There are 2 main reasons why Sucker Punch sucked. These reasons have got nothing to do with all the half-naked girls, the cartoon violence, or the complexity of 3 nested worlds. No. Director Zach Snyder would be glad to have any of those problems. He’d love it if they were all we could fault the movie on, especially after the success of movies like Moulin Rouge, 300, and Inception.
Nope, the problems are much deeper than that. They’re in the bones of the story, the structure.
Sucker Punch is the story of Baby Doll, who within the first 3 minute prologue/music video watches her mother die, and her step-father kill her sister. Because she fails to kill him when she has the chance (gun in her hand) he puts her (rightly, I guess, who wouldn’t have killed him?) in a mental asylum, where she will be lobotomized in 5 days.
Soon after arriving the asylum shifts into a Burlesque brothel. Ok. The guy who was the corrupt warder becomes the mafia don, forcing the girls to dance for his ‘clients’. Exactly what that means in the real world is unclear- but there’s probably a good chance he’s pimping out the girls to his buddies, for money.
Baby Doll enters a third fantasy world of utter fantasy whenever she dances. Her dancing is ultra-sexy and leaves everyone in tears. Why does she have this special skill? No reason. She takes advantage of her dancign to hatch and execute a escape plan, with video-game like precision- gathering 4 items from a checklist in a boringly linear fashion, while battling through hordes of game-drones to get there.
So why does it suck?
Why the structure sucked- one
OK, let’s get more technical- the third quarter, or second half of the second act, was too long.
This is basically an insurmountable problem. While we were watching it we got bored. Every time Baby Doll steps up to dance, we know we’re going into another empty, meaningless battle sequence, within which no major milestones will be hit upon, no major bad guys will be faced, and no major good guys will be deposed. It is a wasteland of interest. Hot girls and fancy CG are no longer enough to hold our attention. We are bored.
The only answer to this problem is to cut about half of the fantasy scenes out. They could be replaced with a few much faster scenes in the asylum world or brothel world. They could even all be combined into one long montage of occasions the girls fought, got various items, and escaped alive.
We cannot really put too much influence of the real bad guys in the middle, either, in the hopes of spicing things up. Putting bad guys into the middle would initiate the turn into the fourth quarter too soon. So our only option is to cut.
OK, we cut. The movie is now an hour long. We need to add some stuff in.
The obvious place to put it is in the first two quarters.
QUARTER 1 – We should spend 10-15 minutes in the home of the step-father, see Baby Doll’s miserable life more, learn what losing her sister really meant. Instead Zach gave us a gripping 3 minute music video prologue of the ORDINARY WORLD. Ok, fine, but by doing that he added 12 minutes onto his third quarter. Oops.
QUARTER 2- We should spend 20 minutes or so in the asylum just figuring things out, before any fight and step up to the plate to the quest. Baby Doll needs to learn the boundaries of the new world better. Instead we get it all in a 5-10 minute montage. Another 10 minutes not used, added onto the third quarter. Oops again.
All this added up to a very fast-paced start, but with nowhere in terms of story milestones left to go until the end. We have almost an hour of nothing much happening to get through before the end. And that was boring, repetitive, un-alleviated by dragons, steampunk zombies, or flashy robots.
If Snyder had fleshed out his first two parts, we would also have come to care more for Baby Doll and her fellow inmates. What happened to them next would matter more.
Why the structure sucked- two
The ending was silly.
What Baby Doll achieves by self-sacrifice is too Deus ex Machina to have any real resonance. She willingly goes under the lobotomist’s hammer, and in that last moment her knowing look makes Dan Draper doubt himself, which sets in motion the arrest of the asylum jerk who ran the brothel.
OK, saved from outside.
The other aspect of her self-sacrifice, to save Sweet Pea, was utterly meh, because Sweet Pea was about the dullest character in the story, AND the only one who didn’t want to even escape anyway. So, stupid.
But not only that. All that is not even the main problem. The main problem is that the ENDING DID NOT RESOLVE THE QUESTION THE BEGINNING PROMISED US.
The beginning hooked us with her evil step-father. We hated him most, and got into the movie for revenge.
But there was no revenge. Baby Doll never escaped. The Step-father got off scott-free. Utterly unsatisfying.
Every other issue in incidental to these two issues of story structure. With a solid story underneath him (I guess not written by him, as this was) Zach Snyder’s crazy directorial style and sure grasp of CG would work wonders. I really liked both 300 and Watchmen, for those reasons. Here, it just ran away with him.
And finally- Sucker Punch? What the hell does that even mean, with regard to this movie?
Japanese title Angel Wars is just as silly, but at least vaguely appropriate. Was there even one Sucker Punch in the whole movie? Perhaps when she kicks the guard in the balls at the end?
Full story structure dissected below:
|IDEA||Fantasy battles, insane asylums, and hot girls in a brothel|
|CONCEPT||What if a hot girl in an insane asylum/brothel enters a fantasy world through dancing.|
|PREMISE||What if a hot girl in an insane asylum/brothel enters a fantasy world through dancing and uses that skill to attempt an escape.|
|MILIEU||Insane asylum / brothel / fantasy world.|
|HERO EXTERNAL||Silent, somewhat gutsy, baby doll girl|
|HERO BACKSTORY||Her sister died because she couldn’t save her, at her step-father’s hands|
|HERO ARC / TURN||She decides to sacrifice herself to save some random girl- after failing to save her own sister, and that girl’s sister too|
|SPECIAL SKILL / ITEM||Dances real sexy- into fantasy battles|
|INNER DEMON||Death of sister, feels responsible|
|OUTER VILLAIN||Step-father, asylum warder, lobotomist|
|THEME||Lot of voiceovers dictating the theme-
Everyone has an angel
Got to step up and fight with the weapons you’ve got
In fact, theme is- willing self-sacrifice leads to vanquishment of foes
|1- SETUP / ORPHAN||Baby Doll loses mother and sister, fails to kill step-father, put into asylum|
|1a- HOOK||Cool music video, root for her, dramatic camera work|
|1b- THREAT||Powerful, step-father kills sister, mother, hints of abuse|
|1c- HERO’S WORLD UPENDED||Thrown into asylum., will be lobotomized.|
|2- RESPONSE / WANDERER||Doesn’t know what to do, asylum morphs into brothel, gets by until she is forced to dance, and meets mentor in a dream world, who tells her how she can fight back. She kills samurai and starts on her quest.|
|2a- THREAT||Samurai, threat of lobotomy in 5 days, asylum warder|
|2b- ACTIONS||Swabs the decks, mopes about, fights.|
|2c- MENTOR||Old dude- angel, full of fortune cookie wisdom.|
|2d- HERO’S 1st REVELATION||Decides to fight back with her sexiness.|
|3- ATTACK / WARRIOR||Go on several quests to get various necessary escape items. No push-back until the end, and three of the girls die, the lobotomist is there.|
|3a- THREAT||Asylum warder, lobotomist|
|3b- ACTIONS||Lots of killing meaningless drones.|
|3c- LULL||Three girls die, he gets up in her face.|
|3d- HERO’S 2nd REVELATION||Pulls out the knife she somehow stole from the cook and stabs him in the neck- kicks off escape.|
|4- RESOLUTION / MARTYR||Frees one girl remaining, they escape, baby doll must sacrifice herself so she can escape.|
|4a- HERO’S FINISHING MOVE||Sacrifices herself, so willingly that the lobotomist thinks its weird, and sets in motion events that see the asylum warder arrested.|
|4b- RESOLUTION||One girl escapes to return home, baby doll becomes duller than ever|