Hanna and her sisters

arts@sfbg.com

FILM With great girl power comes great responsibility — words that only a few of the Powerpuff Girls of 2011 have lived by. Behold the new generation, too young to settle down, prepped to suit up in skintight Lycra or schoolgirl gear, and eager to mete out punishment to the baddies. Girls mature faster than boys, sure, but that diary-keeping wimpy kid reigning the other half of the cineplex would have plenty to jot down in his diary if he met up with one of these slay-belles.

These babes in boyland, with all its the traditionally masculinized violence and bloodshed, aren’t exactly the next Supergirls. They’re nowhere near as bloodless or wholesome as the original DC product (or the 1984 Helen Slater film), and they’re less likely to fall prey to the dangers of womanly representation for a mainstream fanboy audience that, say, 2004’s Catwoman succumbed to. But the little girls understand — what it’s like to grapple with a strength that just might spiral out of control. The tension between their innocuous, angelic looks and semi-socialized, she-tiger ferocity parallels the balance between their highly trainable programmability and their own desires. They’re damaged kid sisters of Lisbeth Salander more than they are the mutant second-banana femme students of the X-Men, and they’re itching for freedom like Ellen Page’s reality-hampered Boltie in Super, or the fantasy girl-gang hos in Sucker Punch. Or they’ve been souped up as angels of vengeance at the service of embittered father figures, much like Kick-Ass scene-stealer Chloe Moretz’s pint-sized Hit-Girl with her Saturday-morning-cartoon purple wig and stone-cold killer instincts. STAY ON TARGET

The title character of Hanna falls perfectly into the Hit-Girl mold. Add a dash of The Boys from Brazil-style genetic engineering — Hanna has the unfair advantage, you see, when it comes to squashing other kids on the soccer field or maiming thugs with her bare hands — and you have an ethereal killing/survival machine, played with impassive confidence by Atonement (2007) shit-starter Saoirse Ronan. She’s been fine-tuned by her father, Erik (Eric Bana), a spy who went out into the cold and off the grid, disappearing into the wilds of Scandinavia where he home-schooled his charge with an encyclopedia and brutal self-defense and hunting tests.

The repellent association with real-life child soldiers who are forcibly conscripted to fight wars for corrupt elders is somewhat dispelled by the back-to-the-land-of-the-Vikings backdrop, with the film opening on Hanna hunting, clad in furs and skins, hidden in the white-on-white snowy woods beside other predators and prey. Atonement director Joe Wright plays with a palette associated with innocence, purity, and death — this could be any time or place, though far from the touch of modern childhood stresses: that other Hannah (Montana), consumerism, suburban blight, and academic competition. The 16-year-old Hanna, however, isn’t immune from that desire to succeed. Her game mission: go from a feral, lonely existence into the modern world, run for her life (the Chemical Brothers’ score gives her the ideal Run Lola Run-ish background music), and avenge the death of her mother by killing Erik’s CIA handler, Marissa (Cate Blanchett). The nagging doubt: was she born free, or Bourne to be a killer?

Much like the illustrated Brothers Grimm storybook that she studies, Hanna is caught in an evil death trap of fairytale allegories. One wonders if the super-soldier apple didn’t fall far from the tree, since evil stepmonster Marissa oversaw the program that produced Hanna — the older woman and the young girl have the same cold-blooded talent for destruction and the same steely determination. Yet there’s hope for the young ‘un. After learning that even her beloved father hid some basic truths from her — and that family life can be less desperately cutthroat, especially when she encounters the celebrity-gossip-spouting tourist teen Sophie (Jessica Barden) and her family — this natural-born killer seems less likely to go along with the predetermined ending, happy or no, further along in her storybook life.

 

CABARET DURING WARTIME

It’s a mental game for Baby Doll in Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder’s exercise in supergirl action fantasy and gothic Lolita dread. Emily Browning’s puffy-lipped, anime-eyed darling is far from infallible, except in the crazed, mixed-metaphor war games in her mind. Her talent for disassociation kicks off with her primal crime: she mistakenly kills her younger sister while trying to protect them both from a menacing stepfather. Escape and heroism can be had via one’s fertile yet traumatized imagination: Baby Doll is imprisoned in an asylum for girls where she’s next in line for a lobotomy, thanks to her stepdad’s machinations. And like a multilayered fantasy game, reminiscent of Dorothy’s dreamy recasting of friends and family in The Wizard of Oz (1939), she’s transported to a brothel-dancehall, along with other girlish inmates.

Here Baby Doll has just a few days to hatch a plan that will allow the girls to escape before her virginity is sold off. Her very special defense: she mesmerizes all who see her dance, and then goes far, far away, into a dream world where she’s dressed like a sexy J-pop schoolgirl and battles giant samurai or robot-zombie Nazis. Thoughts of Burlesque (2010) are mercifully vanquished.

Though Baby Doll’s initial battle scene at a Japanese temple evokes Quentin Tarantino’s take on girl-power revenge fantasy, Kill Bill (2003-2004) — while catering to the fanboys who ogle (and fear) deadly hotties in vixenish costume — Sucker Punch distinguishes itself not with its blatant po-mo plundering of movie, game, and music history, but with its adherence to the idea that sisterhood is powerful, as Baby Doll forms a girl gang of super-fighters with her fellow inmates-dancers. Therein lies the real super-heroism: the organizing, hearts-and-minds might of an underdog who can imagine overcoming huge odds. Even if the hero and the final girl, Baby Doll, is only a legend in her mind.

HANNA opens Fri/8 in Bay Area theaters.