The Ending of ‘Sucker Punch’ and Its Laughable “Liberation”

     July 31, 2020

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Sucker Punch is currently on Netflix, which means people are watching it again or giving it a chance since skipping it in theaters back in 2011 (the film limped to $89 million worldwide off a $82 million budget). This provided an opportunity for my editor Adam Chitwood to say, “Hey, Matt! You should write about the ending since this movie is confusing!” And it is confusing, but only because it’s an absolute mess that undermines its central message about female objectification. But let’s try to unpack what this film is trying to do.

The film takes place across three layers. There’s the “Asylum” layer, which is supposed to be the “real world” of sorts (although the film’s opening shot is of a stage, which is important since the whole film is about how women are depicted, controlled, and their ability to create their own liberation). In five days, the protagonist “Babydoll” (Emily Browning) will be lobotomized at the behest of her stepfather after accidentally killing her sister while trying to protect her from attempted rape (Sucker Punch is a movie with a lot of attempted rape).

sucker-punch-emily-browning-posterRight before the doctor (Jon Hamm) lobotomizes her, we’re transported into the “Club” layer. All the characters from the Asylum layer are here, but now they have new roles. Babydoll and her fellow inmates are now dancers working for Blue (Oscar Isaac), an orderly in the Asylum layer. Rather than fearing the doctor, Babydoll is now five days away from being taken by the “High Roller”, presumably to be raped for the rest of her life, so she needs to escape. In order to escape, she needs five items—a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a mysterious something else. To obtain these items, she diverts the attention of the men by dancing. When she dances, she and her fellow dancers go into the “Fantasy” layer, big action set pieces where they receive instructions from “Wise Man” (Scott Glenn) on how to obtain the special items.

So to ride back up the layers, the dances create opportunities to get the items. The items are needed to create an escape from the club, which is actually the asylum, so the theoretical stakes are for Babydoll and her fellow inmates to escape the asylum even though we’ve barely seen them in the actual asylum layer and Babydoll is mere moments from getting lobotomized.

Because the prologue is such a mess, it can be a bit confusing when the club layer ends, Babydoll gets lobotomized, and we’re left wondering what was even real. Keep in mind that because most of the movie takes place in either the Club or the Fantasy layers, we have no connection with the reality, even though the film’s opening voiceover insists, “We hold the power over the worlds we create.” But that doesn’t make a lot of sense since the authorship of these worlds is frequently in doubt. Is it all in Babydoll’s mind? Is it coming from our narrator, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish)?

The “sucker punch” of the title is that the author is also the audience—the film is intended as a critique of female objectification. The idea is that women are turned into sex objects forced to perform for male gratification, and this extends from a literal performance in the club to a metaphorical performance of modern movie mores. When we see women in skimpy outfits killing a bunch of orcs or steam-powered zombies, the male viewer remains complicit in that objectification and gratification. These women aren’t allowed to be people because we’re invested in how they “kick ass” but only within the framework the male gaze allows. Those girls you’ve been ogling and rooting for this whole movie? Guess what? You’re their male captor. You’ve been sucker punched!

It’s not a bad idea, and in the hands of more competent storyteller, it would be a rather scathing satire. The central problem with Sucker Punch is that it wants to have it both ways. It wants to have an exhilarating set piece (it should be noted that despite the expense of these action scenes, they’re an utter slog because we’re not invested in the characters and what’s happening isn’t “real”, so it has no stakes beyond obtaining a doodad), but then hold the audience accountable for enjoying this lavish entertainment. It’s the cinematic equivalent of having Marlboro tell you to smoke a carton of cigarettes and think about your actions.

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Image via Warner Bros.

Back in the Asylum layer, matters become even more confused as Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) explains to the doctor that actions from the club layer did have a parallel in the Asylum layer. There was a fire, an inmate (Sweet Pea) escaped, Babydoll stabbed Blue, the items were obtained, etc. However, other aspects are left a mystery like in the club layer Blue kills Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Rocket (Jena Malone) is stabbed to death by the chef. Did those three really die, or did they even exist? Because there’s so little time in the real world, we never have any emotional investment in their imagined selves.

This scrambled, self-defeating attitude becomes even more apparent in the ending where Sweet Pea has escape, but just before she’s about to board the bus, she’s stopped by some state troopers. But then the benevolent Wise Man, who to this point has only been seen in the Fantasy layer, turns up as the bus driver and says Sweet Pea has been on the bus the whole time, so she can’t possibly be that escaped inmate. If Sucker Punch were a smart satire, Wise Man would be a good parody of how we instantly trust any old white guy who spouts Snapple Cap wisdom. But then the movie turns around and says, “No, he’s real and he’s here to help women.”

The tragedy of Sucker Punch springs from good intentions. It wants to be empowering towards women and how they tell their own stories to create liberation, and it wants to chastise men who only see women and violence as a form of self-gratification. But by trying to tie these two perspectives together, Sucker Punch both condemns and condones what it depicts, and adds up to a whole lot of nothing.

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