There’s a sucker born every minute.
Audiences blog about Sucker Punch.

by Chuck Kleinhans

The new Zach Snyder action film, Sucker Punch , premiered in the US on March 25, 2011. As part of an ongoing interest in the more ephemeral aspects of New Media,[1] [open endnotes in new window] I’m writing here (mostly) about those who blogged about it on the microblogging service Tumblr. I’ve arranged this presentation of what I found in an outline frame, figuring that most readers would just pick and choose as they went through it. I suggest you skip to the end section and read a few representative entries and then return here. Rather than an elegant summary essay, this is a data-heavy compilation. At the end I present my own selection from the Tumblr posts: I’ve chosen them so you don’t have to.

What I learned. Rather than documenting a traditional fan culture, most Sucker Punch blogging produced two clusters of discussion which go mostly unnoticed by those who follow fan cultures: One is a hashing out of a basic question that comes up in discussions of media using female warriors: empowering or sexist? In general, this discussion gets no further than the familiar terms already laid out in the critical literature on fighting females. The other is mention of the film as simply a part of mundane communication life, and is unexceptional, and therefore of little interest to those who seek a fan culture but which is of interest if instead we are looking at how people use the manifold forms of new media.

Sucker Punch, the movie

Sucker Punch is director Zach Snyder’s fifth feature. His 2004 debut, Dawn of the Dead, was a remake of the horror classic. 2006s 300 received attention for its extreme digital manipulation of action sequences and digital remodeling of actors, a trend continued in the graphic novel adaptation Watchmen, 2009. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole, 2010, based on children’s novels, was an all animation flop. Sucker Punch was Snyder’s first original work based on his own collaborative screenplay. His next film is a reboot of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel.

1. the film text

Wikipedia provides an excellent plot summary:

In brief, the film is a kick-ass action piece with four major fantasy action sequences that resemble well-known first-person shooter video games and recycled martial action film scenes. The fighters are a team of young women, incarcerated in a mental hospital that transforms into another level of a fantasy bordello, and then into the action fantasies. The critic/reviewer consensus was that it was pretty bad, with almost all of them noting the same problems. Snyder is known for his CGI enhanced films such as 300, continued here, and has a notable, even auteurist, visual style.

2. the theatrical event

I’ve been writing on and collecting examples of cinematic women warriors for some time (especially Asian film examples), so viewing Sucker Punch was on the agenda. Plus it was showing at the new IMAX screen in town (Eugene Oregon) at a $3 per person upcharge. We actually got a little “gee whiz” intro to IMAX by the projectionist before the IMAX showoff reel, the previews, and finally the feature. Also, an usher gave everyone a candy sucker with a wrapper that had the “ Sucker Punch ” logo on it.

3. the Blu-Ray release

The film’s theatrical release was rated PG-13. To get that rating the film was cut down by 17+ minutes. The missing portion is restored in the Blu-Ray package (about $25), which includes a Blu-Ray of the theatrical version, and a code for downloading a digital copy of the theatrical version to your computer/mobile device.

Tumblr, the microblog

A few words about Tumblr. [http://www.tumblr.com/]

Tumblr, a fast-growing microblogging service, hosts over 24M blogs (16,024,824 on 1 April 2011; 24,769,209 on 31 July 2011). Like Twitter, it promotes sending/posting short single item entries: images, text, sound files, etc. While Twitter features very short text messages, Tumblr highlights images. You can post images (or sound files, etc.) up to 10 MB per post. The main features are that it’s free, you can customize it endlessly, it works on browsers, phones, email, etc., and it’s extremely fast for downloading images. It also highlights “reblogging” which allows/encourages users to add anything they see on someone else’s blog to theirs, giving it a high capacity for viral distribution. On its own, and with some useful apps, users can connect their Tumblog with their Twitter and Facebook accounts, so anything they send on the other platforms can also be posted on Tumblr. You can even email your posts to Tumblr or phone it in: leave a voicemail that will be posted on your site.

I first became interested when I found it was heavily used by artists, photographers, designers, fashion professionals, and other visual artists for portfolio presentation (especially students and recent graduates). It is self-promotingly “hip” — e.g., it was mentioned on Portlandia as a great time-waster. It is also (unevenly) international. “Of course” it has a lot of porn, but somewhat surprisingly it tends to customize those items: thus there’s a lot of fancy euro-trash elegant b&w imagery, or focus on fairly narrow and predictable topics (such as anal, facials, self-shot, etc.), as well as “this is my taste/fetish” — and (apparently) a lot of blogs by females. All of this is heavily NSFW (Not Safe For Work). Much of it consists of reblogged material from Tumblr blogs. Thus, some people’s blogs are almost entirely images they found while browsing other Tumblr blogs and chose to reblog on their own site (which are then “liked” or reblogged by others) allowing an often long trail of who referenced something since it was originally posted somewhere on Tumblr. Following these interlinked trails, one can find Tumblogs with curious or “original” combos of appropriated and reprocessed material: e.g. kittens, Hello Kitty, pastries, sex, anime. Thus browsing for cute kitten pix may quickly lead you to that and hardcore porn.

After seeing the theatrical film on its opening weekend, and reading some negative critical reviews, I was interested in looking for reactions in the fan discussion. Tumblr is especially useful for this in terms of ease of search. This is especially so in contrast to, say, Blogger, which has no functioning search ability, as far as I can tell.

I did a simple search on Tumblr using their search feature, entering “sucker punch” which brought up lots of material, especially reblogs of the posters for the film or downloads of music from the film, and links to the official trailer and the first 6 minutes of the film (released right at its opening wide to stimulate interest). From the first weekend on, some people were just posting (while others were asking for) pirate streaming sites that would allow you to watch an illegal download.

Sample: Amber (Jaimie Chung) official site poster

A certain number of links to reviews and people working with the visual materials of the film were alternatively clever or interesting. Usually these were GIFs of key moments, but they included fan art, and new ads or posters which seem like student demonstrations of their illustration skills. Sample:

One of the best of the visual reworkings was this Disney mash-up on YouTube:

Fan cultures

While audience studies have been a longstanding and important part of broadcast media studies, usually quantitative work because radio and TV had to be precise about audience numbers and demographics to be able to charge for advertising. Film lagged behind. Only with the change from theatrical-centered release to a greater awareness of multiple platforms has film begun to catch up. More qualitative and cultural analysis of audiences appeared. Some of this work follows in the traditions of reception studies, reader studies, and ethnographic work.

Most of the work that’s been done on fan culture in media studies has concentrated on cultural products and processes that actually have some “legs.” They exist in various forms over time, over different mediated forms, and can thus build self-conscious and devoted audiences. We move through comics, graphic novels, radio, television, film platforms following the same heroic characters in new adventures with various versions, editions, nuances: Superman, or Batman or Spiderman. Historically they appear in comic books, live action and animated TV series, feature films, and even theme park and Broadway versions. Franchises develop such as Star Wars, extending all the way to toys and ComiCon cosplay. Thus Star Trek produces both a basic fan base, first on TV, and then in reruns and films, and also, over time, an ironic fan subculture of slash fiction in which fans reappropriate the characters for pornographic fantasy tales. And for other narrative tropes, such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the episodic serial allows audiences to join up at different developments in the larger narrative, or follow spin-offs, or remakes.

There’s been a rich development of critical work on fan cultures, largely along the lines of how fans can and do use mass culture materials and refashion it to their own purposes. Two now-classic studies can represent this direction. Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992) provides an expansive view of how fans reappropriate mass culture texts for their own purposes. Constance Penley’s NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America (1997) looks at space travel in the popular imagination and fans who write porno-romantic fiction based on Star Trek fantasies from a feminist perspective. Both writers use an ethnographic approach to clarify the subcultural basis for the fans’ activities. A recent anthology expands the field by discussing music, celebrity, and many other fan cultures: Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, ed. Jonathan Gray, Cornel Dandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington; it has an excellent bibliography for further research.

What I’m looking at here, however, is different. Sucker Punch is a one-off, and while it collected some “fans” in the sense of people who responded favorably to it, writing about that, and validating it as a piece of art, it just doesn’t seem to have the cult potential of say, The Big Lebowski. Some bloggers mention they think the costumes are nifty, particularly the schoolgirl sailor outfit of the Baby Doll character. But the film itself ends with the key female characters dead. No prequel or sequel seems possible.

Basically what I was looking at (not for) was not a unified or self-aware fan culture, but rather a more atomistic scattering of individuals who responded favorably and strongly to the film, mixed with people who were hostile or indifferent. Sucker Punch was not being used to develop an alternative culture, appropriating from a mass culture text or phenomenon, and turning it to the social ends of a different group of people. The discourse did overlap with some more clearly fan formations: particularly around the central actor, Emily Browning (b. 1988), who has a following based on her earlier roles [Australian TV, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) The Uninvited (2009)] and ongoing celebrity status (red carpet appearances, some fashion shoots, etc.). U.S. actor Vanessa Hudgens also has a fan base, particularly from her role in the High School Musical films. Abby Cornish has a following from her performances in Australian films. Jena Malone and Jaime Chung are also known from previous roles.

Microblogging and utter banality

I haven’t ever really tried to follow fan discourse about a specific film (though I’ve read a lot of summaries about fan cultures). I have looked extensively at some fan sites for details, such as the intertextual references in Kill Bill as detailed by fanboys. But I was curious about what was reported as an audience split interpretation regarding women (empowering/oppressive), and so I quickly looked at some blog postings on Tumblr.com.

What I hadn’t been prepared for was the utter banality of some of the posts: e.g., a thirteen year old boy saying that it was Spring Break and he was really bored and hoped that he could see the film with his friends, but one was not yet 13, and it was PG-13, and besides he didn’t know if his mom would let him see the film, and most of all, he had to have his mom drive him to the mall, and he didn’t know when that could be scheduled.

I wasn’t much interested in the (apparent) male bloggers who liked the film, but there was a split among the (seemingly young--teen to twenty something) (apparent) females: sexist or empowering?[2] I started to collect some comments on the U.S. opening date, March 25, then returned five days later (March 30) to collect a lot more. In between, I read a couple of interesting posts about fan culture by Jeff Sconce on his blog Ludic Despair [http://www.ludicdespair.blogspot.com/]. Jeff analyzed an episode of the sitcom Community for its self-reflexive critique of its own fan culture, and then he was trashed on another site for mocking the fans and he returned to write about that. These two posts — “Community to Fans: Get a "Meta" Life,” and “Flamed by Metafilterians” — show Jeff’s wit, but also that a fan culture operates as a developed group phenomenon.

I returned to Tumblr on April 6 to find several fans now had their own dedicated blogs to the film (usually featuring clips from the promo reels, trailer, and, days before the theatrical release, the studio released the first 6 minutes online as a teaser).

Sucker Fucking Punch


You Will Be Unprepared

Reality Is A Prison

Emily Browning (heart)

Fuck Yeah Sweet Rocket Doll

[With each of these sites, since they post by most recent item and then regress, there’s a useful Tumblr feature, Archive, that lets you bring up thumbnails of past items and move through the historical regression quickly.]

Following the usual studio release protocol, Warner’s put up a pretty elaborate web site with lots of “extras.”

The studio had done a rather typical long promo build for the film by releasing “behind the scenes” footage of the actors going through martial and acrobatic training for their roles, and footage of them in blue screen live action for the later compositing of animation backgrounds. So there had been a certain calculated buzz about the film and the usual entertainment press interviews leading up to and during the theatrical release. The London premiere (April 1) became the showcase for the actors, their gowns, the press photography, etc.

The earliest blog posts were basically just mentions of the film in narcissistic personal blogs, which often seemed like Facebook reports, about anticipation of seeing the film, reactions after just having seen it, etc. A smaller number of folks had blogs that they presented as their film review/criticism blog. Thus what I sampled was culled not from a self oriented and motivated fandom (as was typically the case in studies of Buffy or Xena or Harry Potter fans in the past who had consciously sought out communities) but was artificially created by me from Tumblr’s search feature grazing through tags of all of Tumblr’s (then) 16M + sites.

Some people posted their own visual interpretations of the film (their poster, their sketchbook after viewing, their attempt to duplicate the eye makeup of one of the characters (enormous false eyelashes are part of the film’s visual signature), photos of cosplay re-enactors at a comic book convention, etc. Some referenced positive and negative reviews of the film on other sites, so you could quickly get a wide range of opinions about the film.

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