Zack Snyder's critically panned, commercially disappointing mess of a film represents the nadir of female-centric action movies
I saw Sucker Punch under the best possible circumstances: With absolutely no expectations that it would be good. For a lover of the Strong Women Who Blow Things Up genre of entertainment, the appeal of Sucker Punch had nothing to do with whether it got favorable reviews (it didn't), or whether its plot made any kind of sense (it doesn't), or whether it had memorable and well-crafted dialogue (oh, Lord, no). It had to do with the goofy, thrilling payoffs promised by its trailers: Strong Women with dragons! Strong Women with robots! Strong Women destroying robots and dragons, with swords! Indeed, all of these things were present. But Sucker Punch still managed to disappoint. It has the dragons, the robots, the steampunk zombies; it has everything. Except for the Strong Women.
By my count, there are at least ﬁve attempted rapes in Sucker Punch. When its female characters aren't fending off rapists, they're being lobotomized, stabbed, imprisoned, sold, shot in the head, forced to strip, or blown up on trains in outer space. Sucker Punch has been pitched as a girl-power epic, but it feels like watching a little boy tear the heads off his sister's Barbies. After dressing them up in their sexiest outﬁts and making them ﬁght GI Joe, of course.
Zack Snyder's gooey mix of fetish gear, rape fantasies, and girls-with-guns action sequences represents the nadir of a long, slow, steady decline in action films starring women: from the genre's heyday in the 1980s with Alien and Terminator to the confusing mess that is Sucker Punch. But the mixed messages of Sucker Punch—girls are powerful! Resistance to male abuse is ultimately futile and you will die! Being reduced to a sexual object is terrible! You can take charge, using your sexuality!—are weirdly compelling, as a statement on our cultural cluelessness about what "female empowerment" means.
Strong female film characters came into their own as feminism did, toward the end of the 20th century. They started in exploitation ﬂicks—low-budget and sensationalist genre movies which were produced with no intention of meeting critical standards, let alone creating a lasting legacy. The Final Girls of horror, the ultraviolent survivors in rape revenge ﬂicks like Ms. 45, or Pam Grier, whose roles in Coffy and Foxy Brown made her the ﬁrst real female action star: Their artistic legitimacy was questioned, but they were what people needed to see.
Those movies were based on simple math: If watching violence was fun, and watching pretty girls was fun, then pretty violent girls would be fun squared. But the combination was resonant; in the late '70s and early '80s, people were simply ready to see women taking charge, and claiming the same right to plow through enemies that their ﬁctional male counterparts had always enjoyed.
The idea of the woman as action star permeated the culture; soon enough, big- budget movies joined in. James Cameron gave us Sarah Connor in The Terminator, and perhaps the best version of the iconic Ellen Ripley in Aliens. Both of these women are deﬁned around motherhood. But they're strong, smart, and very capable of dispatching killer robots or aliens when duty calls. These women, while carefully constructed to be "feminine" enough to appease a public that liked its gender roles predictable, were decisively not girly; their wardrobes were unisex, their style was military, and one could not imagine them shopping for anything but a more effective ﬂame-thrower. In a way, they were '80s career women—succeeding at a man's game, by men's rules. They just happened to be wearing robotic exoskeletons instead of suits with shoulder pads and built-in bow ties.