ETA on 11.9.14 to note that wow I basically disagree with everything I said in this. WTF, self. Well, other than the fact that this movie is super, super pretty.
I saw Sucker Punch yesterday.
And I really liked it.
Which actually came as something of a surprise to me, since I generally tend to agree with the reviews over at io9 when it comes to saying mean things about movies, and Sucker Punch got a solid thumbs down there.
Now, part of it might be that I went into the movie with extremely low expectations. I’d already read a couple of reviews which, to summarize with nice words, characterized the movie as completely vacuous. And boring. I actually felt more than a little shocked that I found it neither boring, nor vacuous.
Now, to be clear, I am in no way claiming that Sucker Punch is a great movie. It’s no Inception. But as Zack Snyder movies go, this one was – as expected – extremely pretty, and much, much better than, say, 300. If you like that sort of eye candy, I think it’s worth spending the money to see it. If you don’t like that kind of movie, don’t waste your time.
Also, the soundtrack is excellent.
I’ve got a few thoughts about it, so there are going to be SPOILERS all over the place. You have been warned.
I don’t regret spending $8.50 or two hours of my afternoon to see this movie. In fact, I really enjoyed it, and found most of the action sequences quite exciting. A lot of the movie – and not just the action sequences – really did make me think of anime. While the action, especially the first sequence with the huge samurai robots, obviously owe a lot to the tropes of anime, a lot of the narrative logic put me in mind of anime as well. And since I have a record of really liking anime, I think I was a lot more willing to to just accept certain things about the story and the way it went. I also most definitely did not find the non-action sequences boring.
So, About That Whorehouse Thing
I’ve seen a lot of snippy commentary about Babydoll “escaping” into a bordello as her first layer of fantasy. I would agree that it doesn’t make sense for that fantasy to be an escape. However, it also really didn’t strike me as an actual mental escape for a character, but rather a fantasy in which she was attempting to make sense of the way she and the other women were being treated in the mental institution.
It’s made very clear at the end of the movie that Blue Jones, the super creepy orderly that sports a sad little pornstache in Babydoll’s bordello fantasy, has been sexually abusing Babydoll in the real world. Which I think also heavily implies that the other girls who are shown being abused or used by men in the bordello fantasy were also being abused by those same men in reality. I think that in light of the story, it’s reasonable for Babydoll to make sense of that real-world sexual abuse by transforming the hospital into a bordello – because while the bordello is still a prison, it’s at least a prison environment where it makes some kind of twisted sense for the men to be using the women in that way.
Blue Pornstache was incredibly creepy. Beyond his basic concept as an orderly that abuses powerless mental patients, he had some excellently evil dialog in his guise as the bordello’s owner. In a scene near the end, he scares the hell out of the women (and then murders two of them) while going off on a classic abuser rant that left me squirming in my seat – not because it was badly done, but because the character was just such a horrific person. He verbally sets up a false situation where the women are somehow in a “partnership” with him (instead of being his victims) and not keeping up their end of the “bargain,” which means they’re forcing his hand and giving him no choice but to, you know, shoot them.
Ugh. The actor did a good job. It’s a wonder he could stand to be in the same room as himself.
I also think it’s interesting that we don’t actually ever hear Babydoll speak outside of the fantasy bordello world. (At least not that I recall after a single viewing.) I think that’s partially because in her own fantasy, she has more strength and control. While obviously she and the other girls are still very much abused prisoners within the pretend bordello, turning them from mental patients in to whores at least allows them to use their sexuality as a weapon. Because in most [patriarchy-owned] narratives, the only women who get to make use of their sexuality in any way are whores.
So with the bordello as the coping-fantasy, then the action sequences become the actual escape-fantasy. I suppose it’s where Babydoll mentally runs off to when she’s doing something so personally destructive that she can’t even handle it in the context of bordello. And that’s the place where the women are all a kick-ass, elite team that are accomplishing their goals in a way that they can perhaps feel some pride in.
Though I Will Say One Thing About the Sexy Costumes
In the action sequences, there were sexy costumes. But what struck me was how… unsexy everything but the sexy costumes were. Which I actually really, really appreciated. The sexy costumes just sort of became the idea of a uniform for each of the girls. I found that very interesting… because it made the thing feel stylized rather than titillating.
All that said, I think that anyone who claims that this movie is somehow about female empowerment needs to have their head examined. Or possibly needs to get sent to a remedial women’s studies class. Or maybe both.
The basic argument seems to be that there is female empowerment in the movie because:
a) Women with guns
b) Women take control of their own sexuality by the end (NOTE: they don’t.)
c) In the end, the women win because Sweet Pea escapes and survives.
In Sucker Punch, we have Sweet Pea escaping, triumphing over abuse by surviving, and Babydoll also gets her own sort of revenge by being released from the bonds of the real world via lobotomy and sets off a series of events that get her abuser brought to justice. Neither of these things ultimately help out the other women, who all get murdered.
I think that there is something very valid to the narrative of triumph over one’s abusers by surviving them. I think there’s also a lot to be said for revenge fantasies – the desire to take vengeance on one’s abuser is a powerful one, whether the victim is male or female, and no matter what sort of abuse is occurring. But I also think that it’s very sloppy to equate those things with empowerment because it still presupposes a world where abuse is the norm and the victims defenseless.
So, what would the for reals female empowerment version of Sucker Punch look like? Honestly, I have not clue one. Considering the basic premise of the movie – women trapped in a mental institution where they are abused by their male caretakers – I don’t know if it would be possible to write that into a narrative of true female empowerment. At the very least, I don’t think you can call it empowerment if the woman who survives is the exception, rather than the rule.
But the thing is, I also think that’s just fine… as long as it’s actually understood that this isn’t what empowerment looks like.
It’s a pretty movie where women shoot and stab things. Occasionally at the same time. It’s got an interesting concept and a great soundtrack. I specifically bought a small popcorn so I could munch along with the movie, because that’s just the sort of film it is. There’s really no need to make it out as more than that, is there?