The Lesson is: Do not believe what they are saying about Sucker Punch.

You heard me. The best most people are saying about Zack Snyder’s first (?) original movie is that it’s an ambitious failure. The general consensus is that it sucks, it’s like a videogame, it has no story, yada yada yada. It’s all pretty much bullshit. Sucker Punch is a total success and maybe the most exciting movie I’ve seen this year not only for what it proves about Snyder’s skills as a visionary not only visually but sonically, but what it sets out to do thematically. It’s actually hard to know where to start with this one, so bear with me and hopefully we can get there together.

I will warn you that I’m going to be liberal about “spoilers” as this is not a twist or mystery movie.

The first thing to do is talk about the narrative structure since it is probably what invites the most confusion and scrutiny from viewers. By now everyone should know that the movie takes place on multiple levels of reality which basically constitute fantasies that Baby Doll (Emily Browning) uses to cope with her harsh and seemingly hopeless situation. The entire structure is still a fantasy, so it’s a mistake to take even “reality” any other way than as the bookend for the metaphorical journey the film is laying out. Entering the story through a curtained stage is Snyder’s way of letting us in on that.

Anyway, the plot. She accidentally murders her sister when trying to save her from their fucked up monstrous stepfather. Next thing you know she’s in a mental institution for young women where said stepfather pays off an orderly to have her lobotomized. In the meantime, she befriends some other inmates and hatches a plan to get them all out of there.

The mental institution is the oppressive, rain-soaked reality that Baby Doll leaves as soon as she hears Doctor Gorsky (Carla Gugino) talking about using fantasy to gain ownership over reality, to find inner strength and learn to cope. From then on, Baby Doll is an orphan inductee to a brothel run by a version of the chief orderly, Blue (Oscar Isaac). In this world, Blue is a pimp and racketeer and Madame Gorsky looks after his girls for him. The inmates Baby Doll sees briefly in the “real world” become her fellow prostitutes/burlesque dancers. After they see her dance for the first time, everyone takes an interest in her, especially Rocket (Jena Malone) with whom she becomes friends. On this level, the doctor who does the lobotomies is the High Roller (both characters are John Hamm, which is awesome because Don Draper is the High Roller… it’s kind of perfect), who is coming to take Baby Doll’s virginity and make Blue a lot of money in the process. Meanwhile it becomes apparent that Baby Doll’s dances are powerfully engaging for everyone who witnesses them, making her an object of desire and winning her the respect of her fellow girls.

The dancing is something we don’t see. Whenever Baby Doll dances, the movie goes a step further into the fantasy and reimagines Baby Doll as a crusading warrior on a quest for the “real-world” items which will help her escape. These items have analogs in her fantasies and each one (there are four) are informed in some way by the events in the Bordello fantasy. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that we never see Baby Doll dance. I’m sure the repetitive nature of the gentle swaying we do see, followed by a close up of her eyes that denotes our imminent exposure to another fantasy action sequence is tiresome for some. If it’s a flaw, it’s a minor one and perhaps necessary to keep the audience on board with the layering of realities. Some people really hate that no actual dancing is shown, but it by no means ruins the movie and is a gripe more than an objective flaw.

That Baby Doll needs help carrying out her plan is where the other girls come in. They are mostly led by the oldest, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish). The main three are Baby Doll, Rocket, and Sweet Pea. The other two, Amber and Blondie, are secondary and probably responsible for most of the “off acting” or “bad dialogue” in the film. I think people who make those complaints are kind of reaching but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Venessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung are as good in their roles, or with their words, as the other actors. They do what is required of them and neither is offensively bad or took me out of the movie. Anyway, whenever Baby Doll does a dance with them performing whatever else is needed to secure the items, they are in the fantasy world with her and together they form a squad of ass-kicking commandos advised by a kindly man (Scott Glenn), the only unequivocally good man in the film… but more on this later.

The execution of these high-concept action sequences is next-level shit. Each one could have an entire movie built around it. The only disappointment is that Sweet Pea never uses her sword. Boo on that, Snyder. Otherwise, this shit needs to be seen to be believed. Of course, a lot of it is in the trailer but when combined with the phenomenal music and seen as whole rather than truncated clips or shots, it’s really something else. The way Snyder is blending the visual and auditory experience in these scenes is sheer genius. This is not only limited to the fantasy sections but begins with the mournful, haunting rendition of “Sweet Dreams” that accompany the dialogue-free opening sequence. It does feel artificial, but this is not a mistake or some failure of Snyder’s. This is about the metaphor, the hyper-real representation of ideas and themes which dovetail with the central theme of the movie: that fantasy and imagination are valuable tools in dealing with reality, no matter how bleak.

This is the one thing Sucker Punch has in common with Inception which, for whatever reason, many critics are comparing it to (based on the reality-bending stuff?). The theme is a celebration and justification for escapism and fantasy as a method of achieving catharsis. This is a serious theme in Sucker Punch which, while not as clearly set out here as by Inception, can be extended to justify the artistic medium of film itself. Christopher Nolan showed us why fantasies can be valid experiences and do not belong in the subordinate middenheap that they are sometimes relegated to by those who lack imagination. Snyder is doing the same thing here, with more specific purpose. But if Inception is Vivaldi, an expertly arranged experience that is as beautiful in its complexity as in its components, Sucker Punch is The Mars Volta. In effect, Snyder is making movie-as-progrock.

A lot of people are describing Sucker Punch as a videogame movie. It is not. That writers are preoccupied with comparing movies to videogames says more about the generations to which they belong than it does about any essential laziness on the part of filmmakers. But of course, that is what is implied. A lot of action movies have MacGuffins and quests and “stages” built in. The older critics are just out of touch with the contemporary culture that Sucker Punch belongs to. The ones closer to my age were raised on videogames and they will relate movies to them without remembering that videogames emulate movies more than the other way around. But I’ll waste no more time talking about this because it’s a bullshit misguided criticism in the first place, and that’s the way it goes nearly every time it comes up.

Sucker Punch is more like a live-action Heavy Metal than a videogame, but oddly a sort of antithesis to the sexual fetishism of that magazine and its animated film spinoffs. It’s the reckless fantasy, the convergence of genre and iconic elements from varied and seemingly exclusive sources that reminds me of Heavy Metal stories I read when I was a kid. It is also very much like an anime and people who have never seen an anime are probably the ones who will have the most difficulty dealing with what Sucker Punch is doing. The fantastic sections are reckless. They are brazen. They don’t care if you question flying mecha in a steampunk WW1 battle or modern firearms in an epic fantasy castle siege. Weapons that weren’t even invented yet in the time the “reality” level is set (1960’s). That the girls move around like a real military fireteam is also impressive as a creative choice. They do not cartoonishly run around shooting things unless the fight demands it (the last section on the train comes to mind) and watching them move with tactical awareness reminiscent of real-world SWAT and military units is a deliberate attempt to contribute to the similarly brazen gender politics that make up much of the thematic current of Sucker Punch. And these girls pull it off. Especially the main three.

Much ado has been made about whether or not Sucker Punch is a legitimately feminist movie and to what degree. I think it is loudly and proudly feminist. The VO (which I thought was a weakness until I understood why it was there) is a call to arms, a sort of manifesto for the modern young woman. More than being a feminist message relevant to the history or general interests of the movement, Sucker Punch is about the closeted girl-nerds of today. Girls like my 15 year old cousin Jordan, for whom the lines  between masculine and feminine are becoming blurrier and what was unacceptable for young women even when I was a teenager is often taken up openly or in secret by girls who just don’t give a fuck whether you think superheroes or anime are for boys only. The action sequences are meant to appeal to different kinds of genres, whatever the fancy of the audience. And it is all inviting the girls in rather than closing them out. There’s really something for everyone from the Steampunk enthusiast to the Lord of the Rings fan. And this is the point. People are saying it’s just empty aesthetics, a mash-up of shit that Snyder thinks is cool. Certainly he does think that orcs and clockwork Germans are cool, but he is also trying to show us that the heroic and, yes, violent fantasies of predominantly male nerds are also available to women and there is no essential reason to deny them that. The nature of a power fantasy is such that it confers a feeling of liberation from oppressive circumstances. Men have a relationship with that and so do women. To a large extent, these pressures are put upon women by men. This is why there is a feminist movement at all. This is why the only good man in Sucker Punch is a figment of Baby Doll’s imagination. The other men in the film are ignorant and evil but at the same time, the film does not really hate men in a visceral or demonizing way. The ignorant, evil men are mostly defined by moral weakness. They are as easy to feel sorry for as they are to hate. This movie simply isn’t for the lads who are threatened by a bunch of young women invading their hallowed geeky territory and tearing shit up.

One of the perceived weaknesses of this reading of the film is the outfits worn by the characters both inside and outside of the fantasy. Why, one asks, does a feminist film rely on showing a bunch of nubile girls as prostitutes in highly sexualized roles/attire and then relay this to the fantasy sequences? I think the reasoning here is manifold. For one thing, burlesque seems to be a huge influence on the movie and it has largely been claimed by women as a form of aesthetic and sexual expression that mixes conventional and unconventional ideas about feminine beauty with performance art to create something new. For another, what is more symbolic of paternal or patriarchal oppression than the relationship between a pimp and his product? They are prostitutes because this is obvious and Snyder is not trying to be subtle whatsoever with this movie. In case you didn’t realize. He’s being brazen to such an extent that he’s being misunderstood as trying to justify erotic imagery in the film after the fact. This is not the case and that it’s not the case is demonstrated by the clothes worn by the heroines in their shared fantasies. There are elements of classic images of feminine sexuality, fishnets and heels and even a Japanese sailor/schoolgirl outfit. But there are also military elements including weapons, armor, etc. The blend is perfectly realized in each character, right down to the cute keychain hanging from Baby Doll’s .45. Snyder’s attention is on the action in these sections and avoids the kind of fetish-footage usually found in action movies that feature “hot chicks”. Compare any shot of Baby Doll doing her thing with Michael Bay’s treatment of Megan Fox in Transformers. The effect is that the women in this movie are sexy, but eventually on their own terms. This embraces the contemporary notion that the trappings of femininity are not inherently anti-feminist or oppressive because women can and do enjoy them for their own reasons, regardless of “cultural programming”.

If I were a Gender Studies Prof, I would be so fucking stoked to show classes this movie. Whether it is read as positively feminist or not, those elements are there and represent the second major theme. That this is what underscores all the virtuoso imagery, wicked action, and effective musical cues is impressive and elevates this movie way beyond “trash cinema” or some candy-coated pretentious bullshit which it simply is not. In combination with the fantasy-as-cathartic theme, Sucker Punch is operating on a whole other level that should not be denied.

For all my praise and apologia, Sucker Punch is not a perfect film. Some elements are muddled. Scott Glenn’s appearance on the bus at the end is needlessly confusing with regard to the reality manipulation going on. It’s probably as simple as keeping a familiar face on the “good man” we see in “reality”, but it will suggest to most that Sweet Pea is still in some kind of dreamworld or Baby Doll is just imagining that shit from her lobotomy chair. That Sweet Pea is the one who escapes will feel like a cheat to some, but I believe it’s a masterstroke given the importance of sisterhood to the subtext of the film. That Sweet Pea and Rocket are sisters and that Baby Doll’s actions get Rocket (the younger sister) killed are important elements but their importance is not paid off as well as it should be. We know some of what we see in the Bordello reality during the escape also happened, in some form, in the psych ward reality… but how much of it? Did Sweet Pea have Rocket as a sister on that level as well? Did she die? What about psych ward versions of Amber and Blondie? I also have to wonder what the significance of slitting the baby dragon’s throat is. It’s obviously a deliberate thing, since it could easily have been about just hunting and killing an adult dragon. It feels like it’s supposed to mean something specific but I don’t think it’s clear enough. I might interpret it as being about the execution of a masculine symbol (the dragon can be read as such) with ruthlessness uncharacteristic of female stereotypes. It could be saying something about the role of motherhood or the potential of that inherent to female physiology. This stuff could all have been clearer and maybe will be in the inevitable (apparently a lot was cut) director’s cut. That said, none of it derails the movie or cripples the overall effect of the two major themes much less the spectacle of the film as a whole.

All of the people shitting on this movie deserve the soulless sequels, nostalgic wank remakes, and ‘shitty blockbusters’ they also bitch about. Sucker Punch is something new, brave, and effective. Many are saying “fuck you, Zack Snyder”. I say “fuck yeah, Zack Snyder”. Nothing else he’s ever done is as exciting as this, nor as resoundingly personal in spite of the unconventional way it connects to the audience.

I honestly don’t know what people expected going in to Sucker Punch. It’s a special movie and I hope it finds an audience that will appreciate it with me.