Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why Sucker Punch paid the price for starring kick-ass women

I discussed in an earlier post some of the storytelling shortcomings of Sucker Punch, but that wasn't the only thing missing. Like Sin City, it had sexy and scantily clad girls. What didn't it have? (Well, nudity, but that's not my point.) Tough, macho men.

I'm probably going to get attacked for this, but I'd guess that Sucker Punch held little appeal for a male audience because it was SO sold as a female-driven piece. I thought Warner Bros. sounded like fools a few years ago when they said they weren't going to make female-driven movies anymore, but stuff like Sucker Punch shows you the justification for their thinking.

Look at Sin City. Sure, it had Jessica Alba as a stripper, who's still one of the hottest screen strippers in history despite not actually appearing in the buff. It had Jamie King, Rosario Dawson, Carla Gugio and about a half-dozen other girls all in fairly skimpy outfits I'm sure every straight male in America could find some girl in the cast list that they'd love to see in various states of undress. But would they have turned out for a film that starred stripper Nancy and the gun-toting hookers of Old Town taking back the streets from slimy guys? I doubt it.

The other half of the equation: Mickey Roarke, Clive Owen and Bruce Willis. The male heroes of the Sin City segments. And interestingly, they're all a breed of character we don't see as often in films these days - men's men, macho types. In a release slate dominated by Paul Rudds and Jesse Eisenbergs (both of whom I enjoy, it should be said), those three actors really played to the "tough guy" that a lot of male viewers probably idolize on some level.

What guy doesn't want to calmly kick-ass like Bruce Willis, prove how tough he is in a fight, all to save the girl? Yeah, I'm sure that the actresses who got to wield swords and shoot guns in Sin City were all about the "empowerment" aspect of it, but I don't think that was a selling point.

Because take a look what happened the next time Robert Rodriguez was involved in an action film that had female empowerment as one of its main themes. Grindhouse had two segments: Planet Terror and Death Proof. Rodriguez's Planet Terror segment had Rose McGowan in the lead, though it was a fairly gender-balanced ensemble. Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof had nearly a dozen fetching young actresses, half of whom really got to kick ass by the end. The macho character - played by Kurt Russell - was the villain, and the film ends with his brutal beating at the hands of the women.

Grindhouse didn't do so well at the box office either. Part of that might have to do with the fact it was three-hours long, and that it was paying homage to a particular kind of film geek. Still was the male audience turned off by the fact they had no one to either identify with or aspire to?

The male action hero is in a sorry state these days, too. We live in a world where Seth Rogan was the action lead in Green Hornet. Seth Rogan! I could beat that guy in a footrace! Sure, guys go to the movies to see people the identify with, but they REALLY go to see guys who they wish they could be. There's neither in Sucker Punch. The three main guys are the mysterious mentor, the skeevy pimp/orderly, and the lobotomizing doctor.

I'm not necessarily saying the women had to be more overtly made into damsels in distress or that male characters needed to be added to those films specifically to overshadow them. I am saying that I think the lack of such a presence did reduce the appeal for a significant percentage of the audience.

I wanted to like Sucker Punch, and to be honest, I liked Death Proof (though the leaner Grindhouse cut was WAY better than the uncut solo version.) But then, I like most of pop culture's kickass women, from Sydney Bristow to Buffy Summers. It's probably safe to say that Tarantino, Rodriguez and Snyder are also fans of that archetype.

But clearly there aren't enough of them in the ticket-buying public.


  1. I like this theory. SUCKER PUNCH didn't appeal to men because of the female leads, and it didn't appeal to women because, well, look at it. Those outfits don't scream 'strong female characters'.

    Could be the same thing happened to GRINDHOUSE -- I imagine Tarantino and Rodriguez are a bit too macho for a lot of female movie-goers (and Tarantino's got that weird misogyny thing of his).

    Now I'm wondering if this is what gave SALT its slightly crappy domestic performance.

    Interesting that this doesn't seem to hold for horror/thrillers, which usually have female protags and seem to be just as appealing to audiences of both genders.

  2. My generalized theory on horror thrillers - the women cheer on the "empowerment" theme (largely coming from the virginal "good girl" who gets tough in the end and kills the villain); the dudes who like kick-ass women go for that too; and the less enlightened men in the audience go to see the killer slice and dice the other girls, who tend to show more skin and appeal to baser instincts.

    I'm sure you could poke holes in that theory, but as a broad generalization it makes sense to me.

  3. Not sure I totally agree. Here's the Final Girl theory as I understand it (although I admit that I may not):

    Women go to see horror/thrillers (films that feature a protagonist being terrorized or under some kind of psychological assault) with female protags because those films often have a major psycho-sexual emphasis and show the female lead triumphing over destructive male forces. As the oppressed gender, this is cathartic for women.

    Men also crave this kind of catharsis. We want to empathize with oppressed and terrorized protagonists, but we find it difficult if they're male because we've been conditioned (thanks society!) to expect men to show no fear or emotion, and to reject men who do as weak. So men identify better with female protagonists in these films than with male protagonists.

    I don't actually believe that anyone (aside from the mentally ill) watches a horror/thriller hoping that the protagonist gets tortured by the bad guys or murdered by the monster. If you did you wouldn't be identifying with the protag, and then you're not really watching the film, are you?

  4. I like your theory better. Bear in mind that mine has been formed to some degree by years of reading horror scripts by hack writers who seem to write just so they can show off the most misogynistic ways to torture women.

  5. Wow, thanks Xander. I didn't realize I was mentally ill!

  6. Oh god yeah. You have my sympathies. :( Sometimes it seems like the percentage of people who fall into that 'mentally ill' category is way higher for screenwriters than for the general populace.

  7. Kayla: Really? You sit through 90 minutes of a film, hoping the whole time that the protagonist is going to get a knife through the chest? I guess that's a valid and innocuous form of entertainment, but I just can't imagine it.

    I mean, sometimes in videogames I'll crash my car or run my character off a cliff just for the hell of it. But a movie?

  8. I have plenty of times, more so for "monster" movies than serial killing ones. Some protagonists are just awful and irritating, so, yes, I will sit through the whole moving hoping they finally get it. (The Strangers was one such movie... AVP 2 was another.)

  9. I can ALMOST see where you're coming from with some of the teen protagonists of AVP2... and then I remember the sheer nastiness of the attack on the boy and his father in the woods and I recall actively hating the filmmakers for that. Then they made it worse with that scene with the pregnant woman.

  10. Hm, okay, I see what you're saying. But that's really a failure on the film's part, like when you give up on a dumb action movie but keep watching for the explosions and CG.

    Sorry for calling you mentally ill. Apparently you just have a higher tolerance for crappy movies than me. :)

  11. "broad generalization". I really hope that pun was intended, because I loved it.
    I think that Sucker Punch didn't get a good ass/seat ratio is because A) the trailers are vague. I've seen a bunch of trailers for it on tv and have no clue what it's about. All I know is chicks and action. Which is cool, but, I go to the theater for story. If the story was good, why not try to sell it on that?
    And B) the title sucks. It sounds like a crappy genre novel. The kind you see at airports. The trailers didn't feel like that. Again, more confusion.

  12. Kurt Russel was the villain, not Kurt Douglas.

  13. I don't know, Xander, when the protagonist reminds me of the girls who picked on me in school I find myself wishing they'd be killed slowly and painfully. Or at least horribly scarred so they know what it's like to be considered "ugly and worthless."

    I wouldn't do anything like that IRL - unless I happened upon a pedophile in the act of raping a child, then all bets are off. But it doesn't mean that the part of me that's still that child who was told she was worthless and wouldn't amount to anything because she's fat likes seeing the bitchy cheerleader get it. Guess that's why I don't like Buffy. Now if Buffy had been a fat, nerdy, Star Trek loving, disco music listening to vampire hunter I'd have been all over that.

    That's my big problem with female protagonists. They're ALL THE SAME! They all fit society's standards of beauty. They're fit, they're fashionable, they're often sexually active - very active, more so then is safe what with HIV/AIDS and other STDs. They wear as little clothing as possible. They never break a nail. When their hair is mussed it's a sexy mess. I can't relate and I don't find them at all realistic.

    I love The Evil Dead trilogy. One of the reasons I love it is because the hero, Ash, breaks the mold for male heroes. In the first movie he's a freaking WIMP! He whines and yet still kicks butt! He's more in touch with his feminine side than any female action heroine could ever be.

    Now I know Hollywood is very looks centered, especially with women. But that's what indie films are for, right? So why can't an indie film break the typical role for the heroine? Why can't the fat girl kick vampire butt? Why can't the celibate chick slay the zombie? Why can't the Trekkie gal take on the werewolf and win? A scene where the heroine beats up the serial killer while listening to/singing Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive would be awesome to me. Instead of her wearing barely any armor, show her running around in a XXL Wolfman's Got Nards! t-shirt.

    Why isn't anyone brave enough to break out of the typical role for the heroine? They do it for the hero all the time. But all heroines are the same and it's tiresome. I want something new and I'm sure I'm not the only one. I think the box office takes on female centered action movies speaks for that.

    At the end of the day, if I have to watch an action movie with a heroine instead of a hero, I'd rather the role be played by someone you wouldn't expect - like Whoopi Goldberg - then the usual sexy siren.

  14. Hm - seems my HTML didn't work. I was trying to link to this -

    It's a line from the cheesetastic 80s movie The Monster Squad.

  15. Looks like my last comment got eaten by the internet, so I'll try to summarize it. Anyway...meh. I don't think I buy this particular argument. I'm willing to bet that if you actually compared all male-centric pure action films with all female-centric pure action films, the flop vs hit breakdown would be proportionately the same between the two. I mean, how does this theory square with movies like Kill Bill and Charlie's Angels? And those both have successful sequels to their names.

    There are just so few films made of any genre that feature multiple female leads that when one does badly it sticks out. In fact, when I think about most flop films that feature a lot of female characters, there are none I can think of that I considered particularly high-quality. There are usually a LOT of problems leading to the film's downfall, which is also the case with Sucker Punch - as you pointed out yourself in the previous post. The comment from "p" points out some more issues, too. I have to admit there was nothing appealing about the trailers for Sucker Punch to me - it just looked like an excuse to play around with stylized action sequences, which as you pointed out isn't really enough anymore. It's nice that they made the story about a bunch of young women and all, but they even did that in a way that's been done before ("hot girls who can hurt people...while looking hot!"). It was a movie that tried to bill itself as innovative and new using what are now tiresome cliches. Or at least that's how the marketing played out.

    It'll be interesting to see how Hanna does. The trailers at least make it look possibly awesome. Clear story told in an apparently original way, which also happens to feature a teenage girl vs an older woman (Hollywood "older," anyway) as its central conflict. The people I know, at least, are pretty excited about it.

  16. I don't think lack of male models is hurting Playboy sales!

    But seriously, this movie looked lacking in story even from the trailers, and I'm a sucker for a good trailer. (Proof: I saw Hereafter opening weekend.)

    Sucker Punch is no Traveling Pants in the Sexy City. You're absolutely right that some men are reluctant to see movies that appear female-centric, and it's a good topic to cover, but I think that was maybe 5% of the issue here.

  17. I realize Sucker Punch was expected to do big things, but it's pretty much right in line with what audiences gave other big releases (minus: Lincoln Lawyer and Battle: LA) over the past few weeks.

    Last weekend was even a bump in earnings from the weekend before so is it that people didn't want to watch female's fighting or that Sucker Punch was only able to attract the people that actually wanted to see a film in theaters?

    I guess that's Hollywood's big concern thus far in 2011.

  18. JabberWocky - That's what I get for writing these things in the wee hours of the morning. Thanks for catching that. Brain fart on my part.

  19. I actually think it didn't do as well because it alienated women. Once you feature a cast of scantilly-clad women, you lose the female demo, and there weren't enough fan boys to pick up the slack.

  20. Here is what I think regarding kick ass women.
    In the 70s when Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman was the main kick ass woman (Bionic Woman counts, but not so much), America was still in the Women's Liberation phase. Women were just beginning to work outside the home. Divorce and/or single parenthood was just beginning to lose its stigma. So it was a new thing and they made Wonder Woman very nurturing and peace loving (which is a part of her inherent character, but..) Thelma and Louise were the first widely seen female heroes to actually fight back at men and this caused a lot of controversy, even though what they did happened as a result of a rape. Sin City has women (whores, of course) who fight back and run a city and rage in that giant gun scene.... but here's the deal. Just because you throw a gun in a woman's hand doesn't mean she becomes a likeable action hero. Women like their heroes to be interesting, and yes, we do like to see Clive Owen or Bruce Willis or heck, Steve Trevor in the movie. We want the eye candy as much as the guys do. But Suckerpunch has such a stylized, video-game esque look that it turns probably 25% of the people off right there. Add in the lack of male (love interest or whatever) and the bimbo babes with guns and yeah. The deal is that these marketing execs don't know what people like.

    Good female action movies: Romancing the Stone. TV series Alias. Old Wonder Woman. Isis. Reason? Female heroine is a real person we can relate to with flaws. Sydney Bristow misses her mother and resents her distant father and is immediately a sympathetic character-- her fiance is killed in the pilot because of a mistake she made. Stuff like that. Not stylized bimbos with guns.