At last, we have watch-worthy flicks in theaters. While the Liam Neeson vehicle Cold Pursuit is getting spectacular reviews, so much so that I might review it later, this week I’ll be bringing my thoughts to bear on two sequels, one currently on the big screen and one from my continuing Marvel movie rewatch.
THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART
When it kicked off this franchise in 2014, The Lego Movie reveled in the inherent silliness of its premise. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller somehow crafted a well-animated madcap meta comedy with rock-solid pacing and joke timing out of the premise of “a feature-length commercial for toys.” It also took the time for mature, evenhanded examinations of childhood imagination and the importance of just having fun. It quickly spawned a franchise that produced one of the best movies about Batman ever made and a disappointing dud of a follow-up about ninjas or something.
The Lego Movie 2 is like the original film in many ways, and exceeds its excellence at a few points. The animation is stunning, as the team at Warner Bros. has sharpened whatever software they used to portray the blocky but fluid brick-built world our main characters inhabit. The voice acting still shines, with Chris Pratt’s Emmet and Will Arnett’s Batman remaining the clear standouts. (I did miss Liam Neeson as Good/Bad Cop.)
Yet there’s something bubbling under the surface of this movie that occasionally breaks into view, leaving a hollow feeling. It’s more complicated, more corporate, more planned, and more forced. Once you notice it, you can’t stop noticing.
The jokes, for instance, are chock-full of reference humor (the kind that Marvel’s made its stock in trade, and that films in this franchise often rely upon). I was cracking up at points, but hey, I’m a sucker for reference humor. Give me Wyldstyle having a chat with Bruce Willis in an air vent and I’ll chuckle. Looking back, none of it felt terribly original.
And that’s just for starters. The plot has way, way too much going on, and suffers from the usual problems of Message Movie Syndrome. What’s that? Glad you asked!
Some movies, like documentaries or historical retellings, comment on the real world by necessity. But when a film chooses to critique current events or controversies when it does not need to do so, it must tread carefully to avoid falling into Message Movie Syndrome. This dreaded disease takes hold when a movie makes its desired commentary the entire story’s climactic point. It’s an obvious and alienating writing move. The best way to steer clear of this pitfall? Write a story that parallels the thing you wish to comment on, and then let the story itself be the comment.
I don’t know how or why, but The Lego Movie 2 decides to jump headlong into Message Movie territory while fundamentally misunderstanding the political and cultural landscape it’s trying to critique. It did not need to do this. It would have been a vastly better film if it did not do this. As it stands, this screenwriting decision makes the villain-revealing twist patently obvious, turns the characters into mouthpieces and pawns rather than interesting people, and requires some story gymnastics that bend, if not break, the rules the first film established.
On that point, the film’s meta narrative leans reeeeeeeeeeally hard on the fourth wall, now that we’ve seen in the first film that this whole story is taking place in the imagination of a kid. Whole stretches of the movie flip back and forth between the real-world kids and parents and the Lego world they’re playing with, even though a bunch of the rules governing how those worlds work together don’t make sense or operate like a deus ex machina.
Growing up is not a bad thing. It doesn’t imply a lack of open-mindedness. This movie tells its audience that it does. It’s thus a disappointment.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
In terms of rewatching the Marvel movies, placing this sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy right after its predecessor despite the separation between their release dates makes sense. According to the MCU’s internal chronology, it happens a few months after the Guardians save Xandar. And it’s completely self-contained in relation to the rest of the Marvel films.
Critics like the talented Lindsey Ellis have produced thinkpieces proclaiming this a Message Movie that examines “toxic masculinity.” With respect, I think that’s actually too shallow. This is a movie about family ties, and the intricacies of how people both should and do relate to others. Its group dynamics, made up of relationships between deeply (even irreparably) flawed folks, give it drive.
The first Guardians film asked whether the Guardians could each overcome their personal hangups and hurts to work together. They did, saving a planet in the process. This sequel asks whether, given the lasting effects of these hangups, the Guardians will remain together.
Peter Quill, the team’s unlikely leader, meets his cosmically powerful father within the first few minutes of this film, so it’s not really a spoiler. The swaggering Ego, both a planet and a Kurt-Russell-shaped human at once, lives all the way up to his name. He tells his newly recovered son of his mystical power to create and shape matter, and reveals his worldview slowly but surely: it’s the duty and purpose of powerful people to reshape the universe.
Now we see where Peter got the cocky side of his persona. What Ego lacks is Peter’s heart, his true superpower – and now we see its extent. When Peter understands the depths this film’s villain sunk to, he doesn’t hesitate. He just starts firing. Again, we hear echoes of his eventual choice to act without thought in Infinity War.
Gamora’s regularly the adult in the room/starship, but remains consciously closed off, stopping the empath Mantis from reading her emotions. She’s a den mother, especially protective of Groot, constantly taking action when a team member needs saving or an alien needs slicing. Then there’s her “unspoken thing” with Peter. She sees his heart, but also knows he has some maturing to do.
Rocket gets major development. In the first Guardians film he was a snarky kleptomaniac functioning as comic relief with a slight hint that under all that fur lay a Dark and Troubled Past. Vol. 2 lays his insecurities bare. His kleptomania, fueled by a distrust of everyone around him, serves as the catalyst for the film’s subplot with the Sovereign and connects him with Yondu, the blue-faced arrow-wielding Ravager who had previously kidnapped Peter as a child. Rocket learns from Yondu’s eventual decision to embrace selflessness that he doesn’t have to wall himself off from others with jerky, sarcastic behavior.
Groot’s still just a baby after his sacrifice in the Guardians’ last adventure. Once again, I must credit Lindsay Ellis with the observation that the film’s famed opening credits are basically Groot dancing like a carefree kid as “the adults” fight the monsters while taking breaks to parent him. The Guardians are a family, and Groot is the developing, somewhat vulnerable little one. Yet in the end, he pushes the button that stops the villain, doing one simple thing to save everyone as he did in the first film.
And lastly Drax. He’s still mostly comic relief, but we hear more about his past life with his family because, again, this is a movie about families. Then there’s his hilarious attempt to “neg” Mantis, which is all a charade he adopts because he’s afraid of his feelings. By the end, though, he calls her “beautiful.”
The villain-turned-antihero Nebula also deserves a mention. She’s a razor-tipped spear of energy lashing out at absolutely anyone she thinks has or will hurt her. But then we learn why she’s so profoundly cracked up. And we can’t help but want to do exactly what Gamora does: hug her.
Vol. 2 tells fathers and sons that loving and protecting others goes hand in hand, and that pushing others away to feel superior leaves you lonely and hurts everyone else. It has less to say to women (at least directly), but Peter’s relationships with his mother and his crush motivate major story beats.
The movie almost doesn’t need much of a plot, because its point is the characters’ relationships. It’s one of the most theme-rich movies in the entire MCU, if not THE richest. It is not, however, interesting beyond the Guardians themselves. It is very self-contained, to its detriment, but I don’t know how director James Gunn could have done differently.