Shared “Cinematic Universes” are all the rage these days, after Marvel did an unprecedented job at tying together so many different franchises sharing connected narratives. While other studios are trying – and failing – to play catch-up with Marvel’s accomplishments, there is one other Cinematic Universe that is actually working: Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros.’s “MonsterVerse,” which seeks to reunite the worlds of Toho’s Godzilla monsters with those of King Kong.
There are a few key reasons why this MonsterVerse is succeeding where so many other Cinematic Universes introduced in Marvel’s wake have failed. The first is that Toho established shared universes with their characters some time ago, with iconic monsters like Mothra and Rodan having their own features before they went toe-to-toe with Godzilla. The other reason is that the MonsterVerse has thus far not aimed any higher than it needs to. Whereas the DC Extended Universe tried to catch up with Marvel all at once and predictably failed because of it, and Universal’s ill-fated “Dark Universe” collapsed before it could even begin, the MonsterVerse isn’t biting off more than it can chew.
So far, the MonsterVerse has kept things simple. Godzilla over here, King Kong over there, with the two set to clash in the follow-up to King of the Monsters, and any future films being dealt with one at a time. Its simple, short-term goals have helped the MonsterVerse stay afloat, instead of crumbling like one of the buildings Godzilla is bound to come into contact with in an attempt to replicate the MCU.
While the overall franchise is the only other working cinematic universe of today, the individual pieces of the MonsterVerse unfortunately can’t claim to be as well made as those Marvel provides. 2014’s Godzilla – in an attempt to take things seriously – focused far too much of its time on the human drama, to the point that its titular lizard only had a handful of minutes on screen. 2017’s Kong: Skull Island poised a reverse dilemma, with fun creature combat but flat human characters. Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the third film in the MonsterVerse, suffers from similar faults as Skull Island, and even doubles down on them. It’s because of the weak human characters and their flimsy narratives that I can’t say that Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a good movie in the traditional sense. But because of how generous the film is with its giant monster action and spectacle – not to mention the fanservice for long-time Godzilla fans such as myself – it’s an undeniable fun time.
Appropriately taking place five years after the previous Godzilla, King of the Monsters has seen the giant, atomic reptile go into hiding after his grudge match with the duo of “MUTOs” in the previous film leveled San Francisco. During the gargantuan scuffle, a married couple of scientists, Mark and Emma Russel (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga) lost their son. The couple drifted apart after that, with their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) living with Emma, who became a researcher for Monarch (the government organization who has secretly been studying “Titans” such as Godzilla and King Kong for decades), while Mark’s grief lead him to alcohol for a time, before he picked himself up and continued his research studying animals.
Emma is currently studying one of the seventeen-plus hibernating Titans discovered after the events of the first film. This particular Titan is Mothra, who soon hatches into its larval form, which makes for the perfect opportunity for Emma to test her “ORCA” device, which can emit frequencies that can alter a Titan’s behavior. Just as Emma activates ORCA and soothes the rampaging Mothra, a group of eco-terrorists – lead by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) – invade the facility, kill the scientists, take Emma and Madison hostage, and take the ORCA with them.
With his family hostage, Mark is recruited by Monarch scientists – including Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), returning from the 2014 film – to track down Jonah, save Mark’s family, and prevent Jonah from awakening any more Titans with the ORCA. Things become more complicated, however, when Jonah uses the ORCA (and a good deal of explosives) to free a particularly powerful Titan frozen in Antarctica. This Titan is King Ghidorah, the three-headed, lightning-spewing golden dragon who – in any Godzilla continuity – has served as Godzilla’s archnemesis. But King Ghidorah soon proves to be a greater cataclysm than even Jonah had imagined, as it uses its immense power to begin awakening the rest of the world’s Titans all at once (including Rodan, the secondary antagonist monster of the film). With Ghidorah threatening the entire planet, Monarch looks for a way to aide Godzilla (Ghidorah’s natural enemy) in defeating the dragon in a desperate attempt to save the Earth.
As I said, the plot is incredibly silly. The artfulness of the 2014 film is thrown out the window in favor of all-out monster action. That’s perfectly fine in most respects, as I believe a Godzilla film can do just fine prioritizing the giant reptiles kicking each other’s ass. With that said, there are certain elements of the plot that do unfortunately play out as more stupid than silly.
First and foremost, the human villain’s plot seems shaky at best. I can understand that he’s an environmental extremist who’s trying to destroy human influence to let nature take over. But unleashing ancient, atomic giants seems like the opposite of helping the planet. I suppose I can write off Jonah as a crazy old man on a suicide mission of sorts, but a less forgivable element in the villain scenario takes place with a twist at the end of the film’s first act, when (without spoiling too much) it’s revealed that Jonah has an accomplice. This accomplice is presented as the more “human” of the villains, but in trying to bring out sympathy in their bonkers plan, it just makes the character feel like a directionless mess. It may have been easier to stick with the crazy old guy and the gold dragon, as far as villains are concerned (and my boy Rodan, of course).
Another disappointment comes in the form of the main human hero. Though Kyle Chandler works in the role of Mark Russel, the role doesn’t have a whole lot to work with. The way the film ties his backstory into the events of the 2014 film is interesting, but as a character, he doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. Despite the advertisements presenting Millie Bobby Brown as the human star of the film, the Madison character seems strangely underutilized.
This has actually been a weird trend with this MonsterVerse. Bryan Cranston was made out to be the star of the 2014 film, but he was killed off before Godzilla even found his way into the picture. In Kong: Skull Island, John Goodman only lasted until about the halfway point. Now here in King of the Monsters, the character who feels like they should be the main character has more of a bit part, while the actual main character isn’t particularly memorable.
I think there are just too many human characters all around, to be honest. On top of all the ones I’ve already mentioned, there are others still, such as Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), a scientist who’s supposed to provide comic relief, but just kind of seems to be there. Again, this film doesn’t spend as much time on the humans as the 2014 film, yet it features considerably more of them. With so many humans and so little time dedicated to them, most of them come across as paper thin. Hopefully future films in this crossover franchise will hold back on the number of human characters a little bit, so that we can have a couple of memorable human characters coexisting with the giant monsters we all came to see (and just make Millie Bobby Brown the main character).
With all these complaints though, I’d be an absolute liar if I said I wasn’t grinning ear-to-ear several times during the movie. Because if you have a soft spot for giant monsters duking it out, Godzilla: King of the Monsters delivers just that, and in spades. While the 2014 film had a slow burn leading up to Godzilla (which is fine), and then often cut away just as he was about to fight the other monsters as a means to tease the audience (not so fine), King of the Monsters doesn’t waste any time with reintroducing us to Godzilla and Mothra. And when Ghidorah and Rodan come into the picture, the movie delivers plenty of them as well. With most of Toho’s mainstay monsters in the film (sans MechaGodzilla and Gigan), the film lavishes the opportunity to utilize them at every turn, with each subsequent clash between monsters outdoing the last.
King Ghidorah, it should be noted, gets extra special treatment. Mothra is almost always depicted as “the good monster,” while Rodan has set aside its differences with Godzilla to help fight other monsters like Ghidorah on a few occasions. King Ghidorah, on the other hand, has always been Godzilla’s ultimate foe. And King of the Monsters presents Ghidorah as just that. It never fails to hype up the three-headed dragon as nothing short of the ultimate evil that all other monsters fear. The film pays such great respects to Godzilla’s nemesis, that you wonder if he was director Michael Dougherty’s favorite monster growing up, and now is all too happy to fanboy out about him within his own movie (and I mean this in the best way).
As someone who absolutely loved Godzilla as a kid, I was pleasantly surprised with how much earnest fanservice King of the Monsters provides. While the 2014 film tried to be as grounded as this material could possibly be (which is an interesting take in and of itself), King of the Monsters fully embraces the more ludicrous aspects of the franchise, never once feeling embarrassed by its source material. We get subtle nods to past Godzilla films (Monarch classifies Ghidorah as “Monster Zero,” just as he was labeled in the original continuity, with Godzilla himself being “Monster Zero-One,” and Rodan “Monster Zero-Two”), as well as direct adaptations of Godzilla lore that the 2014 film may have avoided (yes, King Ghidorah is from outer space). We get plenty of references to Skull Island and King Kong himself, to remind audiences of his impending clash with Godzilla. And perhaps best of all, we actually get the Godzilla theme music!
The special effects used to bring these monsters to life is impressive, but its how much King of the Monsters relishes in the opportunity to have them duke it out, destroying entire cities in the process, that truly delight (in an unnecessary but much appreciated detail, the film makes a point that the cities have been evacuated before the monsters make their way to them, so it thankfully doesn’t relish in the casualties of it all in the way films like Man of Steel did).
Not too long ago, Avengers: Endgame showed the world that you can have deep, complex characters amidst fantastic action and franchise fanservice. So it may be disappointing that in this day and age when the MCU set the standard for blockbusters, that the MonsterVerse still hasn’t been able to weave strong characters into the spectacle of it all. King of the Monsters may not be the thoughtful and poignant franchise blockbuster that Endgame was by any stretch of the imagination. But damn it all if it isn’t a whole lot of fun.