Most of the discourse around Sucker Punch, on both sides, falls into the same trap of the exploitation versus empowerment false dichotomy that surrounds the rape-revenge genre, to which the film is comparable. If the camera’s gaze is male (and it’s hard to argue it isn’t, especially in the horror genre), then even the most well intended films and filmmakers will have a mix of both - American Mary and Excision being recent examples. Rather than devaluing them as feminist films, their partial successes make them all the more interesting, as is the case with Sucker Punch. What Sucker Punch is lurching towards, albeit in a teenaged pubescent way, albeit ultimately unsuccessfully, is a conceptualisation of a space outside the male gaze.
Sucker Punch takes the form of a series of wish-fulfilment fantasies, beginning with the “reality” of a mental hospital (although it’s only slightly less visually stylised) and an “imagined” brothel. In both Babydoll (Emily Browning) tries to escape; in the latter she has a group of friends to help her, and with her gift of dancing (sending the group into further fantasy sequences) distracts the men in charge. Again there’s the issue of whose wishes are being fulfilled, Babydoll’s or Zack Snyder’s, but again the argument can only be of degrees as it is so obviously both.
That her initial fantasy is another exploitative situation from which to escape is troubling for the right reasons, suggesting that she’s entrenched the view that her sexuality is her most most important attribute. The group uses this assumption to work towards an escape. The next level of fantasy is the most important one. First her then the whole group are placed in various worlds - a quasi-Eastern temple to battle mythical giants, World War 2 trenches to battle steampunk Nazi reanimated corpses, a fantasy land to fight in a helicopter against a dragon, and a train rigged with explosives overrun by robots heading towards a futuristic city.
These are all action genres - historical, war, fantasy, sci-fi - that are male-dominated. Yet not only is there just one male character in these fantasies (the same one each time, giving them their mission), the enemies are never human. While this could be interpreted cynically, as a ratings ploy - the MPAA doesn’t like blood, the steampunk soldiers bleed black dust and the film is undeniably for teenagers - it also means that, unlike the brothel, sexuality is not a factor in their victory. They are tested on the same bases as male action heroes - physical strength and agility and their familial bond with their teammates.
While Snyder’s style is always slick, showing a music video director’s eye for enticing visuals especially over the wordless introduction to the film, in the last level of fantasy his camera loses all sense of physical reality. The ‘virtual camera’ is CGI’s greatest contribution to cinematography, allowing impossible camera movements like moving through a plane window in a long take at the start of Charlie’s Angels or following a screw falling off a plane all the way down a chimney into a mug of tea in Night Watch to cite two favourite plane-related examples. While its full potential has yet to be reached, Sucker Punch uses it in an interesting way. By the last fantasy sequence, the human characters are fighting robots with the camera moving through and around the train fight in one unbroken take as the background flies past. But what does unbroken really mean when the few live action moments have probably been shot separately on green screen and pieced together in a computer? Babydoll’s hypnotic dances are denied to us, substituted with imagination as a means of creating new worlds, new possibilities. At a time when anything is possible in cinema and the only limit is our imagination, Snyder seems to be asking why we return to the same tired imagery again and again.
(This of course raises the question of the design of their armour, more precisely who it was designed for, using the term ‘armour’ loosely as it covers as little flesh as possible.)
But then Snyder’s level of self-awareness has always been questionable. Is 300 a celebration of hypermasculinity or a homerotic campfest? Is Superman, hated and feared by the American public, responsible for levelling an entire New York-like city, and destroyer of an American drone that’s tracking him, actually an allegory for terrorism? Or anything? What’s dissatisfying in Snyder’s films are that these questions are more interesting than the answers, and so it is with Sucker Punch.