Hollywood studios aren’t in the “passion project” business. You have an original idea that’s extremely personal and means the world to you? They don’t care: In the land of big franchises and iconic intellectual property, executives want to sell audiences films that they already know before they see them. They don’t want original — they want the tried-and-true. You want to tell a story from the heart? Go buy a journal and write it in there.
With that in mind, on those rare occasions that a studio will take a chance on something, it’s usually because the top brass have such faith in the filmmaker and his vision that they’re willing to roll the dice. The director’s name alone is enough to bankroll the project, no matter how unconventional. Warner Bros. did that with Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk and Tenet, but they also did it for Zack Snyder.
For those who think it’s foolhardy to finance a four-hour Snyder Cut of Justice League, I’d argue that the studio took an even bigger risk 10 years ago with the 300 auteur. At the height of his power, Snyder was essentially given carte blanche to make whatever movie he desired. And what he came up with was Sucker Punch, one of the wildest studio films of recent times. Sucker Punch isn’t good at all, but I think about it more than a lot of good movies I’ve seen. And it’s not “so bad, it’s amazing,” either — Sucker Punch is an accomplished, ambitious, terrible movie. But it’s fascinating because it exists at all — because it’s the one movie Snyder just had to make. This was his passion project.
For those who don’t remember, Sucker Punch stars Emily Browning as Babydoll, who has been shipped off to a mental institution. But she’s not actually troubled — her cruel stepfather has sent her away in order to hide his own crime, the murder of Babydoll’s sister. Once locked up, Babydoll is due to be lobotomized, but not before she drifts into a fantasy world in which she’s part of a brothel that also’s populated by other young women, played by Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung. The caretakers of the institution — Carla Gugino’s cartoonishly-accented Russian doctor, and Oscar Isaac’s creepy orderly — also have roles in the brothel, which Babydoll and her friends escape into a second fantasy realm, which is like a video game that requires them to procure different items (like a map or a key) from increasingly-difficult levels in order to break free. The women fight Nazi zombies. They fight samurais. They fight dragons. And they always, always do it while wearing the skimpiest clothing imaginable.
The whole plot of Sucker Punch sounds like that horndog script idea Patrick Stewart had in Extras where he uses the power of his mind to make women’s clothes fall off — “I’ve seen everything” — and even at the time, the movie felt like a cringy stab at “female empowerment.” But such was Snyder’s influence that Warner Bros. didn’t much care. Sucker Punch opened on March 25, 2011, hot on the heels of the commercial colossus 300 and Watchmen, which divided fans of the graphic novel but again showed off his hyper-vivid imagery and penchant for intense melodrama. (Oh, and he also did Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, an animated movie that everyone only knows because of that 30 Rock joke.) Clearly, Warner Bros. which released all three films, felt that Snyder was a name-brand director who could get audiences to see anything, which explains why they green-lit a movie that was an original idea hatched by the director years earlier.
“All the studio has ever said to me is, ‘We are proud of Watchmen, we think it’s awesome and we stand behind it,’” he bragged to Entertainment Weekly at the time. “They’ve never said, ‘Ahh, it could have been shorter,’ or, ‘Too bad it’s so R-ish.’ And that’s really cool. I’m challenging them again with Sucker Punch.”
This sort of arrogance shouldn’t be surprising coming from someone whose movies always swagger around with a self-important strut, but his explanation for the inspiration behind Sucker Punch definitely made him sound like a man who saw himself as cinema’s savior. “A while ago I had written a script for myself and there was a sequence in it that made me think, ‘How can I make a film that can have action sequences in it that aren’t limited by the physical realities that normal people are limited by, but still have the story make sense so it’s not, and I don’t mean to be mean, like a bullshit thing like Ultraviolet or something like that?’” he mused. “”And also, I was really inspired by the worlds of movies like Moulin Rouge, which is modern but at the same time timeless.”
Several big-name (or soon-to-be big-name) actresses were said to be in the mix for Sucker Punch, including Emma Stone and Amanda Seyfried (who both decided not to be involved), but he felt fairly confident he’d get a killer cast. “They are all super excited because they get to play these juicy, mentally difficult roles,” Snyder said in that Entertainment Weekly piece, “plus they get to fight.”
What can be appealing about Snyder’s mondo-fabulist artificial worlds is that they’re so out there. But without the grounding of a good story — like he had in Watchmen — he drifts off into his own make-believe realms that have no emotional or dramatic weight. Sucker Punch is like a tableau of “bitchin’!” visual ideas. (Who wants more slo-mo?!??) The movie is what a 12-year-old straight boy would come up with if you gave him $100 million and the full backing of a major Hollywood studio. Sucker Punch is all goth-rock covers, tricked-out screensaver backdrops and ample cleavage. Snyder’s pumped-up, horndog aesthetic — gorgeous people all acting with such over-the-top gusto that you’re waiting for them to launch into an orgy at any moment — had never been so unfiltered or so unapologetic. The characters were one-dimensional, the performances were often campy and the plot was incomprehensible, but the brazen audacity of the thing was something to behold.
Does that mean it’s good? Not by a long shot, with most critics ripping the movie apart. But in his positive review, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir touched on why the film still holds this bizarre fascination. “Sucker Punch doesn’t all work by a long shot,” he wrote, “but it confirms my sense that Snyder belongs near the top of a very short list of directors who are trying to reinvent a personal, auteurist vision of cinema at the most commercial, mass-market, attention-disordered end of the spectrum.”
And that’s why Sucker Punch, despite being bad, is so memorable. It may not feel like a “personal” film to anyone other than Snyder — it has nothing to say about mental health, sexual abuse or female empowerment — but because Sucker Punch is like nothing that’s been made before or after, you appreciate that no single human being other than Snyder could have created it. And that makes it a rather original, idiosyncratic film — the kind that Hollywood has worked very hard to squash in its fervor to produce factory-line-efficient, personality-free blockbusters.
Sucker Punch was a commercial failure, not that such a thing would stop Snyder: Soon, he was put in charge of reviving Warner Bros.’ comic-book characters, directing Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League before he stepped aside and was replaced by Joss Whedon. Through and through, those movies are Zack Snyder movies — again, it’s him trying to bend the demands of mainstream filmmaking to his peculiar sensibility.
But while none of them are worse than Sucker Punch, I find myself preferring that odd little debacle. Ultimately, considering the corporate, play-it-safe film business we find ourselves in, I wish more directors got to make movies like Sucker Punch. At the same time, though, I also wish those directors would make movies a whole lot better than Sucker Punch. We’ll know soon enough whether Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a masterpiece, a disaster, a revelation or just one more forgettable superhero story. But I’m betting it won’t be as genuinely weird as what he did 10 years ago. Sucker Punch is a movie that Hollywood almost never allows to happen anymore. That’s what makes it so special.