(spoilers marked as they appear)
I’ve been experiencing a whole lot of great art lately, and I’d love to comment on a lot of it, so I might be doing a few short articles like this just to get my thoughts and recommendations and what I liked about them down. Thankfully, two recent movies that I’ve seen and loved are pretty thematically linked, so it made some sense to do them in tandem.
Let’s start with the more recent, wider release: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I’ve seen some mixed reaction to this one, but I liked it a lot. I mean, I did really like the first one, but from what I can tell, that hasn’t been a one-to-one indicator of what people think of the new one. In any case, I’d go as far to say it’s the best movie since the first Guardians, and in the upper tier of Marvel movies.* I mentioned that I saw Doctor Strange, as a bit of a bounce back from a few weaker films, but this one finishes the rebound.
*If I actually had to put the Marvel movies into tiers, I think I’d put the Guardians movies, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3 in the top one.
It’s definitely feels like everything on the first one turned up to 11, including being sillier, more visually stunning, and more touching all in one. I can also see the point of some people about some of the jokes being weirdly placed, cutting into dramatic moments, but I actually appreciated that in some way. Maybe it won’t sit as well on re-watches, but I loved those rapid juxtapositions, and felt like they added to the humor and made some jokes better than they should have been.
And it’s more heartfelt than the original; basically each member of the team (now expanded to eight guardians, with Mantis, Yondu, and Nebula joining the original five) get emotional arcs to them, which makes the long run time worth it. It’s technically just as “grand” in scale as the first one, but the focus on the characters gives it, in spite the universe-level stakes, an intimate feel that I don’t think any of the other Marvel movies have been able to actually pull off (although the Avengers movies have tried, and come close). This work pays off, and the characters give the movie and meaningful emotional connection, both with the audience and with each other, which really helps to serve the movies’ focus on family and familial connections. In fact, I think this was only the second superhero movie I teared up at (after Logan; 2017 has been pretty great for superhero movies so far).
And even the villain gets a decent amount of focus, and as a result we get the second-best villain of the Marvel universe after Loki (I realize this isn’t saying a lot, but it’s still something). Sure, the tonal shifts make for a jerkier feel than the first one, and the soundtrack is weaker, and some of the novelty is loss, but writer/director James Gunn has turned in a funny and moving script with some very pretty and colorful visuals, and overall there’s a lot to dig into thematically as well (in true comic book fashion, in blatant, larger-than-life metaphors, and with some fighting involved, but that’s part of the fun). Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate now to call Vol. 2 the equal to the original Guardians of the Galaxy.
Next, we’ve got Colossal, a much smaller run but just as wonderful. Colossal has an… interesting hook that’s built up as a bit of a surprise in the movie, and it’s almost impossible to talk about the movie without explaining that. If you sensitive to that, skip ahead to Part III, and know that the movies is definitely worth checking out, especially if you like science-fiction comedies with a heavy metaphorical bent. Knowing that hook won’t spoil most of the plot, though. I’ll give a second heads up before moving into plot territory.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way: the central idea of Colossal is that Anne Hathaway’s Gloria has been exiled back to her small hometown after her boyfriend got sick of her excessive partying and disinterest in finding work (or doing anything else recently) following a layoff, and threw her out of the apartment. Once home, she connects with old friends, including a possible love triangle… and also discovers that if she stands in a certain spot in a local park, a giant monster that mirrors her actions appears in downtown Seoul.
That such a weird, comic-book-y premise, putting the big idea in such an obvious symbol, and I love how inventive it is. Much like Guardians, it allows for some fun over the top metaphors for different, more mundane things. Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis given especially good performances, crafting multilayered characters who slowly reveal their facets, and writer/director Nacho Vigalondo does a good job of drawing out these performances as well as making the mundane feel big and the big feel normal.
Into even more spoiler-y stuff now: as the plot goes on and Sudeikis reveals himself to be less a doe-eyed admirer and more a controlling asshole, he really sells it, and it’s a great example of playing against type, seeing someone known for more lovable doofuses becoming a terrifying and destructive (if ultimately petty and small, in many ways) villain. And Vigalondo somehow manages to make a girl’s psychic connection to a Godzilla-Grasshopper-type thing on the other side of the world an incredibly versatile symbol. In one scene, it’s Gloria’s alcoholism and the harm it has on those around her; in another, it’s a perfect stand-in for the havoc assholes can wreak with technology and the anonymity it brings; in another, it’s the perfect way to underscore the connections between the characters. It’s really something to see in action
(this part is going to continue being very spoiler-heavy)
There’s a lot going on in each movie, but there’s a specific angle in each one that I wanted to focus on. Sure, Colossal is about the struggle to overcome alcoholism and the horrors of internet anonymity such, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about connecting with family and finding a sense of place all, but at their core, both movies are, in key ways, about the importance of empathy.
On the Guardians of the Galaxy side, every major character’s arc relates back to their becoming a more caring and empathetic person to those around them. Gamora’s entire story is about reconnecting with her adopted sister Nebula and making an emotion connection that she had long avoided making (which thankfully gives the latter more to do than she had in the first movie as well) and recognizing the harm her competitive younger self inflicted on her sister by ignoring Nebula’s abuse as long as it wasn’t directed at her. Even if they’ll never get to a stage where they’re completely on the same page (as Nebula showed by walking out at the end), they’ve at least gotten to the point where they can be family rather the competitors they were as children, vying for the withheld love a cruel and merciless father figure in Thanos.
And then there’s Rocket, who’s mostly going through the same emotional journey that Star Lord went through in the first movie, avoiding making emotional connections as the result of emotional stunting from a lack of his own family in personal years. It was the spurning of siblings or abuse like with Gamora and Nebula, just a vacuum, and he’s as a result unsure of how to function within his new family unit. Only by recognizing the similar struggles everyone deals with can he deal with that lingering loneliness and stop subconsciously alienating everyone.
And of course, there’s Ego* (and by extension, Peter/Star Lord and Mantis, the two people closest to him), which is about as textual as you can make this. Ego is the dark reflection of each of these characters, starting with an eternity of loneliness and isolation. Upon venturing out, he decides to subjugate the entire universe to…well, him, making it all into an extension of himself. And then he meets Meredith Quill, a human who actually reaches out to him and offers him an actual connection, and has second thoughts. And when given the chance to take that, to feel empathy for other beings, he decides excise it entirely, killing the source in a way that shows he doesn’t fully regard her as an other person.
*I am still a little shocked that Ego the Living Planet was a major villain in a major blockbuster, let alone featured at all. Of all the characters who I figured were just too unusual to translate to the screen…
Peter, as his blood relative, directly rejects this same offer, cementing his emotional growth from the first film as well as coming to understand the one “family” member he had never truly understood, his adopted father Yondu (who’s still working through his own issues on this front). And of course, almost as blunt as making the villain Ego, there’s new team member and Peter’s adopted sibling(?) Mantis, who’s power is literally empathy and using it to influence those around her. And of course she is literally the most effective combatant they have in combating Ego, despite not actually being able to fight themselves.
Colossal deals in much the same. Gloria starts the movie stumbling through her days, not recognizing the stress her drinking is causing to those around her. It’s only when the most literal victims of her drinking show up, as she makes the connections from her to the monster, in the form of all of the victims of the destruction and harm she sees on TV. At this point, seeing her fellow humans suffering, she resolves to be better…just as her drinking buddies spiral out of control. In the most obvious point of contrast, Oscar’s “nice guy” act drops, as it’s revealed he’s “doing favors” not out of a genuine care for a struggling friend but in some hopes that she’ll “reward” him in some way. In the end, Gloria spells out to his face what a small and petty individual Oscar has come as a result of his lack of empathy for others.
But it’s not just Oscar’s relation to Gloria failing: Oscar begins alienating his other friends with his cruelty when they don’t bend to his whims. Joel seems to recognize how unhinged Oscar is, but can’t find it within himself speak up in the slightest as Oscar continues his abuse. Even later as Oscar ramps it up to leading his own rampage through Tokyo, Joel remains the painfully silent observer, drifting away rather than sticking up for those at Oscar’s mercy.
And even Tim, Gloria’s initial boyfriend, demonstrates failings in this regard; after telling Gloria to seek help and checking in on her, he finally abandons her for a while before popping back in to her life to see if things are any better so they can resume dating. Except that, Tim has stopped empathizing with Gloria in her struggles, and instead of growing as she has, continues to see the problem mostly in how it affects himself, whereas Gloria has come to see the larger ripples of her actions in those around her.
In the end, empathy permeates both of these movies thematically, making for an interesting point of comparison and giving both a solid emotional core. And their science-fiction-y ways of delivering those ideas is so large scale and over-the-top that it really is something to see.