The James Clayton Column: Silk Spectre, Sucker Punch, Superman, Spartans and… owls?

James is left reeling yet excited by the trailer for Zack Snyder’s forthcoming Sucker Punch, and ponders how it fits in with the rest of the director’s canon…

I’m blinking, open-mouthed and slightly agog. I’m surprised and a bit discombobulated. I suppose that’s appropriate considering I’ve just been hit by Sucker Punch.

The striking trailer for Zack Snyder’s upcoming feature definitely delivers a blow. I’m looking forward to seeing it on the big screen before a feature-length blockbuster in order to appreciate the full effect. In fact, I’d like to go along to the cinema with someone who isn’t as desensitised to stylised cinematic hyperviolence as I am, to see how it affects them.

On first impressions drawn from the teaser and the pre-release blurb, Sucker Punch looks like the kind of film that kicks the Daily Mail Outrage-o-meter into overdrive. Sexuality! Violence! Young girls in a mental institution! All kinds of gratuitous sick thrills presented as a slick entertainment package to be swallowed by unstable, amoral teenagers! Intolerable! (That’s assuming that these moral guardians have got over the shock of Kick-Ass and can concentrate on something other than their own knees jerking.)

In the beginning, it all looks like Watchmen, with a funeral sequence and what’s possibly attempted rape, underscored by Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks. Things then start to get odd as we’re pulled into an asylum for girls. The aesthetics and atmosphere of Snyder’s earlier movie are still there, but with a sense that we’ve ditched costumed superhero fetishism to ogle young incarcerated females in what could be a sexploitation flick set-up.

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Thankfully, it gets less uncomfortable and filthy when the trailer flies off into really peculiar territory and presents the viewer with shots of samurai, biplanes, androids, dragons and bombed out, war torn cities. The rest of the promo reel leaps out of the asylum and into a dazzling and diverse array of fantasy action sequences in which the females are talking tough and fighting in a range of wider worlds. We’ll have to see the whole movie before we can give a proper feminist critique. Nevertheless, it grabs your attention and successfully says, “Hey! I’ve got style. You know it and you want to know more!”

Altogether, with its ‘chicks with attitude’ vibe echoing Tarantino’s Death Proof and the look of 300 and Watchmen mashed up into a mix-genre cocktail, I’m onboard and eager to see what Snyder has in store.

What is most exciting about Sucker Punch, though, beyond the fact that it looks cool and appears to have the appealing edge of other flicks, is the fact it’s the first time Snyder will be handling a concept that is completely his own.

His directorial debut was a remake of Romero’s Dawn Of The Dawn with running zombies being the major innovation. After that came super-stylish, very faithful graphic novel adaptations in the shape of 300 and Watchmen. The fidelity to source material is perfect for the focused scope of Frank Miller’s Battle of Thermopylae comic, but not so much for Watchmen (proclaimed deservedly as ‘the greatest graphic novel of all time’). Snyder managed to film the ‘unfilmable’, but the Alan Moore/ Dave Gibbons masterpiece is such a multifaceted, all-encompassing and cerebral artefact that it could only suffer as a condensed single flick for multiplex consumption.

You can’t say that Snyder doesn’t have balls as he throws himself in front of these stampeding sacred cows. That’s even truer now that he’s been tasked with rebooting the Superman franchise, a comic property more popular than Watchmen, wrapped up in even more expectation and fanboy adoration.

Facing Superman, I’m concerned about Snyder and fear that once more he’ll become a slave to the source material, hamstrung by all the mythology and mass adulation attached to the Man of Steel.

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The director gets a fair amount of flak for being a ‘hack’ (all-style-and-no-substance), but I don’t believe that’s a fair appraisal. Cinema is a visual medium and Snyder’s output is amongst the most eye-popping and invigorating out there. Punishing Mr Slo-Mo Mojo Risin’ for pushing the full sensory potential of the format (and films are meant to be sensual experiences), seems snide and pernickety.

Sucker Punch will be refreshing because it looks like a release for the 300 director where he can take his aesthetic approach to something wholly new that doesn’t have a precedent in the pages of a much-loved graphic novel. Creatively free and able to apply the style without limits, he’s giving us samurai warriors, fighting androids and much, much more. It looks spectacular and outlandish and I, personally, can’t wait to appreciate the full force and depth of his imagination when the movie comes out in March.

Evidence that Zachary can adapt to great effect is on display in Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole, which is the director’s first foray outside of R-rated territory. Though it may be an adaptation based on a series of fantasy novels, it provides Snyder the chance to spread his wings (ah ha ha), play with different material and prove he’s not just an ‘ultraviolent comic hack’.

The flourishes are there from the beginning: a shot of an owl swooping and losing a single feather echoing the falling smiley badge and fatal skyscraper plummet of the Comedian that opens Watchmen. Legend Of The Guardians also offers some of the best CGI fight sequences yet realised, which is pretty astounding considering that the combatants are round and fuzzy winged animals.

Altogether, it’s like a family-friendly 300 with owls and has the same sense of battle spirit, but it also carries a charming sweetness and innocence that’s surprising in light of Snyder’s other movies. The effects are amazing. Frames of beautifully-rendered feathers bristling against torrential rain, for instance, are amongst the most incredible things achieved so far in cinematic CGI animation.

Snyder’s technique and computer animated family adventure are perfect companions and credit is due to him and his team for taking what is a pretty baffling ‘reality’ (it’s a world dominated by owls and a snake nursemaid) and using their tools to draw us in and make it believable. The style resonates more than the standard good versus evil story, but overall, I’d rate the movie as a success that hints at the moviemaker’s ability and versatility.

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I’m excited to see more of what Snyder can do when he’s not enslaved by established iconography. Superman won’t give him that chance, but before then we’ve got Sucker Punch and the signs are favourable.

Liberated and unshackled to do what he will with his visual, visceral technique, I predict an inspired, invigorating hoot.

James’ previous column can be found here.

James sketched a series of movie-spoof comics and they can be found here.

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