Disreputable Vision: Frank Miller’s “The Spirit” and Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch”

Joe McCulloch

Two and a half years ago it could fairly be said as late as daybreak on Christmas morning that Frank Miller was among the best-known comic book artists in the English-speaking world.  This was due, in no small part, to a pair of strikingly popular movie adaptations of his work: 2005’s Sin City, which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez, and 2007’s 300, directed by Zack Snyder.  Both of these films arrived during a particularly fertile period for “comic book” movies—one arguably not quite yet exhausted—by which I mean relatively orthodox action films plugged into recognizable brands with ready-made potential for lucrative sequel and merchandizing opportunities. 

Some might argue that “superhero” movies would be a more accurate term; I’d agree, but it still wouldn’t be quite exact.  To my mind, the popularity of these pictures comes less from a heretofore veiled public desire for comic book subgenre particulars—writer-driven and reliant on continuous plot action, they are more comparable to serialized television drama—than the adaptability of that subgenre, or something sufficiently like it, to proven “summer” movie aesthetics.  In this way, Transformers is as much a comic book/superhero movie as Spider-Man, with both works following familiar summer tentpole formulae but making it all financially safer by trading off of publicly recognizable characters and proven brands, many with preexisting pools of characters and concepts from which to dip for sequel ideas. 

Miller had cut his teeth on serialized superhero comics in the late 70s and early 80s, and his subsequent works never strayed entirely far from two-fisted male heroes growling across hazardous terrains, though it eventually became the landscapes themselves and the makeup of the men that defined the artist’s style.  Sin City arrived on theater screens as a faintly tongue in cheek bonanza of noir-decorated passion plays for righteous masculinity, broadcast in madly artificial b&w artifice, its green-screened “digital backlot” utilized to burnish the mise-en-scène as if taken straight from Miller’s comic panels.  There had been “digital backlot” films before, even films struck from comics—director Enki Bilal had translated his own work in 2004’s Immortal—but never in the service of such specific lines-to-life transubstantiation.  It was not, to my mind, a successful experiment, so stilted and strained it seemed at mimicking the page, but it had stylistic potential - an aspect that became rhetorically smothered under fascination with fidelity, whereby interest in the film’s look became less about how it might develop to create a new and unusual signature, than how it was specifically adaptive of the comics that were Sin City; this created a parity with bigger, franchised superhero films, always eager to select just the right fan-friendly elements from the sprawled mass of source material so as not to create bad buzz for the ultimate product. 

Then came the aforementioned holiday season of two and a half years ago and its December 25th release of The Spirit, Miller’s cinema debut as a solo writer/director, which, to borrow from video game terminology, was attacked by critics as if it were the final boss of 2008.  I kind of liked it, myself, a lot more than Sin City, although I recognize there’s plenty wrong with it on the level of basic cohesion; every actor seems to be performing in some isolated zone—or perhaps too self-consciously against the blank features of a digital backlot—and Miller’s script amounts to a lackadaisical start-and-stop array of expository chat and oddball digressions, occasionally in the same scene, such as when arch-villain Samuel L. Jackson illustrates his diabolical master scheme by melting a cat.  “That’s just plain damn weird,” as he says elsewhere in the film, but it also points to what sets The Spirit apart from its likeminded peers: the gleeful, almost capricious artificiality of its style, a near-total absence of "realism" à la the detailed special effects and city settings of mainline superhero pictures, or even the heightened violent frenzy of Sin City.  This was a superhero film that evolved Miller's prior movie experiences into a flattened, artificial space entirely under his gaze, appropriately enough for a plot that only truly worked as a disquisition on Miller's attitudes toward superheroic stories. 

However, a frequent criticism upon the film’s release was that Miller was merely recycling the Sin City style, which begs the question of what “style” exactly means; it can’t be high-contrast b&w with solid spot colors, since The Spirit operates primarily through washed-out color and fits of varied monochrome, nor can it mean scads of gritty-toothed tough-talking blended with prolific stylized violence, in that the latter film leans heavily on antic humor and bemused character business and, occasionally, swastika-based slapstick.  What it was, then, was Miller, or at least an attempt by Miller to adapt his newly movie-honed storytelling signature to mark another work, i.e. the scattered newspaper supplement comics of Will Eisner and various aides, from where the film’s title character originated.  Such revisionism-by-personal-stamp was the heart of Miller’s success in superhero comics (see: 1986’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), as well as the eventual fuel for later charges of irrelevance, indulgence or outright insanity (see: 2001-02’s Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again), but in having his approach to The Spirit lashed to Sin City, and thus again to the idea of fidelity, and thereby pilloried, Miller’s novice cinema—hapless and awkward as it could be—was not widely recognized for its increasingly pronounced deviations from the commonplace, the steady-as-it-goes dim-hued gloss of too much of the superhero movie pack.

Today, Zack Snyder sits in a similar position.  His new Sucker Punch, the first original script he’s directed and co-written (with longtime friend Steve Shibuya), has attracted reviews nearly as bilious as Miller’s maiden voyage. I knew things had gotten bad when on the drive to work the other day, not half a week after the start of the film’s wide release, a local morning zoo DJ told the following “dyslexic” joke (where the last part goes first):

“Something that glows and something that blows.”

“A Japanese fish and Sucker Punch!”

He then admitted that he hadn’t actually seen the film, and two other people in the studio claimed they’d never even heard of it, which sounded about right to me.  But among writers-on-cinema, Sucker Punch is assuredly well known today, and no less a source recurring punchlines, which, like a speed ramped projectile, will gradually but inevitably slow as theatrical screenings diminish, before speeding up again to meet the home video release and several Worst of 2011 lists.  It’s definitely my favorite Zack Snyder movie, though I’ve not seen 2010’s fully computer-animated Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (or, as my local theater marquee called it, “OWLS 3D”). 

No, the most recently prior of Snyder’s features I’d seen was 2009’s Watchmen, an utter disaster of comic book/superhero movie expectations smashing up against a source material that drew much of its interest from frustrating expectations of comic book superheroes.  There were flashy, swooshing hand-to-hand combat scenes—superhero movies are expected to be action movies, after all—accompanied by a dogged, lumpy adherence to the book’s plot progression: the all-important fidelity.  Fascinatingly, this setup replicated one of the oldest saws in comic book misreading, that scriptwriting is of controlling importance so that illustration serves as sensuous production design at best.  That was precisely one of the canards that Watchmen opposed, with writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons working in tight concert so as to maintain a steady, understated pace, full of normalized heroes and frustrated action as a means of critiquing the compromises and political history of superhero comics, which it was constantly in dialogue with.  But these elements were rarely just a matter of scriptwriting, which left Snyder’s Watchmen with only the most obvious tidbits to bear, that superheroes are violent and weird in a “real” society, matters Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood (fresh off of a run illustrating The Spirit, incidentally) settled in Mad magazine circa 1953. 

Better that Snyder had sought out the prime influence, artist Steve Ditko, who today draws comics like the Dziga Vertov Group made films, with virtually every line on the page carrying a specific ideological connotation. Not that Snyder is necessarily Jean-Pierre Gorin, but he could probably put together a kick-ass movie for Ditko’s Randian he-man Mr. A—he’s like Rorschach, only sane—as the artist’s literally black and white heroic concepts translate splendidly to loud visual dazzle, while his combatants engage in tumbling blood matches as close to dance as anything else. That’s something I’ve noticed of Snyder’s action scenes too, starting with a recent re-watch of 300; the large, landscape-format panels of Miller’s original comics not only foregrounded the element of sheer visual impactthe element most agreeably translated to the screen via blunt-force filmmaking—but suggested wide cinema screens across which characters could navigate in dishing out the mayhem, jumping and swinging their arms at computer-generated elements essentially without interruption, bleeding animated cartoon blood modeled after Frank Miller ink slashes.

In this sense, foremost among several, Sucker Punch stands as a spiritual sequel to Snyder’s Sparta.  If, as is often said, Snyder’s approach to action is reminiscent of video gaming, 300 was a “2.5D” bonanza of slaughter, setting characters against CG backdrops—pragmatically, the digital backlot on that picture may not have afforded much depth—and following them as side-scrolling entities, our perspective cruising along and zooming in and out while tuning the activity from fast to slow to fast to slow to fastfastSLOOOWfastfast, substituting the potentially visceral interruptions of perspective inherent to montage with a throbbing navigation of space and time, temporal depth substituted for spatial, emphasizing the anticipation of forces in proximity: a blow imminently connecting with or narrowly failing to connect with its intended target, or said target flying backward from saturating impact as if beckoned agonizingly toward the event horizon of the frame. 

Sucker Punch takes the game into 3D (in terms of a playfield navigable in 360 degrees, not OWLS 3D) with one of its climactic action/fantasy scenes—a massive fight against a slew of robots on a train car—vacillating constantly via speed ramping as the camera not only zooms in and out but swoops tipsily around the whole of the enclosed space, capturing each of the picture’s all-female heroine combatants in a heroic leer as they strut and vamp in little outfits and strike innumerable action poses.  Yet while you now might navigate spaces with Snyder’s camera, you are never in the game; paired with a comparative lack of cutting, Snyder’s action tends to underscore how you, the viewer, are situated a ways off.  You’re kept remote, though your gaze is not often obscured; you are uncannily shown things—unlike how a classical martial arts or dance film might position the camera in fixed positions—though you’re denied the visceral approximations of cutting (or the tangible sensation of true movement, like with a theme park ride—another common Snyder comparison).  Always, then, you are aware of your eyes, of your observation, of your being shown.

Important to Snyder’s self-reference in Sucker Punch, then—and it is a self-referential film, because his cinema is that of vivification, and lacking for the first time any one particular source material to work over, it has redirected this impulse onto itself—is that the “show” aspect of his style is acknowledged at the very beginning, as red curtains emblazed with studio logos part to begin the movie presentation.  A solemn voiceover, assessing us as to likely upcoming appearances by guardians in unexpected forms and angels displaying ferocity, leads directly into semi-protagonist Emily Browning quivering on her bed in pigtails and pink jammies while non-diegetically crooning a cover of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" on the soundtrack.  Since this is a sinister song, its lyrics don’t even need to register as counterpoint when Browning accidentally shoots her little sister in the head while attempting to save the girl from their lecherous stepfather.  Several cruel nods exchanged between male authority figures later, and our trembling, traumatized heroine is hauled off to a mental hospital—still in pigtails, jammies and full makeup—to a cover of…"Where is My Mind?"  But while such obvious song cues are an unfortunate holdover from Watchmen, they nonetheless carry a useful secondary purpose: they are Browning’s voice, coming from outside the frame, inside the movie but outside the action’s progression.  She doesn’t otherwise talk in these scenes, which suggests Snyder’s intent good and early. 

Critically, as Browning is about to be lobotomized by Special Guest Jon Hamm, we snap from a close-up of her face—which is the setup by which we’ll always navigate the film’s various levels of reality—to a matching close-up of Abbie Cornish, co-star, made up to resemble Browning on the stage of a burlesque theater, where a sexy lobotomy sketch is being rehearsed; she demands to know who the hell finds the prospect of a cute girl undergoing drastic surgery to be sexy.  The answer, per the film’s self-reference, is obviously Zack Snyder, who has already seen fit to doll Emily Browning up to such a degree that when her wicked stepfather back at the hospital mentions that her age is “20” the viewer is left to wonder if he’s telling an obvious lie to the corrupt hospital personnel—who will arrange her mental devastation to cover for papa’s crimes—or if the actually-20 Browning has been stylistically infantilized to the point of drawing attention to that aspect of the style.  Like a song cue, Cornish just explains it, and, appropriately enough, Browning is eventually given the burlesque name of “Baby Doll”—she doesn’t even have a name back at the hospital, the film won’t allow her one.

As will eventually be revealed, Cornish is the “anchor” character in the Theater reality while Browning anchors the Hospital.  Or, in other words, Browning is the protagonist of the version of the movie’s story occurring in the Hospital, while a concurrent version of the story takes place in the Theater, where she is a supporting character to Cornish’s heroine.  Befitting a traveler through a foreign, imagined reality, Browning—introduced to the Theater personnel as a poor little orphan, doomed to be sold into prostitution by the house’s corrupt male boss, who is also the Hospital’s corrupt domineering orderly—discovers a thematically apt superpower: when she dances, she literally paralyzes the gaze of any (presumably heterosexual) man watching that body move. 

We, the audience, cannot observe Browning’s fancy dances.  Fortunately, Snyder’s action scenes are already not unlike dances, and so we stare, stare into Browning’s face—her performance throughout the film generally leaves her teetering on and not irregularly plunging over the brink of tears, but in her close-ups she looks ready to puke—while her spectacular movements are transposed with ecstatic visions of multifarious third realities.  These are the Game levels, action scenes starring her and (eventually) her Theater crew, Cornish and runaway sister Jena Malone and periphery characters Vanessa Hudgens & Jamie Chung, their scenarios patched together exclusively from popular geek culture subject matters: anime schoolgirl katana duels with giant monsters; trench warfare against steampunk zombies; gold-hued dragon-slaying (in which Browning at one point hoists a baby dragon’s neck up between her legs in a riotously phallic manner, only to gash the skin open so her teammates can dip their hands inside); and the aforementioned train-bound sci-fi robot clash.  All is in the service of an item quest dictated to Browning by Game level mentor Scott Glenn—five successful wins buys freedom—who also spells out the mission objectives at the top of each, er, dance, during which on the Hospital level somebody is physically locating the object in question while all the menfolk are bedazzled.

All of these cons, hidden items and dream states doubtlessly suggest last year’s summer mega-success Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan, who will also be producing Snyder’s next comic book movie, The Man of Steel. It could make for an interesting collaboration, in that the two men’s heads seem to share some space; Inception, after all, was also a profoundly video game-inspired film, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s crack squad applying game design principals to each of their dream maps; the suggestion of the central “inception” concept, in which an idea is implanted in a dreamer’s subconscious that they think they arrived at themselves, suggests that the illusory accomplishments of gaming could, with sufficient sophistication, react just as well for the player as genuine personal development.  Sucker Punch, in contrast, is more fuzzily dreamy, sporting recognizable dream phenomena like activities audible on a “sleeping” level manifesting elsewhere—Browning obviously can’t see her teammates collecting objects on the Hospital level, but she sort of intuits the information on the Game levels while she’s busy—or phenomena in a dream anticipating a noise or impact occurring in the waking world, or even events from earlier in the day seeping in to infest a dream: the gunshot-to-the-head killing of Browning’s sister on the Hospital level recurs in a doubly nasty manner toward the end of the Theater scenario. 

Be warned: none of this plays out in an especially nuanced or tidy manner.  While the girls are looking for a knife in the Theater, the corresponding Game level centers around a large bomb called “the knife,” though we are luckily spared a funereal Bryan Adams cover for the tragic denouement.  It’s the big picture that’s striking: what we’ve got here is an action movie where the action scenes are contextualized in-story as distractions.  In all candor, they’re not very exciting, and could have stood to be a lot shorter; really my own preference is for epileptic tactility à la Tony Scott circa Man on Fire or Neveldine/Taylor’s Gamer.  But then, just as 300 vivified an all-male team of warriors in a narrative presented as a story being told to us, so does Sucker Punch regard its all-girl team and their fantasy opponents, if in a far more modular way.

And then there’s the sex appeal.  Regarding the film closely, I don’t think it’s too far off to suggest that Snyder intends his Game scenes to be fleeting moments of empowerment for his female characters, places to be beautiful and kick ass, if always for a very short while; this at least suggests Snyder has picked up some mono no aware along with his anime cutie-pie moe tropes.  Critics, meanwhile have suggested that Snyder’s planes of empowerment are nothing more than a cheap excuse to leer at girls half-clad in sexy clothes, objectifying the notion of “empowerment” into yet another commoditized item of hetero male gratification.  As luck would have it, everyone is correct!

Without question, Sucker Punch’s surface-level engagement with female empowerment is no better summarized than through an early Emily Browning upskirt shot accompanied by "Army of Me".  Even in the Theater all of the girls are squeezed into tight, garish costumes, to occasionally humorous effect—a climactic bit with Browning slinking forward in the world’s sparkliest showgirl costume to lethargically kick a minutely art-directed hat & jacket gangster type in the nuts is more camp that all 108 minutes of Black Swan played twice—but its on the Game levels that the camera makes a habit of hovering around the white plump-squeezed curvature between the hem of Browning’s schoolgirl combat skirt and the band of her action stockings, when not simply lingering on her little feet buckled snugly into shiny fightin’ heels; yes, she fights every battle in high heels.

Miller has been accused of similar hypocrisy: promoting “powerful” female characters while reducing them to sex objects on the page.  Certainly The Spirit boasts a huge company of supporting actresses, some of them walking in and out of the film almost at will, all of them lavishly-clad and cinematographically adored.  Sarah Paulson, as sweetheart love interest/mostly-off-screen surgeon Ellen Doyle, even enters the picture in a blue veil, guaranteeing all the Roman Catholics in the audience that the Madonna/whore dichotomy is secure and present.

This eventually becomes part of Miller’s own self-reference.  Before he melts the cat, Samuel L. Jackson delivers remarks on humanity’s terror of death, and how stories have often sought heroes to defy mortality; this implicates one of the oldest, most wheezing warhorses in the genre commentary arsenal, that superheroes are the modern equivalent of ancient myths, of Greco-Roman gods.  Miller has already contextualized the movie’s struggle between Jackson and the Spirit as only the latest in a massive series of going-nowhere fights between quick-healing opponents, and Jackson wants to end these eternal action plots by going back to the source, finding the blood of Heracles and establishing himself as a truer, monotheistic immortal.  In sum, it is a commentary on eternal superhero revisionism, on Miller’s own career in reviving superheroes, and on the many rebooted superhero franchises clogging up every warm season.

But alas—Jackson doesn’t realize that the Spirit’s healing factor is a Frank Miller invention, and inseparable from Miller’s own outlook.  Beyond the supermen and their weird colors, there's Miller’s attitudes toward women, eternally deadly and beguiling creatures whom cannot every really be settled down with; that would upset the boyish appeal of superheroes.  One woman, Lorelei Rox, is presented as Death itself, but because the Spirit can never commit to a humanoid woman, he is deathless.  His only woman is his City, which he can love as white (blue?) blood cell inside her body, albeit sometimes paternalistically cradling her in the form of a cat. And so, Samuel L. Jackson is eventually defeated, although he survives, and the status quo simply resets itself back to the start, the two-fisted man of action heroically unavailable in emotional terms; he is amoral in his love, and this, Miller implies, is the continuation of such narratives.

Snyder, if anything, is even more boyish.  Absolutely everything in Sucker Punch eventually boils down to the male gaze, which is to say the showing of Snyder’s cinema, his action, which is to say the whole of his film.  The “Sucker Punch” of his title is that the only way for the film’s heroines to find peace is to strike quickly and evade the narrative entirely, and, as in 300, the main ticket out is annihilation.  All of the supporting heroines die, and Browning is left a lobotomized ruin, though her sacrifice eventually leads to Cornish’s escape from the Theater, while reverberations of her actions echo down into the Hospital, promising to bring the bad guys to justice; Snyder evokes Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and though his usage much closer to the studio’s infamous Happy Ending cut than anything else, what’s vital is that Browning is able to exit the shit of her world, which is apparently the absolute best it can provide in the way of a Heroine’s victory.

The problematic aspects of this setup are obvious and several.  Sucker Punch, as I’ve noted before, is patched together from aspects of “geek” or “alternative” culture, from neo-burlesque to steampunk to anime to gaming; at first I though that Snyder’s relentless sexualization was evidence of wide-reaching and banal fetishes, but then I realized that he was taking things potentially appealing to women—and make no mistake, every cited alternative/nerd element of Sucker Punch is potentially female-friendly, down to the combat in scant, sexy clothes, if almost certainly not high heels—and engaging with them visually in the way that men might stare desirously at women.  To Snyder, women (as in female characters) are inevitably trapped in this process, though this can’t implicate genre material as a whole—I mean, you could just dress all of the characters in pants, or not direct the camera up their skirts. 

In The Spirit, Miller’s women are by and large okay with the hero’s temporary affections.  Most of them are just out for fun and adventure, and so they flit in and out of the narrative as they please.  With Snyder, his stage is a prison, though from giving his audience the Sucker Punch tour he hopes to inspire sympathetic feelings, to affect change, just as characters observing the suffering of the characters eventually translates to empathy, and happy-ish endings.  Ironically, this strips the girls themselves of agency, as they are defined mainly through agony or futile action scene poses.  When you think about it, Browning’s plan for escape is entirely ridiculous—at one point it turns on the tricky theft of a man’s lighter, when one would expect some matches could be easily found in the Theater’s kitchen, operating apparently on gas power—and, much like she accidentally puts a bullet in her kid sister's head, her misadventure gets a bunch of the participants killed, but it’s never her fault.  Some nicely sadistic dialogue sees the film’s primary antagonist constantly twisting every calamity the girls’ befall into some fault of their own, never his, implying that criticisms of the film’s lax plotting are part of the problem.  Yet to strip away all of the characters’ faults are to dehumanize them into pillared saints, martyrs, instead of recognizable humans. 

Frankly, this all brought to my mind another very similar movie, director Lucile Hadžihalilović’s 2004 Innocence.  Set in a secluded academy for girls that doubles as a metaphor for gradual maturity, Hadžihalilović’s picture gradually reveals how all of the students are being groomed for dance performances before ominous male spectators.  One tries to escape the school, to forge through life on her own; one is selected to leave early on the basis of her unparalleled physical characteristics and excellent poise.  Most simply graduate from this gaze into the outside world, where Hadžihalilović is worldly enough to suggest that the sexual pleasures of maturity do afford a grown woman some excitement.  We can additionally imply sex through the PG-13 gauze of Miller’s film, though Sucker Punch doesn’t allow its cast within 50 yards of an orgasm, although I understand this was not the original plan; commerce and ratings and salesmanship do exert their hold, at least until the DVD release.

For now, Snyder’s film is uniquely self-loathing and messianic in equal turns, a story about women that’s really about a man staring at women for the sake of men thinking harder about looking at women, since they’re not going to stop looking; is the history of cinema mostly that of boys filming girls, as Godard suggested?  Showing us so many sexualized women while damning our eyes is hypocritical, perhaps, as critics have said of Snyder, but the impulse is also fused to the very basis of his approach to genre action, a flawed cinema, but far from the distant rumblings of upcoming no-doubt less troublesome fantasy extravaganzas, where Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury promises nothing more than setting up later, more lucrative adventures, having learned something in another movie life about never-ending conflicts.

Miller, the longtime storyteller, the comics tragic, holds no such compunctions about saving the camera eye from itself.  His Spirit kisses one beautiful co-star right in front of poor Ellen Dolan, and then acknowledges another woman’s compliment while trying to comfort her, and then, well, the woman can only smile; a typically jagged edit rips us away to a different scene, the Spirit looming high above his city—his mother, his lover, his only woman, we’re assured—before we can register if Ellen has deluded herself again into thinking this man will be faithful or if she’s suddenly become aware of the cosmic joke played on her as a grounding force in a superhero narrative that will broker no domesticity.  There are sequels to be had, money to be made.  There will be no alternate dimension for her to explore, but we might imagine that her director understands that she will find something else to fill her time, like how any real, breathing, viewing women in their seats will forget Frank Miller and all his obsessions, and pursue their own liberties as the lights come up and the curtains draw closed.

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