There are those heroes who fight the monsters that are knocking down buildings and trampling cities, and then there are those other, less super kind of heroes, who take on monsters of their own making. In Colossal, star Anne Hathaway gets to be both. Writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s highbrow take on the monster movie asks Hathaway’s Gloria to muster up the strength to battle both literal monsters and her inner demons at a time when it seems she doesn’t have much to give. To be a true hero, though, you have to overcome your obstacles, and Gloria's search for goodness is both an external battle and an internal struggle that forces her to look deep within herself. She gets the chance to define the kind of hero she wants to be, but she has to find the power to do so first.
Gloria isn't an easy person to root for: she’s dishonest, sloppy, and unable to get out of her own way. She drinks way too much and has way too much time on her hands, after losing her writing job for making a joke that, like most things she does, went too far. But Gloria isn’t a bad person, just a damaged one. In Hathaway’s capable hands, she's complex, and more importantly, relatable — a characteristic women aren’t often allowed to be in movies where they play the hero. Gloria isn’t some kind of superhero, just a woman fighting for her identity.
In her current, messy state, Gloria can barely remember the person she used to be, a byproduct of her hitting the bottle so hard that she often blacks out. In flashbacks, we see a little girl who clearly took pride in herself, spending hours working on a school project. But later in life, she's become someone who is constantly being diminished by others, unable to fight back. And she'd rather run away from her troubles, chasing them down with a shot or two, then confront them head on.
And although Colossal doesn’t waste much time before revealing that Gloria is the monster terrorizing South Korea, the monster isn’t really the problem — Gloria is. At first, she gets a kick out of the control she has over this Godzilla-like figment, showing her childhood friend Oscar and his two misfits, Joel (Austin Stowell) and Grant (Tim Blake Nelson), what she can do from millions of miles away. She laughs as she makes the monster dance despite the terror each move strikes in the hearts of those in Seoul, but when she trips over her own feet, she realizes the very real consequences of her actions.
Up until this moment, Gloria, like many other addicts, doesn't seem to think she can hurt others; she's too busy hurting herself. Her monster takes on that same aloof nature, as if it just doesn’t care, never looking down or around to see the damage it’s leaving in its path. “It makes no sense to keep walking straight ahead like there’s nothing wrong,” Grant says. But for Gloria, it does. She’s happy to say sorry to anyone she hurts, knowing it will buy her some time before she’ll inevitably have to say it again. It's an empty gesture; Gloria has no plans to actually change.
It’s something Grant, also an addict, but one with more perception, points out about the apology Gloria's monster writes to the South Korean people — “I’m sorry, it was a mistake. I won’t do it again.” It sounds like it’s pleading with itself, he notes, not asking for forgiveness, but asking for someone to believe it deserves to be forgiven. It's the outlook Gloria subscribes to. She's convinced she’s just going to mess up, just like she always does, just like she always will, so why even bother?
Her outlook changes, however, after seeing how happy her little note makes the world. It gives her confidence that she's not as bad as she thinks. Maybe she can even be a good person, if she just tried a little. So she begins fixing her life slowly, swapping beer for water, but that's just the start. She realizes that she needs to confront the fact that she's surrounded herself with people who have told her she's nothing, which she’s chosen to believe, taking a drink for every insult.
It's not easy for her to let these people go. Gloria’s greatest adversaries are men, including Oliver, the childhood friend who is always stomping on her dreams, and Tim, the ex-boyfriend who tries to keep her down. Tim doesn't want her to get better; he wants to control her. His good guy persona is an act, but Gloria is willing to go back to him again and again for that fix. Oliver, meanwhile, is a different kind of beast. He isn't better than Gloria, but just like her. He's made mistakes that have turned him into an outcast and, as Gloria knows well, being on the outskirts is lonely. When you find someone who understands this, it’s easy to latch on, and so Gloria swaps Tim for Oliver because she believes she's a mess that needs cleaning up and she can't lose another person who's willing to hold the broom.
Gloria thinks she needs these guys, but, in actuality, she needs to find the strength to leave them and live her own life. Tim is (spoiler alert) out the door the minute Gloria starts making her own decisions. Oliver, though, is much harder to get rid of. He's that devil on her shoulder who's convinced he can lead her back to the dark side. Gloria finds comfort in this familiar attitude, and it's why she's been doing the same thing over and over for years, refusing to try anything else. What she starts to realize, though, is that she holds the key to her future. She can stay on this path, or she can change course and find the strength to take on Oliver and anyone else who tries to tell her she is not good enough to be the hero of her own story.
Being able to see Oliver with fresh, sober eyes allows Gloria to see him the way others likely saw her, as someone who just doesn't care. Apathy is easy, but standing up and fighting for something isn't. Oliver has given up under the guise that it's the smart and strong choice, but as Gloria comes to understand, he just hates himself. She doesn’t — she just hates who she’s become. But she doesn't have to be that person anymore.
Gloria isn’t the hero of Colossal because she saves Seoul from a giant monster; she’s the hero because she escapes her own personal prison. She stopped believing the assumptions that others made about her were true. Women are often told what they can and cannot do, with decisions being made for them without their consent. Gloria, though, takes back the control she’s been slowly losing throughout her life, and while she doesn't have any kind of superpower, there is power in being able to make those choices. There's little glory in living, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Gloria's life will go on, her struggle with sobriety will continue, and she will continue fighting all of the monsters that attempt to keep her down. It's the only real choice she has, and it just so happens to be the most heroic one of all.