If the idea of the Snyders as feminists seems odd or tenuous to you, I’m not here to mount a defense of their whole oeuvre. But in the past year or so, I’ve found myself occasionally thinking about how Snyder’s “Sucker Punch,”* which was a widely derided commercial disaster when it was released in 2011, might play in a post-“Mad Max: Fury Road” world.
Yes, Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” heroines, the patients at a mental hospital, are relatively thinly-sketched. Yes, in the fantasy world they enter to battle for their freedom, their outfits are not, shall we say, practical. But at the time “Sucker Punch” came out, it was the rare movie with a female lead to come out of Warner Brothers, Snyder’s longtime studio. Even rarer, it was an original action movie starring women. And whatever you think of Snyder, “Sucker Punch” has a great many of the elements that made director George Miller’s explicitly feminist action movie “Fury Road” so politically exciting to so many observers, despite the films’ considerable aesthetic differences.
In both movies, women are battling against patriarchal institutions that are not merely corrupt but also abusive. In “Sucker Punch,” Babydoll (Emily Browning) is committed to an asylum by her sexually abusive stepfather after her mother’s death, and learns that she is at risk of being lobotomized — an act that’s explicitly compared to rape in the movie — by a corrupt psychiatrist (Jon Hamm). And in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) betrays the tyrant Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) by helping the women he has taken as sex slaves to free themselves.
Both films have a model of action that’s collaborative rather than focusing on a lone hero.
Babydoll teams up with Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) to plan a daring escape attempt that weaves in and out of Babydoll’s own fantasies. In a notable inversion of action movie storytelling, Rocket, Blondie and Amber are all killed in the escape attempt, and Babydoll ultimately chooses to sacrifice herself as a diversion, submitting to the lobotomy so Sweet Pea can escape. The hero in “Sucker Punch” isn’t the person who proves him or herself to be strongest or most competent. It’s the teenage girl who makes an agonizing choice to free another person.
At the end of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Imperator Furiosa is not just alive, but also left to govern the Citadel of the man she served and then betrayed. But, like in “Sucker Punch,” she couldn’t have reached this point by herself, and without considerable help. As the movie progresses, first Max (Tom Hardy), then Immortan Joe’s fleeing wives, then Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of Immortan Joe’s teenage warriors, and finally the Vuvalini, a group of female warriors from the oasis where Furiosa grew up, the Green Place. Nux and some of the Vuvalini die in the fight for the Citadel.
And Max transfuses his own blood into Furiosa to save her after she is wounded, in a parallel with Babydoll’s sacrifice for Sweet Pea. At the end of the movie, Max, once the hero of this particular franchise, walks away from the Citadel, leaving Furiosa to build a new society on her own. “Sucker Punch” and “Fury Road” are both films about recognizing that you’re the subordinate player in another woman’s story.
To date, “Sucker Punch” is still the only movie Snyder directed that sprung from his own mind, rather than serving as an adaptation of another person’s work or an extension of another person’s franchise. On Friday, we’ll get to see what he does with one of the most iconic women in pop culture history. But “Sucker Punch” has always made me a little wistful to see what women might spring directly from Snyder’s own mind and onto the screen, if only he wanted to tell their stories.
*If nothing else, it’s worth watching “Sucker Punch” to get an early look at America’s Current Boyfriend, Oscar Isaac, in a role that is decidedly not cute and appealing.