“Man of Steel” is getting some great early reviews (and a few almost angry pans by critics who really disliked it.) Director Zack Snyder has a very impressive box office record… plus one real stinker, his 2011 H-bomb “Sucker Punch.” Is it time for a second look at this perhaps under-appreciated entry in the Snyder filmography?
No, not really. “Sucker Punch” is a mess. It’s one of those movies that leaves you wondering why none of the hundreds of actors or technicians working on the production called for a time-out and said, “Zack, what are we doing here, man?”
It does have some really far-out, clever visuals, but it relentlessly undermines their “wow” factor by making them all dream sequences. This can be done well, as was most notably the case in “Inception.” But “Inception” worked because the dreamworlds had well-established rules, and a real sense of tension – they felt real, and the stakes were high. The mind-blowing multi-level finale works because every level feels like a solid story that’s playing for keeps. It helps a lot that the characters are reasonably understandable and sympathetic.
“Sucker Punch,” on the other hand, is playing a series of meta-textual games with the audience. The plot is about the ruthless sexual exploitation of young women, but they escape by entering fantasy worlds where the audience objectifies them. There aren’t enough rules in these cool-looking but nonsensical dreamworlds to build tension – what are the heroines really capable of? Are they ever truly in danger? And unlike “Inception,” it violates its own dream-logic in lots of ways, not least the extreme improbability that someone from the early 20th century would be having the sort of high-tech sci-fi fantasies the main character does. None of the stuff floating around inside her head feels like it really belongs there… which is, presumably, part of the nested series of jokes Snyder is trying to pull at the audience’s expense.
There’s also a running gag that not all viewers are likely to appreciate: the plot is structured very much in the manner of an old-school musical, but at the moments when a song and dance number should begin, the main characters snap into their epic-fantasy ultra-violent universe instead. The idea is that special effects and stylish violence have effectively replaced musical numbers in Hollywood productions. It’s not really a good enough jest to hang an entire movie from. And it’s weird to think someone would plow a blockbuster budget into a story expressly designed to make the audience feel guilty about any flicker of enjoyment they derive from it.
What’s really annoying about films like this is the betrayal of the tease offered by its trailers and posters – which, come to think of it, is probably another joke Snyder was deliberately playing at the audience’s expense. When you see a really mind-blowing or incongruous image on a movie poster or book cover, your curiosity is piqued – you want to know the story behind it. What’s really going on here? How come a World War II flying fortress is doing battle with a dragon? How did suits of rocket-boosted powered armor end up in the trenches of World War I? In “Sucker Punch” there is no answer – it’s just there because Zack Snyder thought it looked cool, and he’s curious to know if you’re paying more attention to the amazing background images, or the hot girls in tight clothes running around in the foreground. He was pretty sure he knew the answer before he shot the first frame of the movie.