Zack Snyder is in many ways the heir to Michael Bay’s action movie throne. Like the director of The Rock and Bad Boys, Snyder has a hyper-distinctive style that values spectacle over anything remotely resembling reality. Like Bay, he has a strong predilection to using his actors as posable dolls in various superhuman (sometimes literally) poses, though Snyder shows off male bodies as often as female. And like Bay, his films tend to be enormous box office hits, but receive little critical praise. But unlike Bay, whose movies proudly refuse to have subtext, there tends to be an undercurrent of commentary in Snyder’s films, though it can hard to parse exactly what he is trying to say much of the time (aside from Superman being a Christ figure). Perhaps the least comprehensible of all of them is also his biggest disaster: Sucker Punch. The 2011 Zack Snyder fantasy action film is leaving Netflix at the end of May, so you had better get to it.
Sucker Punch is Zack Snyder’s only true bomb, making only $89 million off an $82 million budget. For comparison, his debut film, Dawn of the Dead, made over $100 million off a $25 million budget, and the theatrical release of Justice made $657 million. Even if critics don’t like them, his movies make money, except for Sucker Punch. It is also his worst-received movie, currently holding a miserable 22% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was released after Zack Snyder’s increasingly successful run of early 2000s movies, following the odd couple of Watchmen and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, and just before kicking off Warner Bros’ DCEU with Man of Steel. So what happened with Sucker Punch?
For one thing, Sucker Punch is the most Zack Snyder of all Zack Snyder films, for better or worse. The plot is almost elementally simple: a young woman named Babydoll (Emily Browning) is committed to a prison-like mental institution after her stepfather murders her mother for their inheritance; it is heavily implied that he has been sexually abusing both her and her younger sister. While defending herself from him, Babydoll accidentally causes the death of the sister. Her stepfather bribes a corrupt orderly (a pre-Star Wars Oscar Isaac) to have Babydoll lobotomized. The majority of this is presented in a washed-out gray tone, without any audible dialogue, set to a slow, morose cover of Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” sung by Browning herself. Clearly, Sucker Punch throws its gauntlet down early.
Once committed, Babydoll essentially has a mental break and enters a fantasy world in which the mental institution is a brothel run by Oscar Isaac (now presented as a Rudolph Valentino-style gangster in heavy eyeliner), her doctor (Carla Gugino) is a dance instructor, and the other patients are dancers/sex slaves. Further from there, Babydoll goes into another level of fantasy when she performs as a dancer, in which she is a stylized living anime-style warrior battling giant demon samurai and undead Nazis. She comes up with an escape plan for herself and the other patients/dancers, which requires acquiring a series of different items in different fantasy sequences.
Zack Snyder was criticized for the video game-like nature of the plot, as though that was not intentional. Sucker Punch was read by critics as either a collection of misogynistic fetishes and violence, a satire of the same, a feminist empowerment story, a critique of fanboy fantasies, or just a plain fanboy fantasy. Zack Snyder himself has stated he views it as commentary on sexism and geek culture, but whatever his intention, it clearly did not land the way he hoped it would. Perhaps the multiple levels of reality and irony being invoked in the film just could not make it through all the slick CGI action and the constant threat of sexual violence in the movie.
At one point, almost every young rising actress was attached to Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. Babydoll was originally intended to be played by Amanda Seyfried, Brie Larson auditioned, Emma Stone passed to make Easy A, and the list goes on. Sucker Punch did not destroy any careers (certainly not Zack Snyder’s) but it was almost immediately dismissed by audiences and critics. As you might expect, there reportedly exists a different cut of the film that is more to the director’s initial vision (a Snyder cut, if you will) but is unlikely to ever be released for rights reasons. However, stranger things have happened, particularly to Zack Snyder’s films. Until then, you only have a few days to try to make some sense of Sucker Punch on Netflix.