Nearly 5 years ago, my podcasts co-hosts, our friend Katrina, and I discussed a specific theory of the meaning of Sucker Punch in our Snyder Series episode on the movie. With the recent resurgence of discussion about the movie, I’m committing that theory to the written word so maybe it will find it’s way to more minds. (I’m also supposed to do a watch-along commentary of the entire movie with Dave the Film Junkee.)
I’ve often discussed how many people miss a lot of what Zack Snyder is showing in his movies because they are thinking literally instead of symbolically. To make this point another way, they aren’t engaging with the ideas in the movies because they are taking everything as actual reality rather than a representation of reality. I’m not saying these people are so dumb that they don’t know that they’re watching a movie. I’m saying that part of their suspension of disbelief is to pretend that everything happening on screen is actually happening. In contrast, Snyder’s movies require you to accept that you’re watching a heightened version of reality, and Sucker Punch is the most extreme version of his approach to storytelling.
Sucker Punch is the story of a sexual abuse survivor fighting through her psychological trauma. This one sentence summary may be controversial because this fight is shown through a multi-layered fantasy world, making it difficult to distill in such simple terms. The complexity is part of the point of the movie though as, while I’ve already identified the story, the movie’s theme also serves as a critique of the culture that leads to and perpetuates the abuse. Sucker Punch is both a call for empowered femininity and a critique of unhealthy masculinity.
To see how Snyder communicates all of these ideas, one fundamental fact about the movie’s mechanics must be accepted:
The entirety of Sucker Punch takes place inside the head of a sexual abuse survivor who is fighting through her trauma. None of the movie is real.
There are many details throughout the movie that support this reading (and many details that make more sense if you use this reading), but the most important are established in the opening twenty minutes or so. First, and most directly of all, the movie opens with curtains opening and a push in shot on a stage. Protagonist Baby Doll is sitting on a bed in the fetal position. This opening is Snyder telling us that he wants us to be aware that everything we’re seeing is just a show. Is that show for our benefit though? In reality, yes. Reading the movie on this meta-level is how we understand the critique of unhealthy masculinity. On the movie level, the show isn’t for us though. Who then is it for?
A voice over was inserted over the opening at the studio’s suggestion in order to make the movie more accessible for general audiences. Spoken by another character named Sweet Pea, the speech tells us as the camera pushes in:
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 power over the world we create.
Besides the fact that the narration is spoken by Sweet Pea, I’ve bolded the two major indications in the quote. The first is the reference to a guardian who takes the form of a little girl as the shot pushes into a stage that Baby Doll sits on. What is Baby Doll but a little girl (actress Emily Browning who plays the character is a slender 5’1) who acts as a guardian the entire movie? Her role being revealed as the angel/guardian is even the movie’s titular Sucker Punch at the film’s denouement. The second is the use of first person plural pronouns when referring to holding power “over the world we create.” A large part of the movie is Baby Doll demonstrating how we hold that power by winning the fights in the elaborate fantasy sequences she creates. So then Baby Doll is who holds power over the worlds she creates, right? But I just established that she is the guardian and thus not part of the we. Besides, Sweet Pea is the one speaking, making herself part of the we. But, what if, Baby Doll and Sweat Pea are the same person?
Baby Doll and Sweet Pea being one in the same is driven home by the rest of the opening. The iconic Snyder music-video-esque exposition is not realistic at all. It hints at moments of extreme violation and violence, almost as if someone is reliving them. In this exposition, Baby Doll is already acting like an action hero, fighting back against her abusive step father and acrobatically climbing on the outside of the house during a downpour. After her sister is accidentally killed, Baby Doll’s step father commits her to a mental institution. It is in Baby’s introduction to the institution that we receive our major final visual clue.
Orderly Blue takes Baby and her step father on a tour of the facilities and starts with the theater. In the middle of the theater sits the same stage the camera pushed in on to start the movie, and in the middle of that stage sits Sweet Pea on the same bed Baby doll was sitting on. Dr. Gorski, the institution psychologist is telling her, “Let the pain go. Let the hurt go. Let the guilt go. What you are imagining right now. That world you control. That place can be as real as any pain.” Again, I’ve bolded the important words in the quote. Dr. Gorski’s words combined with the imagery I’ve already described might as well be the shot in The Sixth Sense that holds on Bruce Willis while Haley Joel Osment says, “I see dead people.” The world we are seeing is all imagined by Sweet Pea to deal with her trauma. Except, the world is a direct continuation of the opening story in which Baby Doll suffered the trauma. The only explanation can be that Baby Doll is Sweet Pea and Sweet Pea is Baby Doll, and the only way they can be the same person is if the entire movie is in the head of someone who we don’t see.
This narrative construction is driven home when the movie descends down one more layer of fantasy right as Baby Doll is strapped down to be given a lobotomy. Right before the final blow, the scene cuts to the brothel fantasy and who and what do we see? Sweet Pea the stripper playing a lobotomy scene wearing a Baby Doll wig. She yells, “Stop. Get that thing away from me. Get it away from me.” and demands to be unstrapped. That demand sounds a lot like Sweet Pea is protecting herself, especially if the lobotomy is understood as a metaphor for the rape suffered by the abuse survivor whose head the movie is in.
Over the rest of the movie, three other young women are featured prominently and all curiously link to Sweet Pea and Baby Doll. Jena Malone’s Rocket is Sweet Pea’s sister who dies even though Sweet Pea tries to protect her the entire movie, an obvious parallel to Baby and her inability to prevent her sister’s death in the opening sequence. Vanessa Hudgen’s and Jamie Chung’s characters both have names that evoke blonde hair, Blondie and Amber, even though they are very dark haired Asians. Blondie and Amber also embody specific elements of femininity that Baby, Sweet Pea, and Rocket do not. Clearly, if we factor in the idea that Baby Doll and Sweet Pea are the same person, all of the young women in Sucker Punch have to be manifestations of the same woman who we never see.
Much more could be said about Sucker Punch, but those thoughts are for another day. For now, why don’t you take my theory and go watch the extended cut of the movie on HBONOW/HBOGO? I guarantee you’ll enjoy it more than you ever have.