come and watch us perform. And if they like what we see … well, that’s why we dance” (Sucker Punch). Madame Gorski says minutes later that “if you do not dance, you have no purpose”. Yet again, Synder is blatantly stating that men – that we all – expect sex and sexuality of women; that is the purpose of a female in a geek’s fandom.
But Synder is not condemning those who take enjoyment from observing the beauty of the female figure. “As long as you’re self-aware about it, then you’re okay” (“Interview”). He explained that although he dressed the girls sexually, the intention was not exploiting their sexuality. Nowhere in the movie were close-ups of cleavage, emphasis on asses, or other such typical film tactics present. “I really wanted it to be up to the viewer to feel those feelings or not”. The costumes of his women encourage roaming eyes no more than that of any other female superhero. Ideally, the viewers would notice the sexual nature of their attires, but not for the reasons that many people did. He wanted the audience to observe the similarities between these outfits in and that of so many other female superheroes and action heroes in comics and movies. For people to realize the sexism of the geek fandom, revealing clothes were required. Sweet Pea even admits that “the dance should be more than just titillation” (Sucker Punch).
Some viewers say the lack of success of delivering this message comes from the director being male. But he wasn’t the only one who had a hand in the movie’s delivery. “[…] the female actors would fill in the emotional blanks I left for them” (“Interview”). Synder went to great lengths to try to consider what a female might do or say in the situations, but “as a man, you can only do what you can do as far as understanding the female psyche”. The script did not include crying in the scenario in which the girls are breaking out; that was something the actresses added in themselves. Synder himself said he thought that it was somewhat cheesy, but he yielded to the experience and insight of the women.
Beyond the sexism lies yet another level of interpretation – and my personal favourite. We can look at the different worlds in Sucker Punch as layers. The first layer is the movie itself, which opens with the raising of the curtains and the bedroom on the stage. This is the same layer all movies, books, comics, et cetera, have. The second layer is the insane asylum world. This is the reality of the movie. This is where the plot of most movies occur, the second layer.
Synder wanted the audience to view his work as a performance. This is most evident by a few quotes in the film, as well as his immediately opening with the raising of curtains on a stage. Moreover, the first real and static scenario in the film occurs in what they call the “theatre” – which is really just the socializing room in the aslyum. On the stage is the very bedroom set-up that opened the movie.
Babydoll herself alludes to the creation of worlds in the opening lines of the movie. “Everyone has an angel. A guardian who watches over us. We can’t know what form they’ll take. One day, old man. Next day, little girl. But don’t let appearances fool you. They can be as fierce as any dragon. Yet they’re not here to fight our battles, but to whisper from our heart, reminding that it’s us. It’s everyone one of us who holds the power over the worlds we create” (Sucker Punch). She goes on to explain that the aforementioned angels “can speak through any character we can imagine”. In the scenario during which the step-father and orderly are discussing their arrangement, the psychiatrist Dr. Gorski says, “You control this world” Babydoll ties it all together at the end, narrating, “And finally, this question: the mystery of whose story it will be, of who draws the curtain?”
But the layers of this movie do not stop there. It’s not terribly uncommon for stories to have their own third layer. Maybe it’s a dream sequence of the main character, a memory, et cetera. In Sucker Punch, it’s the dream world that occurs in Babydoll’s mind, which is a burlesque house. Her subconscious has created this world in order for her to deal with the reality of her having lost her mother and sister; as such, she has disassociated. In one of the ending scenes, everything that the girls did in the burlesque scenario – the one that exists only in Babydoll’s mind –, the audience learns was actually done by Babydoll in the asylum world – stabbing an orderly, setting a fire, and helping a patient to escape.
However, unlike nigh any other movie, there is a fourth layer, that of the geek worlds, the places to which Babydoll goes when she’s dancing. These are places in the mind of the burlesque character, as well as those of the Babydoll in reality. The samurai fight, the zombie mecha war, the dragons, the train – these are the places Babydoll goes when she dances to release her steam, her stress. Just as we often have our own fantasy world, so does Babydoll. It is almost like a form of interpretative dance.
Each fantasy world depicts what’s going on in the battle during the burlesque scenario. For example, when they are attempting to get a map in the war scenario, Sweat Pea is doing so in the burlesque world. Moreover, the squad leader encourages them to work together and says that “if you don’t stand up for something, you’ll fall for anything” (Sucker Punch). As their first adventure together, in both worlds, both advices are imperative for the women – to fight for something, freedom, and to work together.
Freedom – a major theme in the movie. The samurai master asks Babydoll what it is she is looking for. “A way out, I guess. […] I need to get out of here” (Sucker Punch). She wants freedom, freedom from her demolished life. When Sweet Pea asks what Babydoll’s burlesque dance communicates, the latter responds, “It says I’m gonna escape from here”.
Paradise, by virtue, is another theme. Sweet Pea references sending a postcard from there when Babydoll defends her dancing style in the burlesque scenario. The orderly mentions in the asylum scenario that once Babydoll gets lobotomized, she will be in paradise. The mother’s leaving all to her two daughters shows that they will be well off in life. Paradise, a place of freedom, is evident in all these instances.
The freedom that Babydoll eventually receives is in the form of death. “It’s the way she looked at me, like she wanted me to do it”, says the doctor upon lobotomizing her (Sucker Punch). The pain of losing her mother and her sister were too much for her. She really did go insane – thus the creation of an alternate reality –, and death was her freedom. The entire burlesque scenario took place strictly in her mind. The orderly even asks her, “You’re not here anymore? You’re in paradise?”
The final scene depicts Sweat Pea departing onto a bus. Babydoll’s subconscious knew that her consciousness would not survive. As such, it adopted the identity of Sweat Pea. Babydoll’s voice narrates, “You have all the weapons you need; now fight” – suggesting that only ourselves can set us free.
Zack Synder’s Sucker Punch movie is about more than just five scantily clad women fighting things in fantasy worlds and escaping a burlesque. It’s about the sexism against female in the geek culture, as well as the struggle of a girl going insane. There are tons of archetypes and symbolism – such as following the white rabbit and the number five – that Synder litters throughout the movie. Granted, not everyone understood what Synder was trying to say. “I think 90% are missing it, or they just don’t care” (“Interview”). Nevertheless, there are those of us who appreciate the beautiful and empowering messages he attempted to deliver.
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