I’m not sure why the number surprised me, but I was kind of shocked to find out that during the heyday of the procedure, 40,000 Americans underwent lobotomies. 40,000 people had parts of their brains cut away because they were diagnosably mentally ill, or because they had crushing headaches, or because they made their stepmother uncomfortable, or because they didn’t fit in with an overachieving family. The main proponent of the transorbital lobotomy did double lobotomies two-handed just to show off that he could. I say all of this before actually discussing Sucker Punch, because however baroque and terrible you think Zack Snyder’s first movie based on original material is, the thing that catalyzes the sailor suits and the clockwork zombies and dragons, the moment when a girl becomes a prisoner of the psychiatric system that will eventually rob her of her brain? That kind of thing was true. It happened.
Sucker Punch is a bad movie, but it’s not as bad as most people think it is, and it will probably never get credit for its virtues, which include the following. There are spoilers if you care:
1) Snyder started working on Sucker Punch seven months before Warner Brothers declared that they just weren’t doing movies with female leads. As Nikki Finke put it at the time, “I’m told [Jeff Robinov] doesn’t even want to see a script with a woman in the primary position (which now is apparently missionary at WB).” He set the project aside for a while to make Watchmen, but the success of that movie got him the go-ahead to make Sucker Punch, and to subvert the No Girls Allowed rule. There are a lot of potential counters to this argument: it’s ensemble picture, it’s a male fantasy so it doesn’t count, etc. I don’t buy it. Snyder’s ideas about women may be weird, and messed up, and objectifying (and I don’t think they always are, but that’s another discussion), but at the end of the day, he wants them in his lens. When he got the chance to tell an original story, he chose to tell one about women.
2) The only major credible female action star in Hollywood today is Angelina Jolie. When Katherine Heigl holds a gun, it’s supposed to be cute and dippy and a little risky. When Sandra Bullock carries a pistol, it’s supposed to be in her lingerie. Gabrielle Anwar is reasonably effectively triggerwoman, but she remains on the small screen at present, and it remains to be seen if she’ll make the jump beyond Burn Notice. No matter how much of a mess Sucker Punch is, at minimum Abbie Cornish, the marvelous Jenna Malone, and Emily Browning are now women whom directors and producers can imagine plausibly bearing arms (I thought the two other women were less convincing). Credentialing is important. Sndyer has given three women their spurs. It’s up to them, and to the rest of Hollywood, what horses they decide to use them on.
3) This is a movie with six major female characters and nobody has to decide between a job and a man. There are multiple attempted sexual assaults in the movie, and avoiding those assaults is of course critically important to the characters and a driver of the plot. But these women don’t want to break out of a creepy Vermont mental institution to like, meet guys. Their role as a superhero is not complicated by whether they’re going to bang the blue irradiated dude or the nerd with a flying owl car. The only moment of sexual heat comes near the beginning when Abbie Cornish locks eyes with Emily Browning across a bleak, emptied out theater, a glance that goes on a bit too long, that becomes the basis for the world Browning’s character builds in her mind. They want to be free, with all the white-hot blankness that implies, where the purity and power of your choice is stimulating and terrifying. This is a different kind of story about women, and even if it’s stumbling and stupid and sometimes ugly, it’s a relief.
4) This is a distinctly female story. And I’m surprised no one’s discussing the ending, and the complicated themes of self-sacrifice at its core. Going into the movie, I expected a bunch of sexy asskicking. I didn’t really expect Snyder to pull a Joss Whedon. In the course of this movie, three of the main characters die, and their deaths are genuinely shocking. Malone throws herself in front of a knife to save Cornish, playing her sister. Vanessa Hudgens’ and Jamie Chung’s characters are murdered. And, that moment between Abbie Cornish and Emily Browning? At the end of the movie, Babydoll sacrifices herself to save Sweet Pea, gives herself up to Jon Hamm’s lobotomist as a distraction so another woman can run away. They all choose collaboration. The price of getting just one woman to freedom is so high. And while that’s less dramatically true in the world at large, I think it’s still true.
That’s not uncomplicated. It’s not a straightforward feminist message, or a feminist message at all. But something about Babydoll’s decision reminds me a little bit of another New England crazy woman, Anne Sexton, who is less read than Sylvia Plath, who raged towards the dying of the light at enormous cost to those around her. “Suicides have a special language,” she wrote in “Wanting to Die,” “Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.” At the end of Sucker Punch, Babydoll understands herself to be the tool. She chooses to be it.
And of course we’re uncomfortable with the idea that she chooses surrender, mental death. We should be! We should be outraged that the Kennedys destroyed their daughter’s brain, and when Jack ran for president, the family lied and said she was a schoolteacher living in Wisconsin and she wanted to stay out of public life, and they got away with it. We should be deeply freaked out by the fact that smart women felt, that they sometimes still feel, that there is no option other than oblivion. Sure, it would be nice to live in a world where we have a plethora of female action stars, where we have figured out the superheroine costume conundrum, where women are safe from rape and coercion. But that freedom is as much a fantasy as dragons, as magic swords. I think Zack Snyder doesn’t understand a lot of things, but he understands that.