Joe Wright's new film Hanna revolves around a 16-year-old girl, raised in the woods and trained to be an assassin. Much like Hit Girl in Kick Ass and Babydoll in Sucker Punch, Hanna is a fearless killing machine in the form of a young woman with a gun. However: Not all female action heroes are created equally. There's a reason why I loathed Babydoll and loved Hanna, and it all comes down to the writing. The characterization. A hero isn't just a person with a gun; a hero is someone fighting for a cause, for a purpose, and not just because it looks cool. The story makes the hero, and the story relies on structure, and structure is in the writing (and directing).
After watching Hanna, I tried to figure out what made it so vastly different — and superior — to Sucker Punch. Both stories involved young women being incredibly, graphically violent. Both stories have an older man guiding the young woman. Both movies were directed by men and written by men; both films have stylistic flourishes and thumping soundtracks. But unlike Babydoll, Hanna, is a well-drawn, fully realized character, not just an avatar for an idea. Saoirse Ronan — who was spectacular in Atonement, which Joe Wright also directed — brings Hanna to life, and makes her believable, because the writing, the story structure and the characterization are solid. Each choice Hanna makes leads to the next decision and the following action, so that as we get to know her choices and thought process, we know her. This is how a character is built. Babydoll, as a character, is flat and underdeveloped, because her actions seem to come out of nowhere. When an audience meets a girl, and she never mentions dragons or World War I, it's strange, random and off-putting when she suddenly has detailed dreams of dragons and World War I. Sucker Punch is like a long, meandering commercial; Hanna is taut and rhythmic, like a poem.
Consider Lara Croft of Tomb Raider. One could argue that she was a tool invented by a video game company to guide a player through an experience. But when Angelina Jolie played Croft in the movie version, she wasn't sexy for the sake of being sexy, her entire existence was not about the male gaze. She wore tight leather pants was because she rode a motorcycle; she wore short shorts because she was at archaeological digs in hot climates. Why did Babydoll from Sucker Punch wear middriff baring sailor suits with mini skirts? We have no idea, and therefore must assume that Zack Snyder just likes the way it looks.
Hanna, Lara Croft, Ripley from Aliens, Buffy Summers of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Leeloo of The Fifth Element, Pam Grier's Coffy — these characters were designed to resemble people, not objects. It's not enough to want female-oriented films, and it's not enough to want bad-ass heroines; we also need quality storytelling and well-crafted characters. Part of the reason Sucker Punch stings as a huge disappointment for me is that when you gather a female cast — talented women like Abbie Cornish and Carla Gugino! — you ought not waste their time (or mine) with a trite, hollow film.
Saoirse Ronan spoke at the screening I attended, and revealed that she had two months of physical training for Hanna. A martial arts fighting style was designed just for the movie, and Ronan also came up with an accent, a way of walking, even a way of turning her head — that were all specific to the character of Hanna. I asked her what she thought about the recent mini-trend of gun-wielding young women. "Ladies are the leaders right now!" She exclaimed. "In music, too." She went on to tell the audience how she turned 16 while on the set of Hanna, and celebrated by going to a Lady Gaga concert. And she added: "It's good that there are strong female characters… As long as they're real characters." Which, of course, Hanna is. And that's why Ronan could also say, "I got on with Hanna. I like her."
Joe Wright was asked about Sucker Punch, and didn't hold back:
"For me, one of the main issues in terms of womens' place in society and feminism is the sexual objectification of women… That's something that feminists in the '70s tried to fight against but has been totally lost in the 21st century consumer-celebrity world. So for me, when I look at the poster for Sucker Punch it seems actually incredibly sexist, because it is sexually objectifying women regardless of if they can shoot you or not.
I have a kind of immediate, knee-jerk reaction to such iconography. I remember when the Spice Girls came out in the mid-'90s and it was all about girl power, but one of them was dressed as a baby doll, do you know what I mean? That isn't girl power, that isn't feminism. That's marketing bullshit. And I find it very, very alarming."