Legendary Pictures “MonsterVerse” has all been building to this: Godzilla vs. Kong! Although 2014’s Godzilla seemed like a self-contained reboot, once Legendary acquired the rights to the King Kong character it became obvious where things were headed: a modernized clash of the two most famous giant monsters in all of movies.
Of course, Godzilla and Kong have done battle before, in Toho’s 1962 film King Kong vs. Godzilla. It was one of the earlier Godzilla films, and not one of the better ones in hindsight (the Kong suit looks like it was stitched together from roadkill), but it was one of my favorite movies as a very young tyke, and instilled my love of giant monsters from an early age. So with the two literal giants set to face off once again, this time in a film that could take advantage of modern technologies to give the behemoths the epic showdown they deserve, I’ve been looking forward to this Godzilla vs. Kong for quite some time now.
2017’s Kong: Skull Island introduced the Kong half to this Cinematic Universe (the only one outside of Marvel that I feel has been any kind of successful), while 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters went crazy with fanservice by including Mothra, Rodan, and Godzilla’s big bad, King Ghidorah. And now, it all comes to a head in Godzilla vs. Kong, which provides fans (and my inner child) the epic showdowns they’ve been waiting for, though sadly not without its share of bumps in the road.
The first of such bumps is shown during the opening credits, no less. As is series’ tradition, the opening credits are accompanied by news clippings and the like informing the audience of the histories and current states of the monsters (or “Titans” as they’re called in the MonsterVerse). And we quickly learn that Godzilla and Kong are the only known Titans remaining on Earth’s surface. This retcons the ending of King of the Monsters, which had other Titans roaming the Earth, but bowing to Godzilla as the “Alpha Titan” after he defeated King Ghidorah, with that movie’s end credits informing us that some Titans were “converging on Skull Island,” implying that Kong may be getting his own following of monsters to do battle with Godzilla’s band. But no, let’s forget about that. It’s just Godzilla and Kong now for some reason (not even Rodan returns, which sucks double for me because he was my favorite as a kid). So that’s kind of disappointing right off the bat. Don’t promise your audience something in one movie if you can’t deliver on it in the next.
The biggest of the bumps in the road for Godzilla vs. Kong, however, is a returning flaw from many giant monster movies: too many human characters. More specifically, too many human characters who are just uninteresting.
Some might say this is a problem with American Godzilla movies (and it is), but honestly, I’ve watched some of the Japanese Godzilla films and also got bored by how long we often have to wait in between monsters. It’s just that it’s probably a more persistent issue with American films on the whole. The recent Tom & Jerry movie – to name an example outside of the giant monster genre – spent more time on its humans than it did with the melee between cartoon cat and mouse that people actually crave from that franchise.
I understand the reasoning behind this. The people and studios making these movies want to keep audiences invested, and feel that a human element is needed for viewers to have something to identify with for that investment. I get it, but I think movies have failed pretty consistently in trying to hit the balance with human characters and, say, the giant monsters fighting each other that we all came to see.
The funny thing is, the 2014 Godzilla film that kicked off the MonsterVerse actually got the human part right (at least at first), with a human character played by Bryan Cranston giving the film an emotional core that made sense… and then it killed him off before Godzilla even showed up, and the focus shifted on a bunch of other humans who weren’t nearly as interesting (that particular film didn’t even have enough monster action to make up for it). Imagine if Bryan Cranston’s character had stuck around as the recurring human character between these films, and we still got the epic Godzilla showdowns on top of it. One great human character to focus on whenever the monsters settle down. The lost potential is depressing.
Instead, these movies can’t stop adding more and more human characters, very few of which are worth the screen time given to them. Millie Bobby Brown’s character Madison Russell from King of the Monsters returns, and is the only returning human character other than her father (played by Kyle Chandler, though he’s more of a cameo this time around). To be fair to Millie Bobby Brown, she’s a great actor, and having her be the returning hero makes sense. But her character here feels like she’s on a sidequest that, frankly, feels completely unnecessary to the movie as a whole. Worse still, she’s saddled with two insufferable sidekicks this time around: One is Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), a paranoid conspiracy theorist podcaster, and Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison), one of Madison’s friends who… is just kind of there. I mean no offense to the actors here, but Madison’s new sidekicks really just feel like unnecessary comic relief.
They aren’t the only humans though! Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) is a cartographer from Monarch (the Titan research group of previous entries) who is studying the “hollow Earth” gobbledygook introduced in the series. Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is a Monarch anthropological linguist studying Kong. Jia (Kaylee Hottle) is a young, deaf orphan from Skull Island’s Iwi tribe, Ilene’s adopted daughter and friend of Kong (and probably the human character you care most for). At the very least, this other group of humans actually feel like they push the plot forward. If Millie Bobby Brown’s character had to return, maybe the filmmakers should have found a way to fit her into this second group, and just streamline the human plotlines.
Then we also have Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), the founder of Apex Cybernetics, a technological company trying to find a way for humans to reclaim Earth from the Titans, his daughter Maia (Eiza González), who accompanies the Monarch scientists, and Walter’s sidekick/henchman, Ren Serizawa (Shun Oguri), the son of Ken Watanabe’s character from the previous two Godzilla installments of the MonsterVerse.
Gee, do you think that’s enough characters? And all that for a plot that should be pretty straightforward: Godzilla has been at peace with humans ever since defeating King Ghidorah and becoming the alpha Titan (or King of the Monsters, if you will). As stated, the remaining Titans have either been “defeated” or have returned to their subterranean slumber, with Kong still residing on Skull Island, which is now under a “containment center” by Monarch. That is, until one day, Godzilla begins destroying human cities unprovoked by the presence of other Titans.
Godzilla’s sudden rampage has Madison trying to find answers, which leads her to seek out the aforementioned conspiracy theorist podcaster (because that’s the kind of person you want to turn to for valid, reasonable answers), with her other goofy friend in tow. Meanwhile, Apex Cybernetics, who have suffered some severe blows during Godzilla’s destruction, recruit the Monarch scientists for a voyage into the hollow Earth to find some nondescript power source that may help them fix Earth’s Titan problem. So the Monarch team extracts Kong from their containment center in hopes he can instinctively lead them into hollow Earth.
Look, it’s bonkers nonsense, which is fine (though it feels a world apart from the 2014 film that started things off). But if bonkers nonsense was what we were going for in a movie called Godzilla vs. Kong, maybe focus more of that bonkers nonsense on Godzilla and Kong, and less on the humans.
Let’s make one thing clear, when Godzilla vs. Kong hits its stride, it’s really entertaining. The visual effects are great, and most importantly, the fight scenes between its two iconic giants are tremendous fun. Like I said, my love of giant gorilla fighting nuclear dinosaur goes back to my youngest days, so it would be hard for me not to be entertained every time the two monsters clash and knock over entire cities (on that note, I also like how the film points out the cities are evacuated by the time Godzilla and Kong use them as battlefields, so it goes against the Zac Snyder method of using the idea of mass death as part of its spectacle). The movie even had me giggling and clapping with how effective its monster battles are. The first encounter is pretty unique in that Godzilla and Kong do battle at sea, with Kong standing on aircraft carriers to fight the more water-savvy Godzilla. And later – without spoiling too much – Kong even goes into battle equipped with a weapon. And if seeing Kong with weapon in hand out for Godzilla’s blood doesn’t bring a goofy grin on your face, well I don’t know what will.
The issue is that there just isn’t enough of these scenes. This is Godzilla vs. Kong, after all. I think it’s safe to say no one is here for the human characters, but that’s where too much of the runtime goes. Again, I can understand the desire to have a little bit of everything: attempting good story and characters to go with the giant monsters clashing, but we can just never seem to get the right balance. It’s also kind of a bummer how the American approach to Godzilla movies has to be either dead serious at the expense of the monster action (Godzilla 2014), or just fully embrace the sillier aspects of Godzilla to the point where you can’t care for the human characters. It’s another case of finding the right balance.
Imagine a film that could pull off both the fun spectacles of giant monsters fighting each other (like Kong: Skull Island, King of the Monsters and this film), and the human drama Bryan Cranston brought to the early parts of the 2014 film when it just has to shift its focus to the humans witnessing said epic battles and facing their consequences?
We still have to wait for such a film. In the meantime, Godzilla vs. Kong does at least deliver where it counts – with its giant ape having some fun smackdowns with its nuclear dinosaur – but it sorely needs even more of just that. If you’re going to take Godzilla vs. Kong into the realms of pure nonsense, then give us more of the nonsense we came to see, and less of the nonsense of annoying sidekicks and conspiracy theorists.