Seven Things Writers Can Learn from Watching Suckerpunch (2011)

220px-Sucker_Punch_film_posterI’m going to be clear: I hate this movie. Loathe it. With the kind of intensity you get by capturing a couple of thousand suns in a nuclear reactor and focusing it into a very, very destructive kind of laser. When we first watched it, very early on in the #TrashyTuesdayMovie annals, it bored me to the point where I gave up actually commenting on the movie and just started live-tweeting 10 ways I would have my revenge on Zack Snyder for the creation of this film.

Having re-watched the film in preparation for this post, I find myself revisiting said list and wondering if I was overly generous:

1: Dropped in a vat of piranha, who eat him slow motion while Army of Me plays over the action. #Suckerpunched
2: Getting kicked in the nuts, repeatedly, by film-makers who actually have talent #Suckerpunched
3: Being left to starve after having both legs crushed by a tank #Suckerpunched
4: Fatal katana accident. #Suckerpunched
5: beaten to death by angry Watchman fans wearing brass knuckles #Suckerpunched
6: After being deafened by a thousand idiots screaming “This is Sparta” at high volume #Suckerpunched
7: Rampaging hippos. #Suckerpunched.
8: Accidentally stumbling over a plot in his next film and going into anaphylactic shock #Suckerpunched
‘Cause, honestly, does anyone really believe that Snyder isn’t seriously allergic to plot at this point #Suckerpunched
9: Helicopter crash #Suckerpunch
10: Getting sued for all the time people have wasted in his film, and having to give up all those hours at once #Suckerpunched

When my former flatmate and I put together our lists of the five worst films we’d watched as part of the #TrashyTuesdayMovie series, Suckerpunch was something of a benchmark. No matter how bad a movie may be, at least it wasn’t fucking Suckerpunch. No matter how nonsensicle the script, at least it wasn’t fucking Suckerpunch.

When I mentioned writing about this film in twitter, there was a palpable outpouring of hate. So it’s not just me: people really, really hate this film.

So, naturally, when I asked people which movies they’d be interested in revisiting as part of the Trashy Tuesday Writing School series, every single motherfucker put Suckerpunch on their list.

Bastards. All of ‘em.

And so, loaded up with scotch, a laptop, a back-alley copy of the movie, and a list of places where I can dump human bodies and no-one will ever find them, I sat down to re-watch the movie with an eye towards scraping the bottom of the fucking barrel and figuring out what writers can learn from the experience.

Hopefully, most of these will makes sense. If not, I’m blaming the scotch…

ONE: THE PEOPLE WHO HATE YOU MOST PASSIONATELY PROBABLY WANT TO LIKE YOUR WORK

Here’s my dirty little secret: I don’t want to hate Zack Snyder’s work. He’s a director with a really, really strong visual aesthetic and a love of absurd action sequences, which are two things that would ordinarily endear his work to me on a nigh unconditional level. He puts together lovely trailers which hint at fantastic, highly-stylized worlds. The trailer for Suckerpunch is like a goddamn piece of art in terms of its blatant nerd appeal:

I mean, Jesus, look at this thing. I want to love it. Girls with words. Dragons. German zombie soldiers. Robot samurai with machineguns. My little geeky heart opens up and shrieks I want, I want, I want.

Then I watch the movie and it rather feels like Zack Snyder has elected to kick me in the crotch for two or three hours rather than delivering on the promise of the trailer.

I find myself going back to the Seth Godin post I linked to a few weeks back:

The complaining customer doesn’t want a refund. He wants a connection, an apology and some understanding. He wants to know why you made him feel stupid or ripped off or disrespected, and why it’s not going to happen again.

I’ve long ago given up hope that Snyder will make a movie I actually like, but I keep letting myself get talked around. Enough people told me Man of Steel was worthwhile that I actually got curious; I now have to hunt all those people down and make them pay dearly for the experience of sitting through Snyder’s idea of a superhero epic.

And yet, I still hold out hope that one day one of his cinematic successors will learn to fuse his bat-shit brand of visual imagery with actual film-making chops and an understanding of character. ‘Cause I want a Snyder-esque film that doesn’t suck so fucking bad it hurts.

TWO: WHEN YOU’RE MESSING WITH METAPHORICAL WORLDS, MAKE SURE THE STAKES ARE CLEAR

Snyder refers to Suckerpunch as “Alice in Wonderland with Machineguns,” which is actually one of those descriptions that makes the film seem like much more fun than it actually is. The big difference between Suckerpunch and Alice is simple: in one of these stories, we’re led to believe that the main character has actually entered into a secondary world; in the other, it’s made clear from the outset that we’re experiencing secondary and tertiary fantasy worlds constructed over the top of real-world events.

This is an important distinction, the moment you employ a metaphorical interpretation of the world, the stakes of your story become vaguely weird. When Alice is accosted by annoying, grinning cats and drug-fucked caterpillars, there is an immediacy to those scenes because she’s physically there. The world she’s in may be weird and strange, but the danger is physical.

The worlds of Suckerpunch aren’t as clear-cut. In fact, their downright muddy. We’re in a world that we know is illusion – a place Baby Doll slips into as part of coping with the realities of being in a mental hospital – and the stakes of both the secondary world of the brothel and the tertiary worlds of the big, set-piece action scenes are hazy.

This is dangerous territory, in storytelling terms, ’cause it raises questions about what’s really at stake.

For instance, there’s often  a scene in stories that spend a lot of time in dream-worlds – whether they’re actually dreams or things like the virtual reality narratives that dominated eighties and nineties – where someone will point out very early in the story something along the lines of if you die in the dream/VR/game, you die in real life. It’s brute-force story-telling and annoying as hell, but it answers all sorts of questions like, well, if this is just a dream/VR world/game, how much danger are they really in?

A smart film won’t just mention this. They’ll showcase what happens early on, sacrificing one of the characters to make it clear that no matter how dreamlike things get, the danger is very real.

Suckerpunch never does this. It plunges through two layers of narrative reality without giving you any real understanding of how they relate to the “real” world that started the film, then launches into big, complex action scenes where the stakes are ill-defined and your ability to draw connections between the real and the metaphorical is instantly impaired.

Why does this matter? Let me take you to…

THREE: THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHARACTERS TAKING ACTION AND CHARACTERS IN MOTION

When you look at the reviews of Suckerpunch, the most common complaint, by far, basically boils down to this: the film is tedious as fuck. Like, seriously, mind-bendingly, how-can-I-gnaw-my-own-arm-off-to-escape-this-shit levels of dull. No matter how many guns, zombies, dragons, zeppelins, Mecha, and scantily clad women with guns and swords Snyder throws at the screen, it’s just dull, dull, dull, fucking dull.

There’s a reason for this. The characters in Suckerpunch are constantly in motion. They just aren’t doing anything meaningful.

What’s the difference? Imagine you’re sitting on a park bench and a guy in a business suit goes sprinting past you at top speed. It’s over and done in a flash, so you turn to the person next to you, and ask, “well, who is that guy and what’s he doing?”

If they say, “Well, that’s Jock; he sprints through here every day,” they’ve created a context around the action that makes Jock kinda interesting. Why does jock run past every day? you wonder. Is he training for something? More importantly, why does he run in a business suit? Something’s going on here…

On the other hand, if they say, “well, that’s Jock; he’s running away from something.” There’s a different context created. Suddenly you’re on the lookout for what’s coming after him, eager to see what happens next. What did Jock do to get himself chased? Will he get away?

On a third hand, if your neighbour says “well, that’s Jock, he gets chased by a pack of ninja velociraptors who emerge from the sewers every lunchtime,” the answer’s created a context that makes you interested in Jock and the things that are following him and the why and wherefore.

But if your neighbour looks up, sees Jock running past, then shrugs and says, “eh, I don’t know,” then you’ve got no context. You’ve just got a guy running, and a faint air of mystery, but no real clues to resolving it. So you wait for the next clue. It doesn’t come. So you shrug and get on with your life.

Action, in and of itself, isn’t all that interesting. The difference between a good action film and a mediocre one almost always comes down to the films ability to answer the question why should we give a shit about what this character is doing? As long as you keep feeding us answers that makes sense within the context of the narrative, we’re a happy audience.

Why is Jock running? ‘Cause he’s being chased. Why is he being chased? ‘Cause he pissed off the nazi velociraptor horde. How did he piss the horde off? ‘Cause he stole one of their priceless artefacts that they need to conquer the surface world. Why did he steal the artefact? ‘Cause Jock’s opposed to the idea of a totalitarian velociraptor regime, as any sane-thinking person would be.

And ’cause a velociraptor killed his brother, back when they were young.

As long as you keep fleshing out the context behind and around the action sequences, it stays interesting.

Lots of things happen in Suckerpunch. There’s sword fights and burlesque dances and dragons and giant bunny samurai mecha. And we’re not idiots: I get that it’s all meant to be an extended metaphor for Baby Doll’s emotional state and internal battle, the film does just enough to suggest that.

FOUR: SIZE MATTERS

While we’re dealing with the issues of stakes and context, lets take a quick look at the biggest failing of the tertiary world action sequences where Baby Doll and co go to war with zombies, robots, and other shit.

While these set-pieces are the most visually-spectacular parts of the film, they’re also the least interesting. Mostly this is because there is never a sense that any of the action sequences in the tertiary world will fail; the scale of the action we’re being shown is way out of scale with the stakes.

Suckerpunch routinely takes what should be a small-scale-but-critically-important activity such as stealing the map from the asylum offices and blows it up into a steampunk inspired World War 1 set piece. We can imagine the results of failure in the secondary world of the brothel or the primary world of the asylum, and they seem wildly out of proportion to the results of failing a suicide run against zombie Germans or getting torched by a dragon.

Thus, the things that are actually a threat (the escape plan being discovered) are lost in a sea of orcs/zombie Germans/super-futuristic robots. It’s making mountains out of molehills.

The movie ceases to be a story and becomes motion on the screen.

Like all motion, it gets our attention. It’s why the film looks so good in the trailer. But eventually the grandiose spectacle is defrayed back the nagging questions: what happens if the characters fail, three levels into the fantasy world as they are? How do the secondary and tertiary world correlate to the real world? Why does Baby Doll – who seems to be a character growing up in the sixties, according to wikipedia – has a rich fantasy world made up of high-tech Steampunk tropes? (Well, I know why outside the narrative context, but cause Zack Snyder fetishizes these kinds of world is unsatisfying within the narrative).

The spectacle starts to break down under its own weight.

If you took Suckerpunch and eliminated all the big, tertiary-world set-pieces, and actually had a scene where the five girls were teaming up to steal the key or map with the resources they had available, the movie would be infinitely more interesting because that activity is easily comprehensible within the context of the movie we’ve been given.

FIVE: GENRE MATTERS

While characters and settings and dialogue all go a long way towards giving us the context we need to interpret a narrative, one of the biggest tools we use is genre. We go into movies with expectations that are set up long before the movie starts, picked up from the hints included in the trailers and the way characters are positioned on the movie poster and even the font that’s used.

Then we spend the first fifteen to twenty minutes of a movie figuring out whether our assumptions are correct, so we understand what genre we’re watching. Characters will behave in a very different way when we’re watching a romantic comedy, for example, than they will in a film noir or an action movie or a first-contact SF story.

People with a really firm instinct for genre tropes will often surprise you in interesting ways. They’ll take an established genre and merge it with something else, understanding which tropes to keep and which tropes to ditch in order to create something like Alien or Bladerunner or Sean of the Dead.

Or they’ll find the new twist on an existing genre that still feels satisfying, occasionally creating a new subgenre in the process.

I honestly couldn’t tell you what genre Suckerpunch belongs in, and I the kind of guy who looks for this kind of shit with a fine-toothed comb. It flirts with being a psychological thriller, but doesn’t actually explore the psychology of the protagonist. Then it presents elements of a prison escape or heist film, but ignores the fact that the pleasure of those genres are seeing the character’s plans unfold and improvising when they fail.

Then it offers elements of band-of-brothers war or crime film – and, hell, I’d have loved this story if it actually pulled that off – but that’d require far more character development for the secondary characters that Zack Snyder has proven himself capable of.

New writers frequently have this idea that writing something unlike any other story is a great idea, largely due to the cultural mythology we have around creativity and the primacy of “originality” as the artists core duty.

The truth is, we’re pattern seeking creatures. We take comfort in recognising familiar story beats and tropes. We like knowing what to expect during a film or a story, because that’s what allows the story to surprise us.

Suckerpunch never really settles into a genre. It sends you out there expecting everything, all at once, and that shit is exhausting. So we stop looking for patterns and just…well, in my case, mainline half a bottle of scotch ’cause I’m committed to finishing the film, but I imagine most people will just wander off.

SIX: PLOT COUPONS SUCK

Snyder gets accused of being a director unduly affected by the rise of computer games. Maybe that’s unfair, but he certainly plots like a man whose unduly affected by computer games, ’cause the only thing that really holds Suckerpunch together, plot-wise, is the rather arbitrary go and collect these five things, then we will escape.

This shit is everywhere in computer games and gave rise to the term Plot Coupons. There’s a detailed link over at TV Tropes, but since sending you to the TV Tropes website is likely to devour even more hours from your life than watching Suckerpunch, the trope revolves sending players out into a game in order to collect items they can cash in to move the plot forward. Often the coupons aren’t really related to the plot; they’re just there keep things in motion and make sure there’s a short-term goals between starting the game and meeting the big-bad.

No-one likes Plot Coupons. They suck in computer games. They suck in stories. They sure as hell suck in Suckerpunch.

Just…don’t.

SEVEN: DON’T BAIT AND SWITCH YOUR AUDIENCE FIFTEEN MINUTES FROM THE END

The first time I watched Suckerpunch it bored the shit out of me for about an hour and a half. Then it pulled this shit in the final fifteen minutes or so that took me from bored to infuriated in the space of a single line of dialogue.

Basically, after two hours, the film goes you thing this film was about Baby Doll, the character you’ve been following since the start? SUCKER! The mysterious Fifth Plot coupon is Baby Doll’s sacrifice, so she can break Sweet Pea out of the asylum and insert her back into ordinary life.

After which, Sweet Pea becomes all protagonist-like and Baby Doll gets lobotomized and…Jesus, fuck, I feel like punching something just trying to describe this.

On one hand, I’m okay with Sweet Pea being the final girl of this movie ’cause she’s being played by Abbie Cornish, whose managed to make it through most of the movie pretending she actually gives a damn about the script they’ve given her to work with. When I’m done with this article, I’m probably going to go watch another Cornish film, Bright Star, just to wash the taste of Suckerpunch out of my mouth.

On the other hand, asking characters to invest in a main character for two hours, then sucker-punching them and saying well, actually, this other character’s been our protagonist all along is…well, let’s just say it’s the kind of shit I remember should I ever find myself in a position to kick Zack Snyder in the nuts.

Even if he is giving us fair warning with the title of the film.

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