This past weekend, we finally got the answer to the question “Will Batman v Superman Be Good, Or Bad, Or Just Good To The People Who Thought Man Of Steel Was Good, Or What.” But the answer was largely in front of us all along. All anyone needed to do was turn to director Zack Snyder’s 2011 film Sucker Punch, which hit its fifth anniversary on the day Snyder’s latest hit theaters. Snyder, many have observed, uses the icons of Batman and Superman, so freighted with symbolic significance after decades of storytelling and characterization, to make some point about terrorism, and personal liberty vs. national security, and how Jesse Eisenberg looks in a wig. But the director’s takeover of the DC cinematic brand doesn’t represent his first foray into the vaguely political.
Sucker Punch clearly, loudly fancies itself a statement on gender, specifically male consumption of female bodies, and the role media fetishization plays in that nasty process. The Washington Post‘s Alyssa Rosenberg affirmed as much in a fine piece last week, where she made a sound argument for Snyder’s film as an overlooked, valuable venue for female representation in a typically male-dominated genre:
Yes, Snyder’s Sucker Punch heroines, the patients at a mental hospital, are relatively thinly-sketched. Yes, in the fantasy world they enter to battle for their freedom, their outfits are not, shall we say, practical. But at the time Sucker Punch came out, it was the rare movie with a female lead to come out of Warner Brothers, Snyder’s longtime studio. Even rarer, it was an original action movie starring women.
And while she’s not wrong — for women at the movies, a win’s a win — the devil’s in the details. The two concessions she makes before asserting her larger point are symptomatic of a deeper, more intricate set of problems separating the film Sucker Punch wants to be from the film that it is. Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya have lots of opinions about feminism, but they repeatedly contradict, muddle, or undermine them with their slavish devotion to the aesthetic of adolescent badassery. Sucker Punch is, essentially, the cinematic equivalent of a high-schooler taking the stage during a public-speaking class for an oration about feminism, but getting distracted by his own erection.
Much like Spring Breakers and Pain and Gain‘s double-underlined pronouncements about the American Dream, Sucker Punch‘s intended feminist subtext makes itself glaringly clear. A troubled young woman known as Babydoll (played by Emily Browning, her already doll-like features a good get from the production’s casting director) is remanded to a mental institution by her rapist stepfather after accidentally murdering her sister, where she awaits a frontal lobotomy. She then retreats into a fantasy realm in which she’s the newest charge at a strip club, where she is sexually violated again, this time by the sleazy proprietor (America’s newest sweetheart, Oscar Isaac), and held until she can be sold to an unseen “high-roller,” who will presumably sexually violate her some more. As a method of escapism from this method of escapism, she and a bombshell-squad of fellow strippers drift off into elaborate, heavily-CGI’d fantasy missions which will somehow enable them to escape the strip club, and then in turn, the mental asylum.