In just a couple days, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Warner Bros and DC Pretending They Are Marvel will grace cinemas with groundbreaking CGI scowl matches between grumpy Ben Affleck and pouty Henry Cavill. While a sizable portion of the geek community is beside itself with anticipation, I will be avoiding it like sanity avoids a Donald Trump rally. In fact, I am actively rooting for it to fail. Because I hate Zack Snyder.
Zack Snyder is the epitome of style-over-substance fanboy directing. The man can craft stylish visuals that go for a “cool” factor, but when it comes to other storytelling essentials, like dialogue or character development or having a coherent story in general, he’s a mess. I have zero faith in his ability to deliver a Batman/Superman movie that even halfway lives up to its promise. One might assume it was his handling of Man of Steel which would leave me this pessimistic of Batman v Superman’s prospects, and while the idea of Superman letting someone die to protect his own identity is absurd (regardless of how persuasive Kevin Costner can be) that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The shitty-ness of Zack Snyder’s filmography runs much deeper, and there is no better illustration than Sucker Punch.
For those who need a refresher, Sucker Punch was the 2011 film that showed the world what it would look like if Comic-Con threw up. Scantily clad girls kicking ass! Heavy weaponry! Zombie Nazis and steam-punk samurais! A fucking dragon! Basically, every cliché example of what is considered “awesome” all crammed into one fever dream of fanboy wish fulfillment. You couldn’t pander to a fan base more blatantly if you forced Legolas into The Hobbit.
Sucker Punch is about a girl named Baby Doll whose mother dies and is then placed in a mental institution by her stepfather to prevent her from telling anyone about his part in the accidental shooting of her sister. And then all of a sudden, she is in some kind of sleazy cabaret, as has happened to all of us at some point.
It is here that she creates the CGI-fueled fantasy world that is the reason most people went to see the film. Every time Baby Doll is asked to “dance” she transports herself to a fantasy realm. In these sequences, she and the other girls she befriends must find four items in order to escape, and a fifth one that remains unknown.
So basically, it’s the laziest of video game premises. This would be more forgivable if the sequences didn’t seem so interchangeable. The baddies vary slightly but the bleak, scorched background remains pretty constant. The settings may technically change (war trenches, castle, runaway train) but none of them feel fresh or all that different from the one before, mostly due to sensory overload. There is so much CGI, so much ass-kicking badassery going on, that it all blurs together. Everything is set to 11, and as a result, nothing stands out.
But that’s just aesthetics. There is also the question of why this would be the escapist fantasy of a young girl. It is entirely believable that she would escape to a fantasy where she is taking control of a situation, where she is not helpless and is in fact dealing out punishment on others. What does strike me as strange, however, is that her fantasies would align so closely to what the male gaze would want to see.
If you are going to have a character escape to a fantasy world that is in their own mind, that world should reflect in some way the character who is having them. Aside from it being something a 14-year-old boy would like to look at, why fantasize about fighting demon samurai and dragons while wearing a school girl outfit? What makes that a practical choice for fighting anything? It serves no purpose other than to make Baby Doll a sex object, which is an odd thing to fantasize about being since being a sex object is what she is trying to escape from at the cabaret in the first place.
Sucker Punch is the perfect example of how Snyder embodies some of the worst tendencies of geek culture. And it’s made all the worse by his insistence that he was actually criticizing the male gaze and the objectification of women. I don’t think Snyder is lying but it would almost be better if he was, because if Sucker Punch is meant to be a critique, then it botched the job right and proper. It’s commentary that plays it way too straight; like someone trying to get you to see how terrible murder is by murdering people, the message is drowned out by the fact that someone is being murdered either way.
Sucker Punch might have worked as commentary had it gone for a satirical tone, and perhaps twenty years ago the smashing together of every stereotypical nerd fantasy may have been over-the-top enough to qualify. But we now live in a world where genre-mashing is so commonplace you can now buy the original Star Wars trilogy translated into Shakespearean language. You need to exert just a little more effort into things that aren’t explosions if you want to pull something like that off.
There is a lot to be mined from the emotional contrast between characters such as Batman and Superman. They fight for the same cause, but do it through vastly different worldviews and motivations. There have been great stories told about these characters butting heads with one another, stories that explore the different psyches each represents, but those kind of stories require a nuance that Snyder has yet to showcase in any of his films to date.
I bet they’ll punch things real good, though.