With ‘Sucker Punch’ Zack Snyder Began Struggling With Ideas He Couldn’t Quite Control

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.

The general outline of Snyder’s idea — that women tap into male fantasies in order to get what they really want, which could’ve offered a potent commentary on film acting as ugly livelihood — is abundantly obvious, and yet close inspection reveals that his expression of this notion makes no sense. Rosenberg’s first point about the impracticality of such skimpy fetish gear in the heat of battle is the thread upon which a critically-minded viewer tugs, revealing the whole of Snyder’s faulty ideological apparatus. Nagging questions creep through the film like kudzu: Why would Babydoll construct an elaborate escapist fantasy that’s worse than her actual plight? How are the magical totems they retrieve in their imaginary quests supposed to help them in the brothel, which isn’t even real, and then how does that translate to the asylum? And moreover, why should we care about any of this when the characters onscreen are little more than scantily-clad mannequins onto which Snyder heaps sexual punishment?

This pseudo-feminist framework operates like a reverse Trojan Horse, wherein the promise of hidden Greek soldiers allows a tactical deviant to smuggle a gigantic wooden horse into the city walls. The answers to the film’s many unanswered questions all lie in Snyder’s commitment to propagating the same exploitative pleasures he would appear to subtextually denounce. The script has no real interest in the plight or well-being of Babydoll, or any of her colorfully named companions; they’re avatars which Snyder can upload to the video game-styled war zone of his choosing, whether that’s a feudal-era Japanese temple plagued by zombie samurai, World War I trenches beset by steampunk automatons, or the final set piece of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. (It’s not as if he needs the money, but if Peter Jackson really wanted to sue Snyder for full-on copyright infringement, that case would have legs.)

It’s tempting to get hung up on superficialities (the frightful dialogue, for one, or the soundtrack’s whisper-sung covers of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “White Rabbit,” and “Where Is My Mind?” that are nearly more offensive than the trace amounts of misogyny) until you realize that there’s no more to this film than its outermost layer. The ostensible feminist ethic never extends beyond the most surface-level engagement, talking the talk while never walking the walk. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Snyder deliberately throws up this shoddy dialectic scaffolding as misdirection while he indulges his own perversions, but while his intentions might be in the right place, his priorities are all out of order. He might like to believe he’s contradicted the old dictum about leaving message-sending to Western Union, but in diverting his narrative resources to hollow and distinctly boyish spectacle, he foils his own efforts.

Snyder raised plenty of fan hackles in 2013 when he concluded his Man Of Steel with living personification of truth, justice, and the American way Superman making a hands-on endorsement for the death penalty. Turns out General Zod, unlike every other megalomaniacal supervillain Clark Kent has ever tussled with, was too dangerous to live. Or, more likely, Superman snapping Zod’s neck just seemed like a totally badass move at the time. In that film, as in Sucker Punch, Snyder failed to realize that his actions have ramifications. Political actions make a greater impression than politicized words and gestures, and the many rad-for-radness’-sake flourishes of Sucker Punch out it as a half-measure at best, a scattershot mess at worst. Snyder’s trained his sights on even thornier issues this time around, with the irreconcilable differences between Batman and Superman taking the place of ingrained intranational conflicts. Maybe a more densely complex social issue is just what he needs to stay out of his own way?