This article is in two parts and was first published on ScienceFictionWorld.com on 25 March 2012. In the first part we look at the critical response to Sucker Punch. This part presents a critical analysis of the movie that hopes to justify why I think the critics got it wrong.
Starting at the beginning
Rather than giving a blow-by-blow breakdown of the narrative I’ll give some pointers to what I think is going on. Reference to a few scenes should suffice, starting, as is only proper, with the very first scene.
The significance of the opening scene cannot be overstated. From a distance the camera zooms slowly in on a theatre stage with curtains open while a voice-over tells us that “Everyone has an angel. A guardian who watches over us. We can’t know what form they’ll take. One day, old man. Next day, little girl. But don’t let appearances fool you. They can be as fierce as any dragon. Yet they’re not here to fight our battles but to whisper from our heart, reminding that it’s us, it’s everyone of us, who holds the power over the worlds we create. They can speak through any character we can imagine… daring us, challenging us to fight.” The camera passes through the theatre curtains revealing Babydoll sitting on a bed, and what follows are the events which will lead to her arrival at Lennox House, an institution for the criminally insane: the death of her mother, her sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father and her tragic killing of her sister while trying to protect her from the man.
The image of the theatre stage is not some shallow arty metaphor indicating that the story we’re about to witness is a piece of staged drama. The image of the stage and the girl sitting on a bed is carefully constructed as a referent, and we will come across it again very soon.
The opening is classic misdirection. At this stage (or better still, on this stage!) it appears that Babydoll is our protagonist and it is she who is being watched over (just as the camera looks down on her) by her guardian angel. Only later do we appreciate that the voice-over voice belongs to Sweet Pea: she is introducing us to her guardian angels, and we will encounter both the old man and the little girl that she refers to, the Wise Man and Babydoll. These are not external agents who will fight our battles for us. The battle is emphatically stated as a battle that takes place in our mind to control the worlds we create, and these angels are agents of our own mind. Or, in this case, of Sweet Pea’s mind.
A useful parallel can be found in Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind (adapted for the screen by Ron Howard) in which eminent mathematician John Nash learns to manage an affliction of the mind (paranoid schizophrenia and delusions) using the force of his will and the power of his mind. Sucker Punch presents Sweet Pea’s attempt to do precisely the same thing. (Another parallel could also be the relationship between the Narrator and Tyler Durden in David Fincher’s Fight Club, in which the Narrator unwittingly fabricates an alter-ego, Tyler Durden, a man who possesses all the qualities he lacks. Babydoll is, to some degree, Sweet Pea’s Tyler Durden.)
Babydoll’s story converges with Sweet Pea’s at the moment that Babydoll is admitted to the asylum and taken to a room called the Theatre. This is a place used to help the inmates deal with their issues through a variety of therapeutic techniques, including re-enactment of past events. And lo and behold, there on the Theatre stage sitting on a bed is a girl, Sweet Pea, who has just now re-enacted the events which got her admitted to the asylum. Everything that we have seen to this point – presented as Babydoll’s story – is in fact Sweet Pea’s story. In reality, it is Sweet Pea who is the victim of sexual abuse, and it is she who is tragically responsible for the death of her sister.
As a victim of sexual abuse, and shattered by guilt, she has quite understandably lost her mind. And the world she lives in, the world we observe on screen, is a world formed by a fractured, abused mind, and it is dark and it is sordid.
What we’ve seen so far is only the first stage of the therapy. Dr Gorski, Sweet Pea’s therapist, has encouraged the girl to acknowledge the truth of what happened to her and she has done so with partial success. The pain and guilt are too strong and she has distanced herself from the events by imagining Babydoll and projecting her story onto the girl. Sweet Pea has told her story up to the point at which she arrived at the asylum, but in the third person. The two narratives – Babydoll’s and Sweet Pea’s – appear to converge: it appears that Babydoll is a new arrival at the asylum, but there is only one narrative, and it is Sweet Pea’s, and Babydoll is only there as a character in the narrative that Sweet Pea is imagining during her therapy session.
This concludes the first stage of the therapy and there is a momentary pause in the session. Sweet Pea is up on the stage, looking out, at what? We believe that it is Babydoll she sees, but it is not: she sees herself in her mind’s eye as she was (a victim) AND as she needs to be (a fighter). This pause in the therapy represents the only objective moment in the narrative: it is the only moment that does not take place entirely in Sweet Pea’s mind: we see Sweet Pea as she is, a patient and inmate in a psychiatric hospital.
But now the therapy shifts up a gear and Dr Gorski encourages Sweet Pea to take control of the world of pain and guilt in which she finds herself: “It’s like we talked about. You control this world… Let the pain go. Let the hurt go. Let the guilt go. What you’re imaging right now … that world you control? [my emphasis] That place can be as real as any pain.”
And so the therapy session recommences and we are drawn back into Sweet Pea’s troubled mind as she strives to deal with the issues that beset her. From this point onwards everything that we witness takes place entirely in her mind. She is, as she says herself, “the star of the show”. She is the centre of this world and it’s no mistake that she is the one in a position of authority with the other girls, the one who calls the shots, and the one who decides when to pull the plug when things are getting hairy. This is her world, or rather, her worlds, because we are exposed to several.
If the worlds we create are products of our mind – what we believe, the way we think – it is inevitable that the worlds of Sweet Pea’s imagining betray her weaknesses: her fear and guilt and yes, her low self-esteem as the victim of sexual abuse. Is it a surprise then that she imagines a world in which the girls are highly sexualised: exotic dancers and prostitutes in what amounts to a brothel, subject to the depredations of vile men?
We’ll call this world of the brothel the secondary level reality.
In this reality, Sweet Pea’s sister, Rocket, is alive. Sweet Pea is extremely protective of her sister, and we now understand that it is guilt that motivates her, a need to protect Rocket at all costs. She failed before, but in this reality, Babydoll is her strength and it is Babydoll, when the need arises, who saves Rocket from the depredations of the Cook (a vile pig who attempts to rape the girl, just as a vile pig attempted to rape the girl in the real world).
And as an avatar which embodies Sweet Pea’s strength, it is Babydoll who motivates them all to “escape” the brothel, devising a plan that requires them to acquire a key, a map, fire and a knife.
At this point a third level reality, one that is utterly fantastical, is imagined, although this time by Sweet Pea’s avatar, Babydoll (is it any surprise that the avatar, herself a fantastical creation, imagines worlds of unmitigated fantasy?). The attempt of the girls to steal the items they need in the secondary level reality (the brothel) is represented as fantastical quests in this third level. It’s here that we meet another guardian angel, the Wise Man, a guide who imparts words of wisdom. He tells Babydoll that the girls will need to get five things to help them escape: the map, fire, key, knife, and one other. “The fifth is a mystery. It is the reason. It is the goal. It will be a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory.”
It should now perhaps be clear that Rocket is doomed to die in these other realities, but also why this must be. If Sweet Pea is to take control of her mind, she must confront her guilt over the death of her sister. Rocket must die and she does so in both the secondary (brothel) and third level (fantasy) worlds. In both death scenes, what is said is revealing. In the third level reality, Rocket, Sweet Pea and Babydoll board a speeding train and must fight through a legion of robot henchmen in order to disarm a bomb that threatens to destroy a rapidly approaching city. But they fail to disarm the bomb and must escape using their rocket packs. Rocket’s is damaged and she can’t get away in time. Sweet Pea tries to save her but her pack is unable to carry them both away from the train and its lethal cargo. Rocket activates her sister’s pack and tells her: “Don’t get mad about this” as Sweet Pea shoots away from the train to safety, leaving Rocket to die.
It sounds like a throw away line, but it is anything but: getting mad about her sister’s death is precisely what happened to Sweet Pea in the real world. But this time, in the imagined world, her sister offers absolution.
In the second level reality of the brothel, Rocket is stabbed and dies, and even though Sweet Pea is not directly responsible for the death, the brothel owner, Blue, tells her “Look at what you did!”
And she does. She takes a long hard look. This is the essence of catharsis. Confronting the truth, accepting responsibility and moving on.
In turn the other girls – all of whom are crutches of some sort for Sweet Pea – must die until only Babydoll and Sweet Pea remain. Sweet Pea is starting to assert some control over her mind and although we’re not out of the imagined worlds, we’re closer to the surface now. There’s been a subtle shift in the setting and the second level reality of the brothel is beginning to merge with Sweet Pea’s true reality, that of the psychiatric institution. Rather than trying to escape the brothel, the girls are now attempting to escape the asylum.
The fifth is a mystery
But Sweet Pea must stand on her own if she is to be “cured” and it is critical that she lets go of Babydoll. At the last moment, as it appears they can both escape, Babydoll is sacrificed: “This was never my story,” she tells Sweet Pea. “It’s yours”. And with that, Babydoll is captured and cruelly lobotomised: “Look at her face. She’s gone. Look at her face! She’s not here.”
We take this to be a tragedy but in fact, as horrible as it appears, it is not. Sweet Pea has let Babydoll go – she no longer needs her. The sacrifice of Babydoll was the fifth thing required to help Sweet Pea succeed in her quest: “The fifth is a mystery. It is the reason. It is the goal. It will be a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory.” And the goal is the possibility of Sweet Pea becoming a free and responsible agent able to determine and control the reality within which she lives through a sheer act of will.
And so we arrive at the final scene and Sweet Pea’s “escape” aboard a bus on what promises to be a long journey. This scene too is imagined. This is not reality as is clearly signalled by the presence of the Wise Man as the driver of her bus. Her journey is not over, but Sweet Pea has come a long way. She imagines herself differently now and is dressed demurely in her mind’s eye, no longer perceiving herself as the sexual play thing of vile men.
The critics did not get it
With that I return to two accusations made about Sucker Punch: that the girls are undeveloped characters with no inner life, and that the movie is sexist and misogynistic in its presentation and treatment of the female characters. Yes, there is only one fully rounded character in this narrative, and that is Sweet Pea, but the others are either aspects of her psyche – strength, loyalty, etc. – or, in the case of Rocket, an embodiment of Sweet Pea’s guilt. They are intentionally only fragments of one character’s psyche.
And to the charge that Sucker Punch is sexist and misogynistic: of course it’s not. Sweet Pea is a victim of sexual abuse and her self-perception is a product of that experience. For almost the entirety of the narrative, we inhabit her psyche, one that is shattered by guilt and defined by low self-esteem as a result of sexual abuse. The depiction of the girls as sexual fetishist objects is entirely consistent with her sense of self-worth until, finally, she can free herself from that self-loathing. Snyder is not condoning the fetishisation of the girls, he presents it for what it is: the twisted self-perception of a girl who has suffered sexual abuse at the hands of at least one man.
Sweet Pea’s journey is not at an end however – she has not really escaped, because there is no escape (in fact, at the end we can assume that she is still in the institution undergoing further therapy with Dr Gorski). On this level, Sucker Punch presents a therapy session, Sweet Pea’s journey from madness to sanity, but she is not yet “cured”.
But in a more general sense, Sucker Punch represents everyone’s struggle to take control of the reality in which we find ourselves, one that we have created through modes of thinking and being. And this too never ends. It’s a constant battle of will.
And with that, I hope you’ll be encouraged to take a look – or another look – at this underrated gem.