I finally saw Sucker Punch last night. After the scathing reviews, I’d planned on skipping it but Alyssa Rosenberg’s defense renewed my interest. Rosenberg contends that, flawed though Sucker Punch may be, Zach Snyder has at least put five brawling female leads squarely at the center of his narrative. She makes a good point and, for all its whacky muddle, I wish Sucker Punch well. But my chief problem with Snyder’s girl gang is that while he has created five female leads, he hasn’t created a single hero. To understand that, you just have to look at the baby dragon. (Spoilers ahead.)
To free herself from a mental institution, Babydoll must battle through a sepia-toned fantasy world to obtain a series of objects. In the second fantasy sequence, her grizzled mentor/coach/commanding officer tells her that she’ll have to enter a castle, kill a baby dragon and obtain a couple of magical crystals from its guts. Babydoll and her cohorts don’t question these orders or even blink a heavily-lashed eye. They battle their way into the castle and Babydoll proceeds to climb on top of a drowsy, docile little baby dragon, lift up its head and slit its throat. When the mama dragon discovers her DEAD CHILD, she becomes understandably enraged and goes after the murderers that have invaded her home. One of said minxy murderers then shoots at her from a plane shouting, “Die you ugly, mother f***r!” These are our heroes?
Heroes don’t kill babies. They don’t sneak up on helpless creatures and murder them in their beds. They question instructions like “Shoot the villagers” or “Kneecap the unicorn.” That’s what makes them heroes instead of just good little soldiers. They find a better way.
OR let’s say there is no better way. Let’s say the hero is faced with a hard choice and must do something cruel or brutal. Then she makes that choice with full knowledge of its implications and she suffers the consequences of that decision.
OR let’s say that our hero is a true antihero, someone for whom killing has become rote, who just does what she has to do to survive. Then we need to see that she’s chosen to reject her humanity, that she knows what she is, and– if it’s that kind of story, a hero’s story– then we have to see her struggle for redemption. None of these things happens in Sucker Punch.
If one of the themes of Sucker Punch is powerlessness then what does it say about a girl who murders a helpless creature without EVER stopping to question the choice? How exactly is Babydoll any different from the thugs who tie her down or put a spike through her head just because someone handed them the right paperwork? In the end, this is why Sucker Punch is so deeply unsatisfying. I’m glad to see female leads. I’m glad to see them doing something other than trying to get married or go to prom or find the perfect baby daddy. But we don’t just need female leads, we need female heroes.
I’ve whined plenty about the new Wonder Woman costume but, in the end, it doesn’t matter if a character is dressed in armor or a sexy schoolgirl uniform. What matters is that the character is fully formed and that she makes conscious choices. She doesn’t just stumble around doing what she’s told.
Rosenberg makes much of the fact that four of the lead characters of Sucker Punch sacrifice themselves for the chance to get just one of their number to freedom. But, with one exception, none of these characters dies fighting. In fact, Babydoll quite literally lies down and takes it. AND in the final scene of the film, the sole survivor doesn’t save herself. Instead, clad in a pretty white dress and docile demeanor, she tremblingly awaits capture and then (whew) accepts rescue from the aforementioned grizzled mentor. She is no less helpless in the world or better equipped to deal with its predators than she was at the beginning of the film.
It’s a long way from “This is Sparta!”