What I’m Watching: Sucker Punch

For the last month or two, I’ve been absolutely crazy to see the movie Sucker Punch, or as I heard it called (sounds like a great pitch quote) : “Alice in Wonderland with Machine Guns”.  I’m not aiming to spoil this for anyone, so there’s a courtesy cut below.  Don’t go complaining to me about spoilers if you clicked to read the rest: This entry is about the intersection between plot and message, and how the two can undermine each other, leaving the audience dissatisfied.  Also, I will say above the cut that the movie is definitely worth seeing.  The 1% of the movie that I complain about is what I focus on in this article, not the 99% that was amazing.

This movie is awesome, but there’s a strong dissonance between plot, character, and message.  The movie constantly states, “Only you can free yourself.  Only you can imprison yourself.”  It’s a great moral, if the story didn’t undermine it.

See, the instigator, the main character of the movie, Babydoll, gives herself up in order for another person to be free.  She then gets lobotomized, because every movie that even suggests lobotomy has just got to have one.  Sweet Pea is the one who escapes.

Now some people who have seen the movie are going to say, “Oh, well Babydoll escaped too, lobotomy is a kind of escape.”

Yeah.  Kind of not at all.  The entire message was about fighting to be free, right?  And Babydoll was the one that fought for most of the movie.  She doesn’t escape.  She sacrifices herself to get Sweet Pea loose.  This is especially confusing when Sweet Pea never wanted to escape in the first place and she gets to walk out.  She wasn’t even under the threat of a lobotomy.  Babydoll was the one threatened, the one that needed to get out.  Sweet Pea just kinda wanted to.  At this point in the movie, Babydoll, the one we’ve been rooting for the whole time, spouts some enigmatic nonsense about this story actually being about Sweet Pea.

Uh huh.  It’s about Sweet Pea.  So why was the camera on Babydoll 90% of the time?  And why is the main character according to Babydoll the least sympathetic character in our Amazon Squad?

So then Babydoll goes and kicks some guy in the nuts, and waits for them to take her away, and Sweet Pea escapes.  Great.  So the person who wanted to escape didn’t want to, and the architect of the most brilliant escape in the history of high-security asylums lets a pick be driven into her eye and her brains mashed to goo.

I call shenanigans.  If Babydoll was good enough to get this far, she was good enough to go the last 10 feet.  It’s hard to feel that the villains got their just comeuppance, which is implied, I guess.  The entire ending falls flat because in a story where the message is, “Imagine, and you can do anything”, through the entire denouement, the protagonist is a passive shell while the pieces click into place around her.  The bad orderly will be punished.  Maybe her stepfather too.  (More on that later.)

But how did she fight for that?  By having a nail driven into her brain?

Back to Sweet Pea.  I didn’t see her use her long sword the whole time, so what was the point of her having it?  Couldn’t she have gotten her assault rifle disarmed at least once and had to go medieval on someone?  Okay, so that seems off-topic, but I’m making a point with it.  Sweet Pea just doesn’t seem thought out as well as Babydoll.

If she’s the main character, then is she the exemplar of this story’s theme?  No.  She’s dragged along by her friends, and therefore her character is inconsistent with the “Only you can make your life better” thing.  She had four guardian angels to raise her up, otherwise she never would have made it out, and all of them died.

In addition to that, she gets 10% the screen time that Babydoll did, and she’s the least sympathetic protagonist.  She’s the group naysayer, the voice of reality where realism has gotten absolutely nothing done but being unfairly trapped inside the asylum.

And Sweet Pea isn’t the Hero in the Hero’s Journey.  She’s more of a Threshold Guardian.

I’m not saying that Babydoll is a better character, but she’s the center of the action sequences, she’s definitely got the Hero energy, and since the action sequences focus so fully on her, the downtime might have been better-used focusing on why we care about Sweet Pea at all.  And I’m not saying that the Hero must be the protagonist.  Brock Samson definitely isn’t the main character of the Venture Bros.  But where the Venture Bros. focuses on other character during non-action scenes, the downtime in Sucker Punch focused entirely on Babydoll!

What’s more, I genuinely like Babydoll.  She was the only character that truly struck a chord with me, and it’s disappointing (intended on the authors’ parts) to see such a determined and capable character give herself up.  But the big problem here is, it felt like she fizzled out when she “realized” “the only way” that one of them could escape.  It felt like she’d suddenly had the idiot ball thrust into her hands.  As I said, this is the girl who engineered an escape from a 1950s insane asylum, read: A freaking genius.  Her bright idea is to go and kick some guy in the nuts to create a distraction?  I’d have preferred my heroine to go down fighting harder, in a more Norse-grim way.

And let’s examine more closely pretty much every story where someone says “It’s the only way”.  The audience hates that.  They hate resourceful, intelligent, capable characters suddenly becoming buffoons for the sake of plot.  It had my hackles up from the moment she said “This is the only way” and the rest of the movie, I was just waiting for Babydoll’s crushing masterstroke, the writers’ genius aversion of this tired trope, which… never came.

She lost.  Our heroine and champion of the message, “Believe, and you can do anything” loses.

Okay, more philosophical-minded people than me would say she won, because the pain was gone after the lobotomy, and the orderly and her stepfather were brought to justice… but… that’s not explicitly shown.  The orderly might have gotten into trouble, definitely fired, likely jailed, but what about her stepfather?  That depends on the orderly snitching.  What if he doesn’t snitch?  The only person uniquely qualified as the bringer of justice is now a drooling vegetable.

So we have two options.  We can’t do anything, even if we really believe… or… we’ve got a Broken Aesop on our hands.

Where a blonde girl with pigtails, wearing a seifuku, wielding a katana and a handgun with cell-phone ornaments dangling from the butt fighting steampunk zombies couldn’t break my willing suspension of disbelief, plot-message dissonance did.

I’d suggest one of two more thematically whole endings.  Take them or leave them:

Babydoll and Sweet Pea are escaping the asylum, and Babydoll realizes that there’s no way that they can get out, but Sweet Pea, since she’s not really insane (she came to the asylum just to be with her sister), says “It’s fine, I’ll go.  Let me distract them.”  After seeing three of her new friends die, Babydoll has to make the choice to allow another person to die for her cause.

Babydoll and Sweet Pea argue briefly, but Sweet Pea reminds Babydoll that the one who’s gonna get their brains mashed up is wearing blonde pigtails, and so Babydoll reluctantly backs down.  Then Sweet Pea tells Babydoll to find her parents, who might take Babydoll in.  This gives Babydoll the opportunity to possibly spring Sweet Pea in the denouement.  Sweet Pea distracts the guards, and Babydoll, tears in her eyes at having to rely on another person’s sacrifice yet again, sneaks out the gate.  Babydoll says in voiceover, “I promise I’ll come back for you.” or something approximately as cliched as it or “It’s the only way”.  Nothing wrong with tropes, after all.

We commence a denouement where our protagonist is mentally intact to appreciate the end of the Hero’s Journey, there’s no sudden foisting of primary POV onto a minor character, and the bus scene happens between Babydoll and the Wise Old Man, rather than Sweet Pea and the Wise Old Man.

In Ending 1, the happy ending, the Orderly’s forged signature comes to surface when Babydoll finds Sweet Pea’s parents, comes back with the police, and he and Babydoll’s stepfather spend a long time in jail.  Sweet Pea is freed with a clean bill of mental health after her parents have a long talk with the asylum psychologists.  Babydoll and Sweet Pea live happily ever after, leaving the “You can do it!” message intact while keeping the price of the happy ending excruciatingly high.

In Ending 2, the unhappy ending, the Orderly is furious and, unchecked, butchers Sweet Pea while she’s confined to the asylum waiting for help.  The Orderly goes to prison for murder, but Babydoll’s stepfather walks (because not all evil acts get punished).  Sweet Pea’s parents are unwilling to take on a ward, so Babydoll is left on her own in the “Real World”, but thanks to the Heroic Journey, she’s now equipped for the challenge.

Please keep in perspective, as I said at the outset of writing this entry, that this movie is almost 100% grade-A awesome.  If I’m sitting here writing a 1600 word entry about the last 5-10 minutes of your movie and how it could have been better “if only”, you’ve kind of won as a writer.  Kudos, Zach Snyder and Steve Shibuya for an excellent screenplay and thanks to the entire production crew for excellent execution of that idea.

You can get a copy of the DVD here.

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